WASHINGTON -- In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Americans have been reminded in recent weeks of one of our own great tactics of the past to force change: massive public protest.

Going way back, the original Tea Party in Boston Harbor struck against oppressive British rule. Later, in our civil rights revolution and the street protests against the Vietnam War, Americans used visible and vocal people power to assert our will against entrenched officialdom.

Most recently, we saw it materialize again in the tea party movement, in town meetings and Main Street demonstrations against what participants saw as runaway federal spending and intrusive social engineering, especially the health-care reforms passed last year.

Currently, the new Congress is already embroiled in a bitter debate over the nation's soaring federal debt and deficit. Newly empowered House Republican Speaker John Boehner has been threatening a government shutdown unless the Obama administration yields to the deep spending demanded by tea party freshmen Republican upstarts.

President Obama, while voicing willingness to engage in serious negotiations, so far has held his own hand on major cuts in mandatory entitlement spending. At the same time, he is insisting on more spending in education, infrastructure, energy and new innovations for future growth.

In all this, both sides blithely ignore the huge elephant in the room: the continued financing of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still being underwritten largely by this country, in what now is the longest period of war in our history. After nearly 6,000 American deaths and many thousands more wounded, and at a cost so far approaching a trillion dollars, the American people tell pollsters the wars were a mistake and not worth the price.

Yet where is the massive public protest that sent Americans pouring into the streets as during the Vietnam War, and where is the heated debate in Congress demanding an end to the fighting and the spending? With no military draft as then raising public fears of personal engagement, young Americans and their parents have other things on their minds.

President Barack Obama, who ran and won in 2008 against the war in Iraq and promised to end it, has officially ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq and says he will start doing the same in Afghanistan this summer. These actions have effectively kept the lid on any significant street protest so far. But pressures from the American generals have already produced administration agreement to keep some U.S. presence in both places for some time to come.

Huge and extensive construction facilities bankrolled by American taxpayers in both countries are still being maintained, and more are being built in Afghanistan to facilitate training of indigenous police forces. Only the other day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urgently called on the Senate Armed Services Committee to approve another $5.2 billion for fiscal 2012 to continue the support effort, which Obama has told a NATO conference would continue at least through 2014.

Two longtime anti-war House members, Democrat James McGovern of Massachusetts and Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, wrote the other day in The Washington Post of the lack of public protest. "Perhaps it is because there is no draft and only a small percentage of our population is at risk," they wrote. "Or maybe it's because no one feels that they are paying for the war, which is being charged to the American taxpayers' credit card."

In the context of the current debate over federal spending that has fired up the Republicans and their tea party cohorts, the elephant in the room of the two wars is missing in action, in Congress as well as on the streets of America. As McGovern and Jones wrote: "Fiscal conservatives should be howling that this war is being financed with borrowed money. Those who support the war should be willing to pay for it. . . . It is bankrupting us."

Yet the deficit hawks have their knives sharpened for the social-welfare entitlements. And as long as there is little public outrage against the huge spending for wars the American people don't want, that's where the budget fight will continue to be focused.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

DON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access