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War Comes Home to Iowa | The Nation

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War Comes Home to Iowa

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Des Moines

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

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It's Veterans Day, and a group of antiwar Democrats have assembled at Chet Guinn's firehouse in downtown Des Moines. Guinn, a retired Methodist minister who still likes to slide down the fire pole, bought the building in 1980 for $1 and converted it into a community hub. When the caucuses roll around every four years, Guinn says, "the fire station comes alive." A picture of Paul Wellstone sits near the pole. Above the wide glass doors in front is a quote from Eisenhower: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

The gathering was organized by Sue Dinsdale, a self-described "pretty typical Iowa mom" from the town of Huxley, just north of Des Moines. Dinsdale became an antiwar activist when her oldest son, who enlisted in the Army in 1999, came home from his second tour in Iraq. "I was yearning for something to do," she says. "I couldn't just sit at home and see other kids go through what he did." Last summer she left her job as membership director at the local YMCA and became a field organizer for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI). She's been hounding Iowa Republicans about their support for the war ever since. It's Dinsdale's job to make sure Iraq stays in the news. As such, she's a good barometer here of public opinion on the war.

I ask Dinsdale if antiwar Democrats have reached consensus on whom to support in the January caucuses. The short answer is no. "There might be six people in a room supporting six different candidates," she replies. In 2004 the ten people sitting in Guinn's spacious living room backed either Dennis Kucinich or Howard Dean. It was a fairly easy call: true believers went for Kucinich, while pragmatists rallied around Dean. This year, antiwar activists are having a much harder time picking a candidate; many of Guinn's guests back Bill Richardson because of his pledge to pull out all troops within a year, but there are Barack Obama and John Edwards supporters here too.

One thing they agree on, though, is mistrust of Hillary Clinton. Everett Fell, a former sportswriter from New Jersey who moved to Iowa as an organizer for AAEI, reflects a common view when he says, "I like all the other candidates, but I have a problem with Hillary."

"At least in Iowa, the peace community is thoroughly disillusioned with her," says Jeremy Jansen, a young organizer from Wisconsin who moved to Iowa as part of AAEI's Iraq campaign. On November 8 nine war protesters, led by Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, occupied Clinton's campaign office in Des Moines for more than seven hours, placing Support the Troops, End the War signs out front and, once inside, reading the names of dead American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It's telling that they initially chose to target Clinton, along with the office of Rudy Giuliani. "We did this because Hillary voted for the war in Iraq and refuses to apologize for it, because her rhetoric...is not only imprecise but also contradicts her public comments that she won't withdraw all the troops before 2013, because she voted for pro-war with Iran measures...and for her general hawkish foreign policy stances," wrote David Goodner, a senior at the University of Iowa and a member of its antiwar committee. "She floats so quickly, vacillates so often, that I don't think people have any confidence that she will expedite the end of the war," says Ed Fallon, a former state representative and candidate for governor who has endorsed Edwards.

Polls show that the war is still the number-one issue for Iowa Democrats, leading healthcare and the economy by a comfortable margin. While antiwar activists may be opposed to Hillary, the polls are more ambiguous, reflecting an electorate still very much in flux. A number of polls from May through October showed Clinton to be the favorite among that broad sector of Democratic voters who may not be political junkies but who still cite the war as their top issue. In an October 29 University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, for example, Clinton leads Obama by two points overall but by fifteen among voters whose top priority is ending the war. Yet the ramped-up criticism from Obama and Edwards does seem to be damaging Hillary; in a mid-November Washington Post Iowa poll, Obama not only leads Clinton overall but does better on the question of who would best handle Iraq.

Clinton's generally favorable poll numbers on the war confounded most of the activists I talked to. But it shouldn't be surprising: her campaign has been more aggressive than anyone anticipated in defusing what even her aides describe as her biggest vulnerability--her 2002 vote in favor of the war and her refusal to apologize for it. Since declaring her candidacy, she's cautiously embraced an antiwar position. "If we in Congress don't end this war before January of 2009, as President, I will," she said in February, a month after entering the race. In May she voted to use the Congressional power of the purse to end the war, a step she had long resisted. In July, at a campaign event in Des Moines, she unveiled her plan to move combat troops out of Iraq (while leaving an unspecified number behind for a variety of tasks). A week later she mailed a DVD of that plan to every Iowa Democrat. In October she stumped with liberal lion George McGovern in the antiwar bastion of Iowa City. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, another early opponent of the war, has been dispatched to the state as a key surrogate. Clinton's campaign has distributed signs that say Support the Troops, End the War on the front and Iowans for Hillary on the back.

Further working to her advantage is the failure of her top rivals to draw a clear distinction between themselves and Clinton on Iraq. War opponents here often point to a September debate in New Hampshire where Edwards and Obama refused to commit to withdrawing all troops from Iraq by the end of their first term, in 2013. That answer gave an opening to the so-called second-tier candidates, notably Richardson, who began highlighting his plan to get all the troops out within a year and has doubled his Iowa staff. "The most important issue affecting this race is the war," Richardson said at the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner on November 10. "There is a difference with the candidates on how to end the war." To stress their point, his campaign supporters draped banners that said "2013?" and "GetOurTroopsOut.com." After his speech, the usually attack-shy Richardson campaign distributed Clinton quotes indicating that she might leave as many as 60,000 troops in Iraq for years to come.

Yet rival supporters concede that Hillary has succeeded in muddying the waters. "A lot of Democrats think the difference on the war is between the Democrats and the Republicans," says Peggy Huppert, a former Des Moines party chair and the head of Iowans for Sensible Priorities, which advocates cutting the military budget to pay for domestic needs and which recently endorsed Edwards. "I've heard people say the war is why they're choosing Richardson, for example. But I've heard a lot of other people be more ambivalent. They want it ended, but they think any Democrat will do that."

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."

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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