09/04/2012 01:34 pm ET

Obama DNC Message On Afghanistan May Be Hard To Craft

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Thursday night at the end of this week's Democratic National Convention, he will have no trouble saying more about the war in Afghanistan than his opponent, Mitt Romney, did last week.

After all, when Romney spoke on the final night of his party's convention, he mentioned war -- any war -- exactly zero times, a first for a major party candidate since 1952, according to the Associated Press. It equaled a performance delivered Wednesday night by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, both of whom declined to mention the war in Afghanistan.

But while Obama aides have been quick to jab Romney for his failure to discuss an ongoing war with 70,000 American troops still on the battlefield, they are now faced with a challenge of their own: how to talk about a decade-old war in a way that satisfies a disillusioned audience.

As it happens, the war in Afghanistan is currently more unpopular than the war in Iraq, and the news from there keeps getting worse. Insurgent attacks are on the rise. Previously safe parts of the country are destabilizing. Over the weekend, the Pentagon put on hold a major component of the drawdown plan -- the training of Afghan security forces -- while it re-screened thousands of recruits for insurgent infiltration.

Discontent over the war extends across the political spectrum -- Clint Eastwood received a standing ovation from a Republican audience when he spoke of troops coming home "tomorrow morning" during his speech in Tampa last week. (Eastwood was condemning Obama for publicizing the withdrawal date, a critique shared by Romney.) Earlier this year, polls found that nearly 70 percent of Democrats thought the war was going badly; just one in 10 thought the U.S. should stay in the country as long as it takes to stabilize it.

It's a scenario that threatens to put a damper on what is otherwise a major political advantage for Obama this week: his strong record on foreign policy.

At the Republican Convention in 2004, George W. Bush could rally the crowd with rhetoric about American troops fighting to "advance liberty in the broader Middle East." In 2008, Obama could call for an end to the unpopular war in Iraq. Today he has to navigate a much more narrow passageway when he talks about the war under his command: He is likely to look for a way to demonstrate that he has done more to win the war than Romney would, while simultaneously hinting that he is the best person to end it.

This can be a complicated message to convey, however. In his previous speeches on Afghanistan, Obama has tended to speak of the troop withdrawals out of both sides of his mouth, simultaneously promising to bring the combat troops home after 2014, while also pledging to keep enough fighting forces -- some 20,000 troops plus special operatives -- in the country for years to come. Sometimes this duality has appeared to confuse even him, as it seemed to do this past weekend, when he spoke of having "them all out of there by 2014." (The White House later walked back that message.)

For this reason, Michael Cohen, a former Democratic speechwriter and fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based foreign policy think tank, says the only way for Obama to take advantage of the political opening Romney left by ignoring Afghanistan, and to also satisfy the public fatigue over it, is to be "completely disingenuous" about the war.

"He will take credit for winding down the war, he will claim that the surge blunted the Taliban's momentum -- which is partially true -- and he'll argue that Afghanistan is on its way to security and stability -- which is not really true, but isn't quite a lie either," Cohen said. "That things are falling apart and that the administration is making no effort to ensure that there is a viable political process after we withdraw combat troops -- I'm guessing that won't come up."

Obama's advisers disagree, although they prefer to emphasize the fact that Romney didn't talk about the war over what Obama might actually say.

"As you can see from the president's speeches the past few days, he is not shying away from Afghanistan. He has discussed the responsible drawdown and transition the administration is implementing from now until 2014," said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who now advises Obama's campaign on foreign policy. "The war is unpopular, but anyone auditioning to be commander-in-chief can't duck the hard issues, especially when we have tens of thousands of servicemen and women in harms way."

The lack of a clear message on Afghanistan may also help explain why Romney had so little to say about it during the convention last week: With the majority of Republicans now agreeing that the war is not worth fighting, it's hard to make the case that the White House is leaving too soon. (Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, pointed out over the weekend that Romney did discuss Afghanistan during an appearance at the American Legion the night before his convention speech.)

Indeed, Clint Eastwood's point -- that if the U.S. is preparing to leave, it might as well go now -- is increasingly popular in the GOP: Just three out of 10 Republicans say the U.S. should stay as long as it takes to win. As Rick Santorum put it during the primaries, "We have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out, and probably get out sooner."

Given the complexities, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, said that it's no surprise that "no one really wants to talk about Afghanistan." But on balance, he thinks being forced to discuss the war still gives Obama a "slight advantage" over Romney this week.

"Obama can remind people that he ended the war in Iraq as well, so he has some credibility in the 'ending wars' line," Drezner said. And "Obama can at least claim that he's thought and mulled over this issue a fair amount, which he did in 2009. Clearly, Romney hasn't."