In an interview with ABC News, Joni Ernst, the GOP Senate candidate in Iowa, suggested the U.S. should not have pulled troops out of Iraq when it did, blaming that supposed failure for the current escalation of violence:
“What we see going on in Iraq right now, if this current administration had followed guidance from military leaders many years ago, we would not be in this situation…What I would have supported is leaving additional troops in Iraq longer, and perhaps we wouldn’t have this situation today.”
So this could get interesting, then: The Iowa Democratic Party is holding a conference call this afternoon to draw attention to Ernst’s remarks. Here is one Senate race where the current events in Iraq — and questions as to whether we should have pulled out or whether we should now escalate — could become issues.
I asked the Ernst campaign for clarification of her Iraq views, and Ernst spokesperson Gretchen Hamel said:
“She believes Obama should have worked harder to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement.”
Asked for more clarification — such as whether Ernst favors more military engagement going forward — Hamel declined further comment. Ernst’s complaint has been widely made by critics of Obama on Iraq, who blame the current breakdown on the failure to engineer a SOFA that would have allowed a force to stay in the country, though it’s not even clear whether such a thing would have been possible.
At any rate, this puts a GOP candidate in a top-tier Senate race squarely in the anti-withdrawal camp. Dem Rep. Bruce Braley’s aides have already telegraphed that they will characterize Ernst’s position as akin to that of Dick Cheney. They are also highlighting Ernst’s recent suggestion that “I do have reason to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” to build the case.
If Braley’s campaign does seriously press this issue, it could force a litigation of the decision to withdraw and could result in some media pressure on Ernst to say whether she favors deeper military engagement right now. Remember, some Republicans, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are calling for just that.
And so, this could set up a very interesting contrast: Ernst is an Iraq War veteran who is now questioning the decision to withdraw, while Braley was first elected to Congress while advocating for a withdrawal timeline, as part of the antiwar Dem wave of 2006. Braley has long pushed for a true accounting of the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and while he supports the humanitarian dimension of Obama’s re-engagement in Iraq, he has come out squarely against any long-term military involvement.
Public opinion on these matters is pretty clear cut. Though Obama has argued his limited actions are necessary to prevent “genocide,” recent polls show the public tilts against just air strikes and even more so against sending in ground forces, with majorities unconvinced the U.S. has a responsibility to stop violence in Iraq. Beyond this, Ernst’s anti-withdrawal position probably does not have a lot of public support: In March of 2013, 58 percent of Americans said the Iraq War wasn’t worth fighting to begin with.
In Iowa in particular, this issue could resonate with Democratic voters, at a time when both parties need to fire up their supporters heading into a midterm election, says Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “Iowa Democrats tend to be fairly antiwar,” Hagel tells me. “Obama was able to do so well here in 2008 and surprise Hillary in part because of that. This is the kind of thing that could resonate with the base.”
It’s also worth remembering that retiring Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was one of the first supporters of Howard Dean’s 2004 anti-war candidacy and emerged as one of the earliest and loudest critics of the war at a time when many Democrats still supported it. So it is not surprising that Braley’s campaign will try to make Ernst’s opposition to withdrawal from Iraq an issue in the battle for Harkin’s seat.