At last Friday’s Spokane Republicans Breakfast Club, U.S. Senate Candidate Michael Baumgartner pretended to argue with an empty chair — both a riff on Clint Eastwood’s unique Republican Convention speech, and an attack on his debate-reluctant opponent, incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell.
Most of Baumgartner’s attacks were stock Republican jabs at the “government takeover of health care,” the massive national debt and stimulus spending.
But one stood out: his accusation against Cantwell’s support of “repeated poorly planned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Baumgartner — who spent 2007 and 2008 as an economics adviser to the Baghdad embassy — has made his anti-war stance a centerpiece of his campaign. (By contrast, Mitt Romney’s 4,000-word convention speech alluded to World War II and the Mexican Revolution, but didn’t utter “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” once.)
“We have greater threats coming from that part of the world,” Baumgartner says in an interview after the breakfast. “And I have no confidence in Senator Cantwell.”
Baumgartner paints Cantwell as an ardent supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a look at history reveals that it’s much more complicated.
Cantwell voted for the war in Iraq. But she also specifically stressed that it was not an “unconditional authorization,” saying she expected President George W. Bush to find a coalition of allies if the United Nations Security Council didn’t act. She warned the war could be a “huge, expensive and politically volatile endeavor,” and said she wasn’t endorsing the post-war strategy — because she hadn’t seen one.
“It was extremely poorly planned, and she voted for it,” Baumgartner says.
In the next decade, however, Cantwell voted for amendments to limit the war in Iraq to a year, to make funding conditional on an exit strategy, to require a timeline for pulling out and, in 2006, voted for troop withdrawal. She spoke out against the Iraq surge.
Back then, Baumgartner says, he was tasked by Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker to predict the impact of an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq. He thought it would be disastrous. And in this area, Baumgartner appears to be a bigger supporter of the war. He supported the surge. In 2007, at least, Baumgartner favored spending money in Iraq.
When it comes to Afghanistan, however, Baumgartner says he doesn’t fault Cantwell for the vote that led to the invasion. Three days after the World Trade Center attacks, not a single senator voted against the bill giving the president the power to use military force against terrorists.
His objection, he says, wasn’t with the initial invasion, but to the way the mission morphed from hunting Al-Qaeda to trying to spread democracy.
“We need to abandon the democracy-centered approach,” Baumgartner says. “The entire Afghan economy is $15 billion per year. We spend $10 billion a month fighting that war. … We create a lot of the corruption that plagues the country.”
He faults Cantwell for her support of the 2010 surge of 30,000 soldiers into Afghanistan. “We’re in a situation where we’re now involved in a multi-trillion dollar land war in Asia,” Baumgartner says. “Cantwell voted to expand that war.”
But Cantwell’s campaign says her vote to fund the Afghan surge also funded disaster relief for floods in Tennessee and the earthquake in Haiti, and only two Democrats voted against it.
And the same day as the 2010 surge vote, she was one of the few senators to vote for an amendment requiring a withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan. Her campaign highlights multiple statements by Cantwell pushing for a timetable and faster withdrawal from the region.
“Voters who want the strongest possible advocate for our troops and the quickest responsible end to the war in Afghanistan need look no further than Maria Cantwell,” campaign spokesman Kelly Steele says in an email.