Iraq issue separates Congress hopefuls

Democrats in the congressional races say troops should leave. Republicans are for staying the course.

Published August 7, 2006

Most of the Democrats running for the Tampa Bay region's two most contested congressional seats say the war in Iraq was a mistake.

"I think it's time for us to start pulling our troops out of Iraq," said District 11 candidate Les Miller, a state senator and a U.S. Air Force veteran who could be speaking for most of them. "If we don't set a time frame, we won't be looking at getting them out until 2008."

That position is in contrast to the major Republicans vying for both seats, who say U.S. forces should remain until the job is done.

"I think we can't leave the job unfinished," said Eddie Adams Jr., the lone Republican in the District 11 race. "We've already sacrificed too much to come out with anything but a victory."

All of the candidates offer support for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, along with Israel's offensive in Gaza and Lebanon. However, some say the United States has weakened its diplomatic hand in the Israeli conflict because of its handling of Iraq.

In short, the general election in both contests will provide voters with sharp contrasts, while the primaries will force them to weigh more nuanced distinctions between the competitors' position.

The District 11 race to represent south, central and west Tampa, the Hillsborough shoreline neighborhoods, and slivers of Pinellas and Manatee counties includes Democrats Miller, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor, businessman Al Fox and lawyers Scott Farrell and Michael Steinberg. The victor of the Sept. 5 primary faces Adams, a Temple Terrace architect.

The District 9 race to represent northern Pinellas, western Pasco and suburban Hillsborough includes Republicans Gus Bilirakis, a state representative, and East Lake chiropractor and underdog David Langheier. The winner faces Democrat Phyllis Busansky, a former Hillsborough commissioner.

The Democrats running for District 11 all say the United States should be preparing for withdrawal.

Fox, a businessman and former lobbyist best known locally for advocating the opening of relations with Cuba, sets the quickest time line, saying ground troops should be withdrawn within 30 days, with the conflict reduced to an air campaign aimed at taking out insurgent strongholds.

"Tell the Iraqis, 'We gave you a start,' " Fox said. "I just think it's wrong for us to keep losing a handful of soldiers here and there, and for what? There's no way to control that kind of insurgency unless you turn the place into a parking lot."

He said Congress failed in its duty to more vigorously question the rush to war. He also said he thinks average Americans ought to be more invested in the war, not reaping the benefits of tax cuts and leaving the fighting to volunteers, though he stopped short of calling for a draft.

Fox did say he would be willing to consider some form of mandatory public service for young adults, not only in the military but also in other programs that give back to the nation, such as the Peace Corps. He thinks if the general public had to sacrifice for the war effort, not only the families of volunteers, then most people would be calling for an end to the conflict.

Castor said the U.S. military presence should be "downsized" in Iraq by the end of the year and the troops either redeployed elsewhere or brought home, allowing Iraqis to assume security for their own country. She thinks Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should be dismissed and a new course of action charted that couples America's military might with moral authority.

She would seek long-term political and economic strategies for addressing squalid conditions, gross human rights abuses and poverty that breed fundamentalist extremism and threats to national security.

"I support renewed efforts to engage our allies and other countries in Iraq by expanding opportunities for those who wish to participate in Iraq's redevelopment - beyond Halliburton," Castor said. "Even as we redeploy our troops, the U.S. must continue to work closely with the new Iraqi government and other countries to achieve success."

Farrell said a time line for withdrawal should be set by the architects of the war, but he thinks it shouldn't be publicized to protect American troops. If he were in charge, most of the troops would be leaving by the end of the year, with the rest coming home by the middle of next year.

He said many of those troops should then be redeployed to Afghanistan, to fortify troops in a justified effort, where they increasingly face flareups of violence that endanger them and keep them from focusing on locating terrorist Osama bin Ladin.

"Americans understand that the terrorists behind Sept. 11 are in Afghanistan," Farrell said. "If Osama bin Laden is still alive, we haven't done our jobs."

Miller said he would like to see troops moved out of Iraq within a year. Not setting a deadline only ensures that troops will remain in a perilous setting indefinitely, he said, while a year provides enough time to train Iraqi security forces so the region does not plunge into chaos after American forces exit.

Miller said the continuing conflict in Iraq has done little toward winning the war on terrorism and that the United States is no safer today than before the war began. To that end, he would like to see some of the troops redeployed nationally and a greater effort made in general toward securing U.S. borders, its ports and other points vulnerable to terrorism.

"If we're going to fight terrorism, we need to look at fighting it on our own soil," Miller said.

Steinberg, who is largely running on a platform to reform Social Security and disability law, said deadline setting should be left to the experts in the military, not the politicians. However, he said the withdrawal should take place as soon as possible and that the United States should then focus on improving its diplomacy to ensure that it can build a true coalition if it has to re-enter the region.

Each Democrat will stand in contrast to Adams. He likens the conflict in Iraq to American revolutionary times when British armies who marched in rows to the beat of a drum were decimated by native fighters who didn't adhere to the same battleground conventions.

Adams doesn't advocate employing insurgent methods but said the United States needs to deploy more troops and equipment to finish the job.

"If we're going to get out in a reasonable amount of time, we need to ramp it up," Adams said. "We're trying to be a police force rather than a force that is at war."

All of the candidates agreed that more work is needed in Afghanistan, and none suggested tilting toward divestment in the country. Ditto the candidates in the District 9 race. And all of the candidates in both contests say they support Israel's right to defend itself from attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas fighters in Lebanon and Gaza.

However, Castor and Farrell said the war in Iraq has diminished the United States' ability to reach out to other nations in seeking a diplomatic solution to the fighting there. And Busansky likened Israel's offensive to part of the United States' own war on terrorism.

Busansky was alone among Democrats in avoiding talk of setting any deadline for an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq. She wouldn't even say sooner or later but said it's clear that the decision should no longer be left to Rumsfeld or anyone else in the administration.

"I can't say any longer that I know what to do," she said. "We need to be listening to the people who do. I think it's important to take the advice of the generals."

Bilirakis, her likely Republican opponent in the general election, was attending to personal matters Friday and could not be reached. But his campaign manager, Rob Whitney, said he supports making sure that the troops have the equipment and muscle they need to do the job and ensuring that the United States leaves Iraq stable and safe. He does not support setting a deadline for withdrawal.

"No military (leaders) feel we're in a position to begin to withdraw troops and have a safe and stable Iraq," Whitney said.

Langheier, the other Republican in the race, did not return a phone call to his campaign office Friday afternoon. In a candidate survey he filled out for the St. Petersburg Times that asked for his overall opinion on the Bush administration's policies regarding the war in Iraq, he characterized it as quagmire that has left the United States no safer from terrorism.