Iraq may be pivotal for Akaka and Case
|||Case's Senate bid pegged on need for change|
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Nearly three years after the United States invaded Iraq, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who opposed the war, and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a cautious supporter, still see the conflict through different lenses.
With Iraq in turmoil and the success of the war and the occupation uncertain, Akaka wants the Bush administration to evaluate its foreign policy with the idea of withdrawing American troops as soon as possible.
"I think a reassessment would be really needed at this point in time," the senator said.
Case does not want to change course and believes troops can be withdrawn only after the new Iraqi government and security forces have contained the violence that threatens the country's stability.
"I think we are collectively doing what we must be doing at this point given the reality of Iraq today," the congressman said. "Not what has been. Not what we wish might have been, but what is. That's what it's always been about for me, is reality. Not some fanciful wish list."
But what might otherwise be an interesting policy disagreement between two friendly Democrats could turn into something more now that Akaka and Case are facing each other in the September primary for the U.S. Senate. The liberal Akaka and the more moderate Case mostly agree on Hawai'i issues, so voters likely will have to look to national or foreign policy to find differences, and Iraq could be the most substantial.
Democratic activists and political analysts interviewed the past few weeks believe Iraq will be an issue in the Senate primary, since it shows a contrast between the candidates on what remains an emotional subject for many in the Islands. Although analysts believe the campaign will most likely be influenced by whether voters stay loyal to Akaka or agree with Case that it is time for a leadership transition, the war could be a factor in defining the two men.
"People are anxious to hear what they have to say," said John Buckstead, the party's county chairman on the Big Island. "I think that the feeling here is pretty much the way I sense it is on O'ahu and on the Mainland: They are not happy with the way we got into it and most people aren't happy with the way things are going.
"They are very uncomfortable with it."
National opinion polls have shown eroding support for the war over the past three years but a consistent division over when to bring the troops home.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in February found that 55 percent believe the war was a mistake, up from 23 percent after the invasion in March 2003. A survey last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 50 percent believe that troops should remain in Iraq until the country is stabilized, about the same percentage as in July 2003, a few months after the heaviest fighting in Iraq was over.
"That's an issue that almost every politician that runs this time is going to have to face," Don Clegg, a political consultant, said of the war.
Iraq could be a cutting issue in the Akaka and Case primary because so many people in Hawai'i have connections to the military, from the thousands of active-duty soldiers and veterans to those who have friends or family who have served. People who are critical of the U.S. military's history and presence in the Islands may also view the war in personal terms.
Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to have opposed the war or think it was a mistake, which may elevate Iraq's importance in the primary.
The crucial vote on the war was in October 2002, and Akaka, along with U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, was in the minority as the Senate and House gave President Bush the authorization to use military force if necessary in Iraq. Case was not in Congress at the time but he has said, given what was known, that he would have voted to give the president a military option.
Congress has taken several other benchmark votes on Iraq but comparing Akaka's and Case's voting records is problematic because the Senate and House heard different measures at different moments of the debate.
In November, Akaka voted with the majority on a Republican amendment to a defense bill that requires the Bush administration to submit quarterly reports on the progress of the war to help determine when troops might be removed. Many saw the vote as a check on the president since it came when debate on troop withdrawal seemed to be at a peak nationally.
In July, Case voted for a Republican amendment to a foreign operations bill to block troop withdrawal until U.S. national security and foreign policy goals have been achieved. In May, Case voted against a Democratic amendment to a defense bill that would have called on the president to draft a troop withdrawal plan. The May amendment, which failed, was notable because it was the first in the House to press the administration on when troops might be coming home.
Akaka had opposed the war because he did not believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and did not want the United States to act unilaterally or with only Britain and a few other allies. The senator also argued the United States did not have a coherent post-invasion strategy or enough troops to accomplish the mission without being vulnerable.
The senator said many of the people he has spoken with in Hawai'i agreed with his concerns and do not want the occupation to linger.
"People are feeling that this was not done correctly. It was not based on correct facts," Akaka said in an interview last week. "Some people at home feel that the war is over in Iraq and we're just sitting there and our troops are getting killed."
Akaka does not favor the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops but said any reasonable reassessment of the occupation should include a timetable for bringing soldiers home. "I think that should be one of the priorities of the reassessment," he said.
Case told The Advertiser in May 2003 that he was having doubts about the war when it first appeared that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. He has since said he would likely not have backed intervention solely because former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "was a bad guy."
But his decision to otherwise stick with Bush administration policy has been influenced by several visits to Iraq and talks with Hawai'i soldiers and his constituents in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers Central, Leeward and Windward O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands.
Case said he thinks most people in Hawai'i share his belief that the United States cannot simply leave Iraq now regardless of the intelligence failures or other mistakes that have clouded the war. According to the congressman's staff, a majority of constituents who have responded to Case's newsletter surveys or have written to him over the past few years believe the war was a mistake but want the United States to see it through to the end.
"Are people happy about Iraq? Absolutely not. Do they believe that it's going well? No, they don't. Do they believe we should get out now? No," Case said in an interview in late February.
Case said the United States has to take potential security threats seriously, whether it be from Iraq or countries like Iran or North Korea.
"Our country, post-9/11, cannot tolerate the risk presented by any country in this world with the combination of a government that is sworn to do us harm and weapons of mass destruction in their possession or under their control," the congressman said. "That combination is intolerable for our country and our world."
Clegg, the political consultant, said Case may be more vulnerable than Akaka to criticism over Iraq but would likely be able to explain his position in terms that make voters comfortable.
But some liberal Democrats who support Akaka have been saying that Case's record is more Republican than independent, knowing that any link to Bush could be toxic in the primary. SurveyUSA, a New Jersey polling firm that does state-by-state tracking polls, had Bush's approval rating in Hawai'i at 38 percent in February.
"It may hurt him with primary voters if his independent votes look more like Republican votes," said Ian Chan Hodges, the party's county chairman on Maui.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.