In April and August, 2003, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11th) traveled to Iraq to talk to Arab and Kurdish leaders about the future of the country. It's a future, he said, that is very much in doubt.
"Its boundaries were put together artificially," he said. "We're going to find out very quickly if there is a country there."
With armed insurgents battling U.S. and Iraqi forces a year and a half after the U.S.-led invasion, the jury is still out on the mission's success.
"We won't know that for 10 years," said Davis.
AS VOTERS get ready to head to the polls on Nov. 2, foremost on their minds is the war in Iraq. In two televised debates and on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has slammed President George W. Bush for his decision to go to war. Last week, a report by Charles Duelfer, the chief American weapons inspector, found that Iraq was not producing weapons of mass destruction, contradicting an essential argument the administration used for invading Iraq.
“I think clearly the war has been more salient one way or another,” said Robert Denton, a communications professor at Virginia Tech who is closely following the campaigns.
In Virginia's 11th district, the war has split the candidates for the congressional seat. Davis, the 10-year incumbent, voted to allow the president to go to war. But he gave former President Bill Clinton (D) the same authority during the conflict in Kosovo.
"I think the president needs to be free to act in those situations," he said.
Davis' Democratic opponent Ken Longmyer, by contrast, said he has never wavered in his opposition to the war in Iraq.
"I never thought that Saddam Hussein had [weapons of mass destruction]. The case was never made for me."
At the same time, Longmyer said he never believed there was a link between Hussein and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
"Let's not confuse two different things," he said. "The connection between Saddam Hussein and 9-11 just doesn't exist. I never thought it did."
Although he voted for the war resolution, Davis expressed some concern about the way it has been run.
"We've made some mistakes, but that's not uncommon in war," he said.
One of those mistakes was tying the war to the search for weapons of mass destruction, according to Davis.
"[The administration] clearly hyped that up, but that wasn't the sole rationale," he said.
BOTH CANDIDATES agree that the United States ought to stay in Iraq but they disagree over how to stabilize the volatile situation.
"All you can do right now is stick to it and stick to the plan," said Davis. "I think withdrawal at this point would be disaster. We wouldn't be able to get back into the Middle East."
But a number of obstacles remain, he added.
"It's not clear we're going to be successful at this point."
To Longmyer, the first step to restoring stability in Iraq is to elect Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. That's because Kerry is in a better position to appeal to the international community, said Longmyer, a retired career foreign service officer.
"Bush has created so much antagonism by his dishonesty," he said. "Why should the Europeans help Kerry instead of Bush? Because the Europeans know it is in their interest and in everybody's interest to leave Baghdad in a controlled, decent way."
Davis said he also believed in forming international alliances to deal with foreign policy problems but that in the case of Iraq, the United States had no choice but to take the lead.
"You had half a dozen U.N. resolutions. Sooner or later you have to do what you say."
In the case of North Korea, however, Davis said he supported multilateral talks involved China to convince the North Koreans of dismantling their nuclear weapons.
"In Iraq, you could never get it," he said. "You have so many business agreements with Iraq between France and Germany and Russian, all of whom have vetoes on the security council."