Will Trump’s Afghanistan Peace Deal Win Him Votes?

By Katie Bo Williams

February 18, 2020

Whether President Donald Trump’s seven-day ceasefire deal with the Taliban is a serious bid for peace or a campaign-year ploy, it’s unclear it will make a difference to American voters with just nine months to go until the 2020 presidential election. 

The president has railed against the conflict beginning as early as 2011, calling for the United States to disentangle itself from the country known as the graveyard of empires. He campaigned then and now on a policy of reducing U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, and has remained ambivalent about the Middle East during his time in office. 

But even as Trump and his Democratic rivals have coalesced broadly around promises to “end forever wars,” it’s not clear that securing a peace deal in the conflict would help Trump at the polls in 2020. 

I don’t know if an Afghanistan deal on its own really matters one way or another, if it happens or not,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for the elections tipsheet Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “I get the sense that Americans are kind of inward looking right now and the election seems about the president’s conduct generally.”

In other words, it won’t hurt him — but it’s not clear that it would win him any votes that weren’t already his.

Recent polling supports the suggestion that a peace deal could be a political neutral for Trump. While ending “forever wars” is a popular statement in Republican and Democratic candidates’ speeches, across party lines there appears to be little broad appetite or expectation of an end to the conflict. A plurality of Americans support maintaining current troop levels: thirty-eight percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans, according to a October survey by the Brookings Institution. 

Trump had in September called off previous peace negotiations with the Taliban, and Americans at the time were divided about the strategy, with 42 percent supporting and 41 percent opposing. Republican respondents were more likely to oppose Trump’s negotiations, with almost half disagreeing with the strategy. Despite the broad support for Trump in the GOP, Republicans were 14 percentage points more likely to oppose negotiations than Democrats.

In this way, Afghanistan is different than other military interventions the Trump administration has flirted with during its first three years. A vast majority of Americans (76 percent) opposed a war with Iran, for example. 

In the end, Kondik said that Trump’s decision not to launch a new military intervention is likely to help him more than any potential deal on Afghanistan might. 

Democrats will pick at how he has conducted foreign policy, but if the big picture promise was to not be Bush 2.0, I think the president can say he has fulfilled his promises in that regard,” Kondik said.

One Republican strategist said although the terms of the deal remain murky, it would be a clear political win if it allows Trump to pull troops out of Afghanistan because it would allow him to say he fulfilled his promise to disengage.

If Trump can successfully negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, which leads to the removal of U.S. troops from that country, it will be another example of Trump delivering on a campaign promise and will protect him from criticism over troop increases in the Middle East,” said Matt Mackowiak. 

The promise of a peace deal in an “endless” war has hovered over a presidential election before. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon told an aide to find a way to “monkey wrench,” or slow down, peace talks in Vietnam in the final days of the 1968 election. The campaign feared that peace under the Johnson administration would damage Nixon’s chances for election.

Vietnam — and to a lesser degree Iraq — consumed the nation’s consciousness in a way that Afghanistan, marked by relatively low casualties and once called “the good war,” has not. President Barack Obama also ran on ending the conflict but in office, ordered a troop surge and left office with the war unfinished. Multiple administrations of both parties have painted rosy pictures of “progress” across Afghanistan, citing better governance and societal freedoms, but the most recent U.S. commander has called the security situation as a “stalemate.” 

In the 2020 campaign, there’s little evidence that foreign policy, at least in early voting states, is a top issue for voters. According to entrance polls during the Democratic Caucuses in Iowa, foreign policy was the most important issue for just 13 percent of caucus-goers. 

If you compare how much Iraq loomed over elections in 2002 through 2008… I would not say that Afghanistan looms over American politics now the way that Iraq did,” Kondik said. 

Not even close.”

By Katie Bo Williams // Katie Bo Williams is the senior national security correspondent for Defense One, where she writes about defense, counterterror, NATO, nukes, and more. She previously covered intelligence and cybersecurity for The Hill, including in-depth reporting on the Russia investigations and military detention issues. Before her journalism career, Katie Bo worked in thoroughbred horse racing, helping breed, sell, and prepare the next generation of Kentucky Derby winners. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia. A native of Goochland County, Virginia, she now lives in D.C. and can usually be found haunting one of the various bookstores on Capitol Hill.

February 18, 2020