As US troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan and Americans began to see scenes of Afghans crowding Kabul's airport in an attempt to flee the country and Taliban parading the streets, sometimes in vehicles abandoned by the US military, The Factual ran a series of polls measuring their readers' sentiments over the state of affairs. 

In the process of recording the current series on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I'd reached some conclusions about how Americans tend to perceive and react to foreign conflicts, and was interested to see how much The Factual's readers mirrored my conclusions.

I caught up with The Factual's co-founder and CEO, Arjun Moorthy, for this week's episode of YDHTY to discuss. You can listen to the full episode via the player below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Show Notes

Polling run by The Factual over the month of August mirrored sentiments expressed in other polls on the issue. The majority felt the withdrawal had gone poorly, with the split being between those who felt the result was inevitable and those who felt we could have done more to ensure some sort of victory in the form of a stable Afghan government not run by the Taliban.

This mirrors the reactions Americans had to the US withdrawal from Vietnam, as well as conflicts the US wasn't even involved in, such as the fall of Eastern Europe and China to communist rule (for more context, listen to this episode with historian Ken Hughes). 

What was more interesting than the similarities between voters' reactions to foreign conflicts that ended poorly were the similarities in public opinion as those wars were going on. Polling from the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam all show that, while public opinion over the war tends to align with factors such as the direction of the war and the number of US casualties, this has little influence over a president's approval rating.

As a majority of Americans began to feel the war in Afghanistan was a mistake, Barack Obama's approval rating barely budged. Despite growing casualties in Iraq, George W. Bush won reelection against an opponent who served in Vietnam. 

Most interesting of the group was Nixon, who presided over some of the bloodiest years in the Vietnam conflict, yet saw his approval ratings barely budge.

The takeaway is similar to what was learned in the prior episode with Ken Hughes: presidents can politically afford to fight a war forever, they just can't appear to lose one. 

While foreign policy doesn't tend to weigh heavily on the minds of American voters, economic issues do. George W Bush saw his approval ratings decline during his first months in office as the country entered recession, only to spike after the attacks on 9/11. Nixon's approval rating dipped below 50% for the first time in his presidency in 1971 as the country struggled with stagflation.

This would indicate that, if we want to prevent America from getting entangled in another prolonged foreign conflict, changing the economic incentives might work better than any funding for the military or diplomacy could. Americans have experienced little hardship in all the wars fought after World War 2, and Vietnam showed the draft to have little sway over public opinion.

A pay-as-you-go provision for foreign wars funded by a tax is one way we could ensure overwhelming support for the use of force, send a constant reminder to voters of our presence abroad, and ensure we don't spend trillions in a country to leave it in the same condition it was when we arrived. With less than one-half of one percent serving in the military, it only seems fair the remaining 99.5% contribute their fair share.