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Where Has the Antiwar Movement Gone?

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In his State of the Union speech, President Obama gave the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan just a couple of quick paragraphs, buried towards the end of the speech.

Earlier this month came word that the White House would send an additional 1,400 Marine combat forces to Afghanistan. Yet the announcement was met with a shrug from the antiwar movement. Why?

Perhaps it's because the figure represents a tiny uptick from the additional 30,000 troops the president committed to the region more than a year ago. Or maybe it's because the president who approved both these escalations is named Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

That the Tea Party didn't spring up during the big spending Bush years has left the movement vulnerable to charges that it's more anti-Obama than it is anti-big government. Similarly, it seems that a sizable portion of the antiwar movement may have been more anti-Bush than antiwar.

The White House switched from Team Red to Team Blue two years ago, but US foreign policy has exhibited tremendous continuity since then. When President Obama isn't sending more troops to Afghanistan he's pushing the withdrawal date further and further into the future (the latest estimate is 2014, and even that's far from a sure thing).

Mr. Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, but 50,000 troops remain there. That probably wouldn't have satisfied the antiwar movement during George W. Bush's tenure, but few protesters are getting riled up about it today. According to a University of Michigan survey, attendance at antiwar rallies plunged in 2008 when it looked increasingly likely that the antiwar candidate would take the White House.

President Obama promised change but has largely delivered more of the same on a wide range of War on Terror policies. And although some on the left are enraged by this, widespread anger among Democrats is harder to find. In 2003, only 22 percent of Democrats approved of Bush's foreign policy, but in 2010, 78 percent told Quinnipiac pollsters they were just fine with Obama's very Bush-like foreign policy.

Back in 2003, a traffic-stopping Hollywood extravaganza headlined by Martin Sheen was just one of the many ruckus antiwar rallies you could find. If you look hard enough you can still come across some antiwar rallies today, but don't expect much in the way of big celebrities or big crowds. Recently, Reason.tv attended two LA-area antiwar rallies whose combined attendance measured in the dozens. One rally was organized by libertarians, the other by the socialist-friendly organization ANSWER.

The protesters' demographics roughly mirrored the findings of University of Michigan researchers who discovered that, since President Obama's inauguration, antiwar rallies are more likely to be populated by people who claim third-party or no-party affiliation, and less likely to be populated by Democrats.

If there's an issue begging for bipartisanship it is war spending. It's easy for the Tea Party and Republicans to squawk about axing tiny spending programs loved by the left (defund NPR!), but they'll gain more credibility if they propose real cuts to giant programs cherished by their side.

Recently, conservative big shot Grover Norquist did just that. The Americans for Tax Reform president announced his plan to assemble a center-right coalition to to discuss pulling out of Afghanistan to save hundreds of billions of dollars.

Once upon a time conservatives had strong non-interventionist inclinations and, according to recent polls, today's rank-and-file right is still imbued with a good deal of that sentiment. The Afghanistan Study Group found 27 percent of conservatives support leaving Afghanistan completely and another 39 percent think we can reduce troop levels.

True conservatives recognize that, whether it's public education or national defense, more spending doesn't guarantee better results. Maybe it is time for the antiwar left and Tea Party to team up in support of defense cuts and ending the wars.

Reason.tv's Ted Balaker is senior producer on the documentary short, "What Happened to the AntiWar Movement?"