Lawmakers Deliver Their Take on Iraq Strategy

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Keith Ellison, Jim Walsh

Rep. Keith Ellison (left) and Rep. Jim Walsh discuss facing their constituents on the Iraq issue. Getty Images (left) hide caption

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With the commitment of additional troops to Iraq earlier this year, is Iraq better off now? In separate interviews, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-NY) and Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) talk about how they are handling the war issue as they travel back to their districts during August recess.


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm James Hattori.

Coming up, old e-mails. Should they stay or should they go?

BRAND: We'll start today with our ongoing series about the surge in Iraq. The deployment of an additional 30,000 troops began in February. Next month, General David Petraeus will release his much awaited assessment of the situation in Iraq. In the weeks leading up to that report, we are doing our own assessment of sorts.

HATTORI: And we're asking the question, is Iraq better or worse off since the surge began? This week we followed two U.S. politicians as they head back into their districts to meet with constituents during the August recess.

We'll start in Syracuse, New York, where Republican Jim Walsh was first elected back in 1988.

NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA: In the 21st century, the public square is usually a private mall. And near Syracuse, New York there's no bigger mall than the Carousel Center. They actually do have a carousel, and a decent cross-section of the residents of New York's 25th Congressional District represented for the past 10 terms by Republican James Walsh. Typical of voters is Bill here, who likes Walsh, but is soured on the war in Iraq.

BILL: I think we should be out of there, that's for sure. But as far as Walsh is concerned, I think he's doing a good job.

PESCA: But a lot of people in the district no longer see Walsh as a moderate Republican but as just another representative of the party more identified with the war, the surge, and the president.

Patricia Abu-Jabbar(ph) is dissatisfied with Walsh's stance on the one issue a politician can't afford to get wrong.

Ms. PATRICIA ABU-JABBAR (Resident): I would like him to stop acting like a politician, and I would like him to act more like a statesman.

PESCA: If you judge Walsh by the amount of federal funds he's brought back to Syracuse, he's done a fantastic job. Since first being elected in 1988, he's been rolling up bigger and bigger electoral victories, even though the area's lately been trending more Democratic. In 2004, for instance, John Kerry won the presidential vote in the district, but Walsh ran virtually unopposed. But last November Walsh won by fewer than 4,000 votes. The congressman came away with a lesson.

Representative JAMES WALSH (Republican, New York): This is a very unusual election, in '06. It really was all about the war, and it was all about President Bush. He's wildly unpopular here.

PESCA: After squeaking by his challenger, Walsh returned to Washington and became one of only 17 Republicans to cast a vote against the surge. Now, back in his home district for August recess, Walsh has began conducting town hall meetings.

Earlier this week at the fire station in the town of Marcellus, just outside of Syracuse, 150 or so citizens assemble to query their congressman. The questioners were sometimes pointed. Walter Raff(ph) labeled the decision to wage war in Iraq as boneheaded and a fool's errand. Drawing equal amounts of applause and boos, Raff continued.

Mr. WALTER RAFF: And your support for that was the single worst decision of your career.

PESCA: John Kurten(ph), a local official who's acting as master of ceremonies...

Mr. JOHN KURTEN (Local Official): I certainly have no question, just...

PESCA: eager to sidestep the in-your-face question. But the congressman asked for the microphone and gave a by-the-number defense of the original war vote as bipartisan and based on the best information at that time. Walsh was more expansive when questioned by Rey Lietch(ph), a World War II veteran, who said he voted for the congressman.

Mr. REY LIETCH (Veteran): The question I put on my card related to your vote against the surge, I was kind of disappointed in that. I don't think we're going to win the war against terror by helping support the cut-and-run Democrats.

PESCA: Walsh responded by noting that he has voted to fund the war every step of the way, but the nub of his answer and his vote is this sentence.

Rep. WALSH: I don't think, militarily, it can ever be won.

PESCA: Walsh went into more detail. In fact, he always answered the questions as asked rather than saying, I'm glad you asked that, only to steer the conversation back to the safety of talking points. Over and over, Walsh tried to emphasize the tangle that the war in Iraq has become. Of the surge he said...

Rep. WALSH: This is a very complex issue. We all know that.

PESCA: He spoke of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

Rep. WALSH: There were a number of them. It's a much more complex approach, but...

PESCA: ...on to the subtleties of the Muslim religion.

Rep. WALSH: It's usually complex. Iran is non-Arab.

PESCA: That last phrase kicked off a nearly five-minute answer about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. He touched on the Sunni desire for a caliphate, he mentioned the Shia roots in Iran, the role of the Kurds, the problems of de-Baathification. At a time when many members of Congress have been caught out not knowing if al-Qaida is Shia or Sunni, Walsh went into a level of depth you'd more expect to hear in a college lecture hall than in the community room of a fire station.

The audience didn't seemed bored, but there wasn't a sea of nodding heads like there was an hour earlier when the congressman told Boy Scouts and their parents about his bill to crack down on child predators. Still, after the town hall meeting, Walsh expressed a belief that he was communicating effectively, that the right answer to the question of the war in Iraq won't fit on a bumper sticker.

Rep. WALSH: I think it is the most contentious issue of the day. I think there are more people now - I know there are more people now who want to see us out. And it's not that simple.

PESCA: The 2006 election showed Walsh's vulnerabilities, and it emphasized that no matter how much goodwill a congressman builds up over 20 years, politics are always a little more complex.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

HATTORI: Now to Minnesota's Fifth District and Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, who recently traveled to Iraq to assess things for himself.

As NPR's Celeste Headlee discovered when he returned home, his constituents had plenty to say to him.

CELESTE HEADLEE: It's rush hour on Wednesday in Minneapolis, part of Minnesota's Fifth District. Some three-dozen people are on the Marshall Street Bridge protesting the war in Iraq. And a lot of residents like April Kanutsin(ph) say the surge has been a failure.

Ms. APRIL KANUTSIN (Resident): The surge is not doing any good. It's just inviting more violence. Every time they're - our U.S. service men and women are killed, there and many, many more Iraqi civilians killed. And the more U.S. troops that are there, the more incidents are going to happen and the more Iraqis will be killed.

HEADLEE: Not far from here are the remains of the 35-W bridge. It collapsed two weeks ago, killing at least nine people. Rebecca Kramer(ph) makes a connection between the federal funds needed to repair that bridge and the billions spent in Iraq.

Ms. REBECCA KRAMER (Resident): I want to hear that they're going to bring the troops home immediately.

HEADLEE: That's it, right?

Ms. KRAMER: Well, and we need to pay reparations to the people of Iraq for all the destruction that we've caused. You know, here we've bombed their bridges so that they don't have any bridges and we're - you know, and now our bridge falls down. It's kind of ironic.

HEADLEE: But it's not just these activists on the bridge. It's hard to find anyone in the Fifth District in favor of the war in Iraq. In fact, out of some 40 people we spoke to all over Minneapolis, only two said they support the president's Iraq policy - one is from Duluth, the other was from Fargo, North Dakota.

Unidentified Woman: But I'd like to know what commitments you're willing to make to...

HEADLEE: So it's not surprising the congressman who represents the district wants to bring the troops home. Later that same day, about 150 people are packed into a local union hall to hear from Congressman Keith Ellison. He traveled to Iraq last month with five other freshmen legislators and he tells the group he plans to act on what he saw.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democratic, Minnesota): September is an absolutely huge and critical month because it is in September that this report by Petraeus is due back. This is an opportunity for us to turn up the volume on our legislators, and I'm not asking you guys to give me a pass, and to make it clear to every member of Congress that it is time to get out of Iraq.

HEADLEE: This district has been strongly Democratic since the early 1960s, and the anti-war Ellison took 56 percent of the vote last year. The young stocky politician listens as people step up to the mic, passionate about the war.

One of them is Ralph Remington, a councilman in 10th Ward.

Mr. RALPH REMINGTON (Councilman): No, I think nobody buys the surge. It's a bill of goods and everybody knows snake oil when they smell it.

HEADLEE: And again, the collapse of the 35-W bridge comes up. It's become a focal point of residents' anger, like Jennifer Yumelak(ph).

Ms. JENNIFER YUMELAK (Resident): That bridge collapse was a huge symbol that things are not okay here at home. And it's not lost on us that the symbolism between our most basic foundations crumbling beneath our feet is exactly what's going on in this country.

HEADLEE: Rick Hanson, from the group Military Families Speak Out, says time is of the essence.

Mr. RICK HANSON (Military Families Speak Out): Too many kids do not have until September. Another hundred anonymous Iraqis didn't have until yesterday. Keith, we implore you to return to Washington exhausted from your August in Minnesota to use your brain, your heart, and your very body to end this war.

HEADLEE: The crowd is respectful tonight. But a few months earlier, it was a different scene altogether. Ellison voted in favor of supplemental war funding this spring. His constituents were irate and they let him know. Now at this meeting several people tell him they don't want him to approve a single dime of further spending for Iraq. But he's not making any promises.

Rep. ELLISON: I have the courage to face your disapproval, okay? Do you understand what I'm saying? Now, I am going to vote to get us out of this war the best way I know how. If the best we could do is a timeline bill, I'm not guaranteeing you I'm not going to vote for it.

HEADLEE: The meeting lasts for hours and people are still lining up at the microphone to make comments when Keith Ellison thanks everyone for coming and gathers up his notes. The next day at a coffee shop near his office, he says he's always been against the Iraq war. But he traveled there with an open mind. The success of the surge, ha says, has been mixed.

Rep. ELLISON: I think I was willing to see progress there, and as I acknowledged before, you know, the level of violence in Ramadi has diminished. I'm not trying to take any credit away from anybody who's made it more peaceful in Ramadi. Good for them. But you got to understand that as Ramadi gets more peaceful, the reason for our military occupation of Ramadi goes down. It doesn't go up.

HEADLEE: The Congressman says the September report from General Petraeus will be a watershed moment. It will be a moment, he says, for measured calm evaluation, and then decisive action.

Rep. ELLISON: I'm going to read the report, and I'm going to use my best judgment. But I will confess that I can't see how this war that was wrong from the start and where there's one area in the country where there has been a reduction in the level of conflict but much of that credit goes to the local authorities who took on al-Qaida, I don't know how then puts me in a position where now I'm some sort of supporter of this thing. I'm not a supporter of it, and I think that we're not really in a war anymore. What we're in is an occupation. You can't win an occupation. You can either prolong it or you can get out expeditiously. And I think we need to get out of there as soon as we can.

HEADLEE: And in fact whatever the content of the report, Ellison says this time around, he won't support any additional money for the war in Iraq unless it's to bring the troops home.

Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Minneapolis.

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