With her son and her husband both called up for Iraq with the Washington National Guard’s 81st Combat Brigade, Cindy Ashworth used to listen when the candidates talked about their stances on the war. These days, she’s not hearing any answers.
“I get so sick of the campaigns that I’m really not paying attention anymore,” said Ashworth, a Deer Park preschool teacher. “This is not a simple, black-and-white issue. There are no sound-bite answers.”
Candidates seem to focus on what happened in the past, who was wrong and who’s responsible, she said. They don’t seem to acknowledge that people like her husband and son are doing a job they believe in or explain what they’ll do to help the troops.
Spokane resident Elaine Tyrie, whose son served in the first Gulf War with the Army and more recently in Iraq with the National Guard, hasn’t met Ashworth and probably would disagree with her about certain aspects of the war, which she opposes. But she shares Ashworth’s view of the candidates.
“I don’t see them addressing it, except on the surface,” Tyrie said. “It’s pretty disheartening, really.”
Democrat Barack Obama talks about opposing the war in 2003. Republican John McCain touts his support for the surge in 2007. Neither seems to talk about 2009 and beyond, she said. Neither seems to have an in-depth view of the role the Israeli-Palestinian dispute plays in the region or the potential for conflict with Iran or talk about what the money spent on the war could have done to address problems at home such as health care and poverty.
In interviews with people touched by the Iraq war, the candidates’ tendency to emphasize the past without addressing the future was a recurring complaint.
“I would like them to start talking about how we’re going to keep supporting the troops that are over there,” said Jeff Colliton, a Vietnam War veteran and former Spokane city councilman who has one son headed for his second tour in Iraq with the Guard and another who’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
James Carafano isn’t surprised by the lack of attention to, or specificity about, Iraq. The reason they argue about whether it was right to support the initial invasion or the later surge is simple, said Carafano, a researcher who studies the war and its political implications for the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Institute.
When it comes to what they want to do in the future, “the candidates really aren’t very far apart,” Carafano said. Obama and some Democrats may want to set a timetable for withdrawal, he said, while McCain and some Republicans may want to withdraw troops after they’ve succeeded.
“It’s a distinction without a difference,” he contended.
As a political issue, the war has taken second place, or possibly a lower slot, to the economy, said Larry Korb, an expert on defense issues for the Center for American Politics. It was for many the defining issue a year ago, before the presidential primaries started. It was also the issue that may have decided enough congressional elections in 2006 to swing control of Congress from Republicans to Democrats.
But since the primaries started in January, two things happened, Korb said.
Violence in Iraq dropped along with the number of Americans casualties, and the economy faltered worse than anyone anticipated.
With American casualties down, and the war being pushed off front pages and prime-time news slots, the public pays less attention, Korb said.
“The majority have never been emotionally invested, because we don’t have a draft,” he said. Even the call-up of National Guard units doesn’t seem to ignite major public opposition, because Guard members, like the active duty, are all volunteers.
“Some may say the war was wrong in the sense that we shouldn’t have gone there, we shouldn’t have spent a lot of money. Others might say it was a mistake that the Bush administration got us into … but it’s better now.”
That’s not likely to create a disagreement that defines this election.
After the war helped decide some congressional races in 2006, that may have overextended the expectation for a policy change, Korb said. Democrats had control of Congress, but not a two-thirds majority to override any presidential veto. Nothing seemed to change.
The war also had a bigger effect in 2006 because “it looked like the war was being lost,” Mike O’Hanlon, a military policy analyst for the Brookings Institute, said. That election was a referendum on the previous Bush policy, but the policy changed, he said.
Now it appears the new policy is succeeding, and while there’s no guarantee of success, the public seems to be willing to give it a chance, O’Hanlon argues.
“Americans are not in the business of losing wars we don’t have to lose,” he said. “We never give up on important wars that we are winning.”
Talk of success baffles some in the anti-war movement, like Rusty Nelson of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. He argues that Americans can’t talk about success when U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians are being killed.
He had hoped for Democrats to form a “loyal opposition” to the war. Instead, Obama and some other Democrats have “determined to be moderate to the point of talking mush.”
But Nelson has seen participation in anti-war demonstrations diminish, just like the attention from the news media. “It’s almost as if people are relieved they can look to a financial crisis and move that to the top of their consciousness,” he said.
O’Hanlon argues that it may be wise for some candidates, particularly Obama, to say as little as possible about what they will do to remove the troops. When candidates become officeholders, they can get locked in to a policy that seemed right on the campaign trail but doesn’t make sense when events change, he said.
War policy is complicated, and campaigns tend to simplify, O’Hanlon said. For example, the Iraqi politicians say they support a timed withdrawal that has combat troops out by 2010, but that may be mostly for their own voters; they could change quickly if the violence increased.
“Some nuance works (in a campaign) but not the amount you need to explain this,” he said.
Give it a try, say those who are watching the candidates for more clues on what they’d do about the war.
“I understand there are different viewpoints,” Ashworth said one day last week as her husband and son got ready to leave their training in Wisconsin for a base in Iraq. “How do we make decisions about who should represent us if we don’t know how they think?”