Friday, June 09, 2006

New campaign stop on road to White House

Yahoo! News
New campaign stop on road to White House

By DONNA CASSATA and MIKE GLOVER, Associated Press Writers

One government-issued helmet and body armor. Check.

One trip to Iraq to visit the troops. Check.

Those are typically the two boxes marked off in the national security category on any White House hopeful's resume.

More than half the nation's governors, including many with presidential aspirations, have traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign hotspots in recent years. These Pentagon-arranged visits provide opportunities to meet military leaders, visit hometown soldiers and reservists, and get at least a taste of the experience of war.

In a post-Sept. 11 world, the nation wants its presidential candidates to be prepared to become the next commander in chief. A military background, expertise in foreign policy or at least a solid understanding of national security is a necessity.

Senators seeking the presidency often can cite years on a congressional panel focused on the military or foreign affairs. Some wonder if even that's enough, and point to trips overseas by two well-known faces on the Senate Armed Services Committee — Vietnam veteran John McCain, R-Ariz., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Governors can't offer a similar Washington background, and that's where the visits to Iraq and Afghanistan come in.

"You can stand there with potential competitors and say, 'The last time I was in Baghdad ...'" said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"It's hard to talk about the elephant if you haven't seen the elephant."

Krepinevich recalled how a young senator from Massachusetts with little more than one term in the Senate — but World War II experience — traveled to Vietnam before the 1960 presidential election. The senator was John F. Kennedy.

The most recent governor to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan was Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney, who is considering a White House run. Romney, 59, has no military background; he received a Vietnam-era deferment as a Mormon missionary in France, was eligible for the draft upon his return to the states but was never selected.

His last major opportunity to rub elbows with foreigners came when he ran the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

His Iraq itinerary late last month included meetings with Gen. George Casey, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as well as servicemembers from Massachusetts.

Another potential presidential candidate, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, said the governors travel under tight security, sleep at the compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and often get a chance to question troops as well as military leaders. Huckabee, 50, visited in January with three other governors.

"All of us had troops there," Huckabee, who was 18 when Saigon fell in April 1975, said in an interview. "What was most valuable to me was being able to pull my own folks aside and ask, 'Are you getting equipment?'" and other questions.

These tend to be cursory visits and it's an open question whether the politicians really learn very much or merely come back with their party-line views reinforced. Republicans return more upbeat than Democrats about progress in getting Iraqis to stand on their own, for example.

Huckabee said he wouldn't pretend that he has all the answers after just a few days in the region, but he spoke of the confidence he heard from Iraqis about shouldering more of the responsibilities and his conviction that U.S. troops cannot be entirely withdrawn before the end of the year.

He also asserted it is shortsighted to think of governors as too provincial to handle foreign policy.

"I've been to 40 countries around the world," he said. "I deal regularly with the consulars and ambassadors who come to our state. ... My first trip to the Mideast was in 1973 when I was 18. I've been to Israel nine times."

Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, another possible presidential candidate, recalled a spooky helicopter ride in April with Republican Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Jeb Bush of Florida, flying from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone.

"At one point in the trip there was this rather significant and brilliant flash of light that occurred, as if someone had put a spotlight on the helicopter," Vilsack, 55, said in an interview.

He said the group was told it was a defensive feature of the helicopter aimed at preventing attackers from locking onto the craft. Utility wires and microwaves can trigger the device, which is designed to sense when a weapon's tracking system has found the craft.

The Democrat observed major shortcomings in Iraqi logistics.

"There were roughly 250,000 individuals who were trained to be members of the Iraqi army," Vilsack said. "What was not in place was an Iraqi support system so the Iraqi army could basically function on its own."

Vilsack, who received a Vietnam-era college deferment and then a relatively high draft lottery number, said the number of U.S. troops is adequate, but he expressed concern about an equipment drain for the National Guard.

"I think the equipment issue is not so much Iraq and Afghanistan as it is Mount Pleasant, Iowa," Vilsack said. "When our National Guard troops come back, they don't bring their equipment back with them."

Vilsack, who made the trip while his state legislature was struggling to adjourn, brushed off questions about the timing or his motive. He said his purpose in going was to see his National Guard troops.

"What I wanted to do was to convey to them ... as their commander in chief, the pride I had in them," Vilsack said. Governors frequently refer to themselves as commander in chief — of their National Guard units.

It's a term that resonates with voters and surely stirs a governor's bigger dreams.


Associated Press writer Mike Glover reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Glen Johnson in Boston contributed to this report.