For the 2008 presidential candidates, at least, there are few destinations more sought after these days than Baghdad.
After all, there’s no better, more immediate way to boost foreign policy credentials than by making multiple trips to the theater of war. But for Republicans and Democrats with no access to a Congressional delegation, an administration post or a Department of Defense tour, a ticket to Iraq is extremely hard to come by.
“You just can’t hop on a flight to Iraq,” said Anthony Carbonetti, a senior advisor to Rudy Giuliani, who has never been to Iraq. “A Senator or Congressman can go in a Congressional delegation. Do they have easier access? Yes.”
John Edwards, a former Senator from North Carolina and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also has never visited Baghdad. Between nonstop campaigning and the limitations of civilian status, his window to do so is rather narrow.
On May 6, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Edwards on the Sunday news program This Week why he had never been to Iraq. He said that he had been busy running for president when the war started and since then, “I’ve been a civilian, and we’re actually, at this moment, trying to figure out a way for me to get into Iraq as a civilian.”
When asked whether he intended to visit, he said, “If there’s any way I can go, I’m going.”
Apparently he still hasn’t found a way to go.
Getting to Iraq as a civilian is tough to begin with. But for a presidential candidate, who would require a significant security detail, probably some high level meetings with Iraqi officials and military officers to make the trip worthwhile, and trustworthy transportation around the deadly streets of Baghdad, a simple travel agent won’t do.
“There is definitely value in our legislators going but I don’t think that anyone running for president should be judged on whether they have been to Iraq or not,” said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Fred Thompson, who has never been to Iraq. “You would have to arrange it as a private trip, and it would have to be consistent with our rules. I’m sure it’s not entirely insurmountable. I’m sure the government would help out if you paid your own way. But logistically, it’s not an easy thing.”
Incumbent members of Congress, on the other hand, have it easy.
According to one Senate staffer, any member can be part of a Congressional delegation. To be eligible for military flights to and from the region, the delegation needs to be bipartisan, and given the massive amount of security the officials require, generally no more than 14 members can be in the country at any one time.
Most of the candidates currently serving in the Senate have taken advantage of the opportunity to get a better appreciation for military strategy, troop morale and everyday conditions facing Americans and Iraqis. Not to mention some useful first-hand experience for those town hall anecdotes.
John McCain, who just returned from his sixth trip to Iraq this week, is using the visit as a springboard for a major speech on the war planned for Friday. Joe Biden, the Senator from Delaware and chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee has been seven times and Hillary Clinton’s three visits helped her first build a hawkish reputation and then gave her the sufficient military gravitas to judge the mission futile.
Barack Obama has been once. Chris Dodd has made three trips to Iraq with Congressional delegations since the war started, in 2003, 2005, and 2006.
Other candidates made sure that they got an Iraq visit under their belt while they had the chance.
Governor Bill Richardson, a former Congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has the unusual distinction of having directly negotiated, in 1995, with Saddam Hussein for the release of two captured American oil workers.
Early in 2006, Mitt Romney, as Governor of Massachusetts, requested a trip to Baghdad with the Department of Defense, which sponsored tours for governors who wanted to meet with guard or reserve units. After visiting Iraq in May of last year he told the Boston Globe, “It would be a severe mistake for us to cut and run.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also made use of the Department of Defense program, and after visiting Iraq in January of last year said on his monthly radio program that, judging from what he had seen, the war wasn’t going as badly as the media made it seem.
“From my perspective, we are not getting the full story here,” Mr. Huckabee said at the time, adding, “What you’re not getting is the story of what’s going right.”
Former Wisconsin Governor and Republican candidate Tommy Thompson visited Iraq in February 2004 in his capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Still, even some members of Congress who are running for president have opted not to avail themselves of the government’s assistance. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a peripheral Republican candidate who opposes the war, thinks it’s a waste of money.
“He does not take taxpayer funded junkets,” said Jesse Benton, a spokesman for the Paul campaign. “Ron doesn’t necessarily think that outside groups paying for congressmen to travel is necessarily a bad thing, if it is done transparently.”
So far, nobody has offered to pay his way.
Despite serving as a representative from Ohio, antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich says that he hasn’t had the chance to go.
“The opportunity hasn’t presented itself,” said spokesman Andy Juniewicz, who offered another war zone instead. “Last year he went to Lebanon with his wife and toured bombed-out areas of Beirut.”
Other long-shot candidates have tried to make the most of domestic destinations with Iraq connections.
“The next best thing is to go to Walter Reed,” said Alex Colvin, a spokesman for former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, referring to the military hospital in Washington, D.C. “We go to Walter Reed.”