Mitt Romney wants to be commander in chief. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, two U.S. commanders in chief have kept thousands of American troops deployed to Afghanistan. Yet, when Romney traveled last week to Europe and the Middle East, he opted against visiting those troops.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama visited Afghanistan, but the former Illinois senator did so as part of a group of U.S. lawmakers. Romney went to the war-torn nation last year, and aides say he did not return last week during his London-Israel-Poland swing because he was on a tight schedule, according to media reports.
The image of the next possible American military commander talking with troops fresh from a firefight might have made for a powerful photo that could have been used in television ads for the campaign. But political experts doubt images of Romney connecting with U.S. troops would have made much difference in his close fight with Obama.
Here are three reasons why visiting Afghanistan won't make a difference for Romney in the 2012 White House race:
Politics. "Poll after poll shows the American people want the troops out of there as quickly as possible," says Susan MacManus, an international affairs professor at the University of South Florida. "Even if he had gone, it wouldn't push people to vote for him."
Romney has said he would listen closer to what American commanders say than has Obama. "That still resonates with American voters," says MacManus.
What's more, most voters probably didn't even notice.
"This is a time of year when no one is really paying attention to this stuff," says Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "I don't think his entire trip...was really paid attention to that much."
The Economy. A few hours huddling with American troops and commanders won't change what the 2012 presidential race is all about: the still-sputtering economy. Romney and his top political advisers have consciously chosen to focus on domestic issues and largely ignore national security and foreign policy issues, says one GOP source who has advised the campaign. "This is an economic election," says the GOP source. "Right now, it's all about the economy."
Smith concurs, saying "Romney and his campaign really just want to focus on the economy, pretty much all of the time."
"The focus is still on domestic issues," MacManus says. "People are so undecided they're not going to be basing their votes on what a candidate says in another country as opposed to what he says while in a swing state that's struggling economically."
Allies. At a recent meeting of global powers in Chicago, Washington and its top allies codified a plan under which all Western troops will be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. European leaders want their countries out of the decade-long war, even more than Americans. Had Romney gone to Afghanistan and talked of a need to achieve a clear military victory, it might have been misconstrued that he was breaking with America's closest allies. And the Obama campaign and media outlets alike would have slammed him.
A U.S. presidential candidate goes to London because Great Britain and America still have—though strained—"special relationship." But MacManus says the presumptive GOP nominee's other two stops were not aimed at picking up the support of the kinds of voters who might be swayed by a few hours with the troops. "The trip doesn't seem to have gone over poorly with American Catholics and Jewish voters," she says.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.