The candidates in the race for New York's new 21st Congressional District agree that it's time for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan, but their approaches to foreign conflicts differ.
Incumbent Congressman Bill Owens, Watertown businessman Matt Doheny and Don Hassig, who runs the advocacy group Cancer Action NY, will face off in the Nov. 6 election. Owens will be on the Democratic and Working Families party lines; Doheny has the Republican, Independence and Conservative party lines; and Hassig is running as a Green Party candidate.
Troops have been on the ground in Afghanistan since October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. More than 1,800 American troops have died in the war since it started.
(Enterprise file photos)
There were about 88,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan earlier this year, and that number was expected to drop to about 68,000 at the end of last month. Most U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Owens, an Air Force veteran who's on the House Armed Services Committee, said he's comfortable with the current phase-out of troops.
"I haven't heard any of the Joint Chiefs (of Staff) come in and tell us, 'You need to do it differently at this juncture,'" he said. "Do I think there's going to be some bumps in the road like we've had in Iraq? Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. But I also think that we have, in fact, done our duty there. We've spent lots of lives and lots of money, and it's time now to keep that program of pulling out under way."
Owens conceded that the chance of leaving the war-town country with some semblance of order isn't very high.
"If your goal is to turn over security and policing at some point ... I think we've stayed the course as well as we can and should," Owens said. "It's time to get out. They need now to work it out amongst themselves."
Doheny said it's time for Afghanistan to "control its own fate" and provide its own security, but he's concerned that establishing a firm timetable for withdrawal could lead to more violence. He said he doesn't want al Qaeda or the Taliban to know the exact date that U.S. combat troops will leave the country.
"I don't like to announce to the world, the people who are our enemies, exactly what our plans are," Doheny said. "I'd much prefer that we rely on the atmosphere and the facts on the ground as well as the military's decision."
Hassig has stood firm on his call for U.S. to make its military an "all-defensive" one. He said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of "offensive wars" that never should have happened in the first place.
"An offensive war is a military operation that is commenced by attacking another sovereign entity when that entity poses no credible, serious threat of imminent danger to the United States," Hassig said. "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are offensive wars. Neither country posed any credible serious threat of imminent danger to the United States."
For Doheny, the mission in Afghanistan has been successful in the sense that the U.S. "broke the Taliban" and weakened al Qaeda.
"But our goal was never to run the country forever," he said.
Unrest and violence continues in countries like Libya and Syria, and Afghanistan could see more discord after U.S. troops are withdrawn. Owens said he believes the U.S. should not redeploy troops to countries like Afghanistan or put boots on the ground for the foreseeable future.
"First of all, I don't think the public would support that, and I don't think it's in our strategic interest to do that," he said. "My line is: Do we have evidence that this country is going to pose a threat to the United States? In other words, be a source of attacks against the United States. Or do they pose such a threat to world security that we need to make a move?"
Owens said he prefers the level of U.S. military involvement in Libya, with air power and missiles but not ground troops.
Doheny noted that the decision to go to war rests with the commander in chief, which is why he believes the presidential election is so important. The financial oversight, Doheny said, rests with Congress. Owens also noted that Congress has control of military spending.
"There has to be a clear and compelling U.S. interest," Doheny said. "We cannot be everything to every country in the world. But at some point time, if it does become a compelling U.S. interest - where we have to remove al Qaeda training grounds, or our economy and our way of life are being injured - then we have to step in and intervene."
In 2011, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, introduced the War Powers Reform Act. The bill, which has been referred to committee, would amend the War Powers Resolution to keep the U.S. out of armed conflicts overseas in the absence of a war declaration, a statutory obligation tied to a treat, or a national emergency caused by an attack or imminent threat. Gibson, a retired Army colonel, is running for re-election in New York's new 19th Congressional District against Democrat Julian Schreibman.
Owens said he's had some "pretty intense conversations" with Gibson about the bill. Owens said he hasn't made a decision about whether he would vote for it.
"I think it's a good idea," Owens said. "I suspect (Gibson) will reintroduce it in the next Congress. If he does, I'll sit down with him and go through it. ... Right now I just continue to have some concerns about whether or not it provides enough leeway to deal with emergency situations."
Asked if he would support the legislation, Doheny didn't hesitate.
"I would be a co-sponsor," he said.
Hassig said he would rather see Congress pass a law prohibiting offensive wars.
"This would be a better legislative action than enactment of the War Powers Reform Act," he said.