War Comes Home to Iowa | The Nation


War Comes Home to Iowa

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Kucinich, with Richardson the staunchest and most consistent antiwar candidate, hasn't campaigned much in Iowa and has almost no organization here. All the Dems have pledged to end the war if elected, yet none have attracted the antiwar fervor or backing of Dean in 2003. "Without a clearcut peace candidate," Guinn notes, "it's harder to energize the peace community."

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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Still, the caucus remains too close to call, and despite Clinton's deft positioning, her rivals are betting she stays vulnerable on the war. At a recent stop in Cedar Rapids, Edwards opened by pledging to end the war and criticized Clinton for vowing to leave troops behind. "She says she'll end the war, but she's gonna keep combat troops in Iraq and keep combat missions," Edwards told me afterward. By contrast, Edwards would deploy troops only to protect the US Embassy. I asked Edwards if Democratic caucusgoers notice such distinctions. "Some do," he responded. Would it be enough to swing the election? "Hard to know," he replied. Gordon Fischer, head of the Iowa Democratic Party in 2003-04 and an Obama supporter, predicts that after the results come in on caucus night, pundits will write the following words: "Boy, Senator Clinton's vote for the war sure hurt her. Apparently, she just didn't explain it away adequately for Iowa Dems."

The controversy over Iran may be an even bigger storm cloud for Clinton. By voting in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution on September 26--which called the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and gave George W. Bush another rationale for keeping troops in Iraq, and for potentially moving the war next door--Clinton opened a new wound and exposed old ones, igniting Iowa's peace community. "In Iowa people were quite upset about her vote," says Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, an Iranian-American professor of economics at Drake University, in Des Moines. The blowback came to a head October 7, when a voter asked Clinton at a campaign stop in New Hampton, Iowa, "Why should I support your candidacy...if it appears you haven't learned from your past mistakes?" Clinton grew testy, and the exchange became a rallying cry for her opponents.

On October 23 the New York Times dubbed Iran "the new Iraq." War-weary Iowans, only 4 percent of whom favor military action against Iran, began paying close attention. "In Iowa as many people are listening to what the candidates say about Iran as about Iraq," says Jeffrey Weiss, peace coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. According to Everett Fell of AAEI, "people seem even more intense about Iran." After the Kyl-Lieberman vote, Clinton immediately went into damage control, sending Iowans another mailer claiming the bill "was clearly a vote for stepped-up diplomacy, not military action." She also signed on to legislation prohibiting Bush from attacking Iran without Congressional approval.

Yet doubts about Clinton's intentions linger. "Her vote was potentially very damaging," says former State Representative Fallon. "I haven't heard many people who were convinced by the response." Lori Nelson, head of Iowans for Peace, an umbrella group for more than twenty organizations, says she is "really concerned about things Clinton says about Iran" and has begun co-sponsoring films with the University of Iowa's Persian student group and working with NGOs in Iran in an attempt to "be proactive."

However, foreign policy--or any one issue, for that matter--probably won't determine Iowans' choice for President in January. In the absence of a major misstep by Clinton, or major policy differences coming to light, the race is likely to be decided by the campaign that can best marshal its supporters on a post-New Year's night and by the candidate viewed as the most capable of defeating the Republican nominee. After all, in 2004 caucusgoers forsook Dean in favor of the more "electable" John Kerry, who also clearly benefited from a better state apparatus. Tim Gauger, a leader of the University of Iowa's antiwar committee, says, "Why would it be any different now, when everyone just wants to beat a Republican?" A recent New York Times poll found that half of Iowa Democrats would be willing to support a candidate who "favors keeping troops in Iraq longer than you would like," if it meant a GOP defeat.

The war itself often fades into the background of everyday life here. Though 2007 has been the deadliest year for US troops in Iraq, casualties have declined recently and the war has often been nudged off the front page. A chant at the weekly peace vigil in downtown Iowa City in early November, which drew thirty or so people--a decent crowd by Iowa standards--summed up this disconnect. "Iowa City wake up!" a student with a bullhorn shouted. "The war is going on right now!"

It's not that antiwar sentiment has disappeared. Iowa is less hawkish and more internationalist than most swing states. There are vigils, yard signs, meetings, sit-ins. Iraq comes up in some form at every town-hall stop. Every Democrat mentions the need to get out of Iraq in his or her stump speech. In 2006 Iowans elected two new Democratic Congressmen and flipped both the state House and Senate blue, the only state besides New Hampshire with such a Democratic tidal wave. And yet the war goes on.

Perhaps that's why, after four and a half years of occupation and no end in sight, Iowa, like the rest of the country, is suffering from war fatigue. "They marched, wrote letters, elected a Democratic Congress and now Congress is funding the war--and Hillary is giving the President the authority to go into Iran!" says Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor and former FCC commissioner who leans toward Richardson. "What's a voter to do?"

In conversations with scores of Iowa Democrats, it's evident that domestic issues like healthcare and the economy are a big deal--and getting bigger. Yet the greatest concerns are still tied to the staggering costs, in lives and money, of the Iraq War. Iowans for Sensible Priorities, an offshoot of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, started by Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen, is perhaps the largest, most organized peace group here. It has distributed charts illustrating how the military budget crowds out domestic needs. Although the group backs Edwards, supporters from every campaign brandish its stickers and pins.

Like Hurricane Katrina, the war is a metaphor for all that has gone wrong under George W. Bush. The lack of antiwar sentiment among the GOP frontrunners helps explain the surge of support for Ron Paul, the only Republican candidate to call for withdrawal. His signs and supporters show up everywhere you turn.

Former Iowa City Representative Jim Leach, one of the few House Republicans to vote against the war in 2002, points out that Iowa has experienced one of the largest per capita National Guard deployments to Iraq of any state. A day before Veterans Day, 130 more Guardsmen got ready to ship out. "We have an awful lot of people who have served in Iraq," Leach says. "And they have increasing doubts about the judgment of it all."

Clinton's adroit maneuvering, combined with the absence of a definitive antiwar challenger, may have divided the state's peace community, at least from an electoral perspective. But dissent among those who serve, the popularity of groups like Sensible Priorities and AAEI, the persistence of dozens of smaller organizations and widespread dissatisfaction with the current policy prove that antiwar sentiment still runs deep in the heartland, waiting to be tapped, if only it is given clearer expression.

"Sometimes I think a lot of people forget about the war," Dinsdale admits. "But then they see a pin, or a sticker, or a sign, and it brings it all back."

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