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Thursday, August 11, 2005 | In presidential elections, Ohio is known as both a battleground and a bellwether state, and for good reason: It’s a battleground because it can go either way, and had John Kerry won its 20 electoral votes in November – he led in many Ohio polls – he would be president today. It’s a bellwether because in nine of the past 10 elections winning Ohio meant winning the presidency.
As we saw in last week’s special congressional election, Ohio remains a battleground. The election came the day before 16 Ohio Marine Reserves were killed in two separate attacks during a bloody week in which 29 Americans died in Iraq. Most of the 16 Ohioans were members of 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment and came from the Columbus region. That sort of devastation happens to communities when reserves are sent into war. Regular units are not community-based.
The special Ohio election was to fill a vacated Republican seat in Cincinnati, which is Republican territory. The Democratic candidate, Paul Hackett, is an Iraqi war veteran and had he won he would be the first such veteran to serve in Congress. But Hackett was also fiercely critical of President Bush in his campaign, calling Bush’s “bring ’em on” challenge to Iraqi insurgents “the most incredibly stupid comment” he’d ever heard from a president, one that “cheered on the enemy.”
For Hackett’s opponent, Republican Jean Schmidt, the election was a referendum on Bush’s policies, and she expected to win easily. Republican Rob Portman, named earlier this year by Bush as the U.S. trade representative, had won the seat six times, averaging about 70 percent of the vote. Bush won the district over Kerry last November with 64 percent.
Apparently even some diehard Cincinnati Republicans saw the truth in what Hackett was saying, for Schmidt came nowhere close to Portman’s numbers. Schmidt, who said she shared Bush’s “moral values” such as opposing abortion and gay marriage, won, 52-48 percent, but Hackett clearly changed some minds. Schmidt’s margin of victory was 3,500 out of more than 112,000 votes cast.
The Iraq war is remote to the lives of most Americans. Even though national support for Bush’s war has fallen to 38 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, its remoteness sustains it. Unlike Vietnam, where the headlines trumpeted rising U.S. casualties every morning, Iraq, except on bloody days like last week, is quietly relegated to inside pages when it is reported at all.
Reporters don’t go to many of the areas where the fighting is worst, so unless an entire Marine company is wiped out, we don’t hear about most U.S. military casualties, which stand at 1,821 as I write. Iraqi civilian deaths, estimated by Iraq Body Count, stand at 23,000-26,000. How many of those deaths made the front pages?
Vice President Dick Cheney, who, like Bush, avoided the Vietnam War, said last spring that Iraqi opposition to the occupation was “in its last throes.” But this summer, the third summer of this abortive adventure, attacks on U.S. forces are running nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago, according to U.S. military figures, 68 attacks per day against 47 per day last July. According to the AP, 2,100 Iraqis, mostly civilians, have been killed since the new Iraqi government was installed April 28.
The Bush line is that the political situation will change next week (Aug. 15) when a new Iraqi constitution is expected to be completed. It is the same line we heard before April 28. The truth is that neither date is significant because neither has anything to do with the cause of Iraqi opposition and U.S. casualties – the U.S. military occupation.
The Administration says it will begin a gradual reduction of U.S. occupation forces after the new constitution is in place, but such intentions are more related to Bush’s political slippage than to any military reality. Bush’s war has fractured a former unitary nation, sending its majority Shiite population into the embrace of Iran and driving Kurds and Sunnis apart in the north. A partial withdrawal of U.S. forces will change none of that. Nothing will change until the occupation ends.
In war, winners and losers are determined by the rapport des forces, which is not limited to military forces alone. Algerians triumphed over France and Vietnamese over Americans not because their armed forces were stronger but because they had greater popular support, which translated into greater political will. For the French and American occupier to have remained longer in either country would have achieved nothing except more casualties. It is the same in Iraq.
To honor his 75th birthday a century ago, William Dean Howells was asked by the city of New York to make a statement to be read in every city school. Howells, a leading novelist and critic of the day whose column in Harper’s gave him a nationwide audience, decided to speak out on the Spanish-American war, which, until Bush’s war, occupied the highest place in America’s pantheon of bad wars. Here’s part of what Howells said:
“When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.”
Yes, we do have more light than other countries, which is what makes it such a tragedy when that light is dimmed, as it is today.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.