Last December, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) traveled to Iraq to spend time with relief workers in the Shia-dominated southern part of the country. Everyone he spoke to, he said, in places such as Nasiriya or Al Qut, had horror stories about Saddam Hussein’s regime. None of those people knew they were speaking with a U.S. congressman, Wolf said.
“Everyone that we spoke to, they didn’t know what I did for a living,” he said. “Every single person you talked to had a story of someone in their family that had been tortured or killed or taken away.”
What Wolf saw and heard on that trip and on another in May of last year gave him optimism that the situation may slowly be getting better in Iraq, although he acknowledged that the Shia areas are probably more stable than the Sunni areas or Baghdad. While Iraq is a majority Shia country, it was dominated by the Sunni-led Bath party during the years of Hussein’s regime.
“I had a guy in to see me last week who was still in Iraq. He said schools are opening and hospitals are getting better, but he was in a Shia area,” Wolf said. “You go into Baghdad it’s a terribly, terribly different story.”
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 (R) 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 10th district, the war has split the candidates for the congressional seat. Wolf, a 24-year incumbent, supported the president’s decision to go to war and said last week he believes the United States should retain a presence in the country.
“We’re there now. You cannot walk away, too much is at stake,” he said. “The success of our efforts in Iraq are critical to our overall war on terror and the security of our country.”
Wolf’s Democratic challenger, political novice James Socas, however, sees the war in Iraq as a “major diversion from the war on terror.”
To Socas, the Duelfer report is a damning indictment on the Bush administration and backers of the war.
The report, he said, “leaves in my mind little room to doubt that much of the information on which we went to war with Iraq was incorrect and arguably misleading.”
“I think the report also illustrates that the policies which many were advocating of continuing the aggressive, intense arms inspections, continuing to build an international coalition was in fact the right policy,” he said. “There was no imminent threat. There was not even the risk of an imminent threat.”
WOLF SOUNDED a note of optimism about Iraq, noting that United Nations workers are back in the country preparing for January elections. The Iraqi military is also training and getting ready to take over the security of their country, he said.
“I do believe it’s going to be difficult,” Wolf said. “But I sense both times I was there, we went to an Iraqi wedding, we ate with Iraqis, we did everything with them. We listened. We went out into the fields and met with sheiks.”
“They were all glad Saddam had gone and seemed very enthusiastic for freedom and democracy. It’s difficult, but I think it’s well within reason that they have the same desire for democracy as we do.”
In Wolf’s view, the war on terror is similar to the Cold War, a war that lasted decades and that relied on international alliances and direct appeals to people in communist countries.
“I think the world is coming around to know that we have to work together,” he said. “And it’s not just a military thing, it’s winning the hearts and minds.”
Socas does not share Wolf’s optimism. He said he has heard from people in the military establishment.
“They have said that the situation is getting worse, not better,” he said. “We have a growing insurgency. … We have large parts of Iraq less under control and I think it is appropriate for the American people to want to know exactly what is the mission and exactly what is it going to take to execute that mission.”
Socas describes himself as a realist on foreign policy matters. Now that the United States is in Iraq, he said the mission should be solely focused on stabilizing the country, rather than trying to establish “a shining light of democracy.”
“I get very uncomfortable when I hear what I think are extraordinary ideological visions for what Iraq could become,” he said.
To Socas, two dueling world views are seeking to make sense of the war: “People who are foreign policy realists and people I think people who are motivated by an ideological vision and I would put the neoconservative group in that and I would put my opponent in that category.”