On Sunday April 29, West Michigan Congressman Vern Ehlers appeared on WOOD TV’s “To the Point” program to discuss the war in Iraq. In the interview, Representative Ehlers’ talked at length about the recent funding bill passed by the House of Representatives and vetoed by President George W. Bush, why he believes that the United States cannot leave Iraq, the success of Bush’s escalation of the war (“the surge”), and his views of President Bush.
As has been the case at recent appearances at the Ford Museum, Calvin College, and in the local media, Ehlers positioned himself as a moderate critic of the war. In recent weeks, he has criticized the prewar planning and in statements such as this one on “To the Point:”
Albin: But just looking back over that period of time [since Ehlers’ vote authorizing the use of force in 2002], how much differently has this [the war] played out than you had hoped it would?
Ehlers: Very differently and precisely the wrong way from my perspective. And I’m not here to blast any particular group or person except for one person, because I argued directly with him, and that’s Mr. Paul Wolfowitz, who has been in the headlines lately for problems he’s having in the World Bank, his new job. He was second in command of the Pentagon and they would come in, give us briefings about the plans and so forth, and I talked to him twice after these briefings because I have lived abroad and I know how different cultures are in different countries and I didn’t see that he or anyone else in the Pentagon really understood the mentality of the Iraqi people, of the Arab people, and how they view this. And I, after one presentation, I said “Paul, I know that you can go in with the limited troops that you have, I know you can overthrow Saddam Hussein, and get him out of power, but what then?” And his answer just shocked me. He said, “Well, they’ll just be so happy to see us, so happy to get rid of Saddam Hussein, they’ll welcome us, we’ll just put together a new government, and we’ll leave.” And I said, “where’s the money going to come from for this?” And he said “From the oil revenues.” And I said to his face, twice, “You are incredibly naive, it just doesn’t happen that way when you invade another country, you know, you have to understand the culture of the people.”
Despite making these criticisms privately in 2003, in public Ehlers was a consistent supporter of the war, raising the prospect of a nuclear explosion over Calder Plaza that could kill 300,000 West Michigan residents. He voted to send the United States to Iraq in October of 2002, and in January of 2003, told the Grand Rapids Press that he predicated his vote “on whether he’s [Saddam Hussein] is likely to produce weapons of mass destruction.” With no weapons of mass destruction found, Ehlers has never publicly questioned the rationale for the war or commented on the intelligence distortions. Furthermore, Albin never brought up Ehlers’ voting record or his statements in support of the war.
Instead, Ehlers has defended the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. While he criticized Wolfowitz and the pre-war planning on “To the Point,” he had little criticism of the Bush administration’s policy. Ehlers defended “the surge,” responding to a question about its likely effectiveness by stating that he likes General Petraeus and his plan, stating that Petraeus is “working hard at improving the life for the Iraqis as a whole.” Ehlers offered no proof that this is the case, and host Rick Albin did not not ask for any proof, despite the fact that numerous reports have questioned the effectiveness of “the surge” and its ability to stabilize the country.
Ehlers once again asserted his belief that the United States cannot leave Iraq, but put a new spin on it when he explained that the United States has a moral obligation to stabilize Iraq. According to Representative Ehlers:
I think the basic issue is what is our responsibility to Iraq and to the Iraqi people. As far as I am concerned, we have gone in, we have made a huge mess, we’ve put a lot of people in danger, I think it is immoral for us to just say “ok, sorry, we’ve made a mess, your life is in danger but we’re going to leave, we can’t deal with it.” I think we have a moral obligation to try to stabilize the country, try to get a government established before we pull out.
Ehlers was not asked about whether or not the United States presence is driving much of the violence in Iraq, an argument that has been made frequently by those studying the motivations of the Iraqi insurgency. Additionally, while Ehlers is correct to assert that the United States has a responsibility to the Iraqi people, which it has as an occupying force under international law. However, Ehlers ignored the bigger question of what the United States’ legal obligations are in Iraq. Ehlers also argued that militarily it would not make sense to leave Iraq by announcing a withdrawal date because the enemy would “just wait us out, watch us leave, wave goodbye, and do their mischief.” Albin failed to follow up on who exactly “the enemy” is, although later in the program Ehlers mentioned “Islamic jihadists” and asserted that the United States’ presence in Iraq is “a huge issue as to how we are going to relate to the Middle East.”