The Times, Trenton

Smith Faces Anti-War Activists

Lawmaker opposes deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal

The Times of Trenton — Friday, August 17, 2007

BY ANDREW KITCHENMAN

HAMILTON — Twelve anti-war activists got their chance to try to sway the vote of a U.S. Congressman yesterday. But Rep. Chris Smith, R-Hamilton, stood his ground, turning the tables on them and questioning what they would do to save the government of Iraq from collapse.

After seeking to confront Smith in recent weeks and an Aug. 7 rally at his office while he was away, the activists met the congressman in a small conference room yesterday and talked about his positions on Iraq. Neither side changed their views, but both Smith and the activists welcomed the chance to make their case.

Smith told the group he won't vote to set a deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq when the country could be on the brink of a civil war.

"Is that acceptable – that they might have a genocidal civil war?" Smith asked.

Washington Township resident Ed Dunphy said it's too late to prevent problems in Iraq.

"The fact is, it's already collapsed," Dunphy said.

While the residents' passion on the subject was obvious, both they and Smith largely remained civil.

One tense moment came when residents expressed frustration with Smith for his refusal to answer a hypothetical question of whether he would support military action against Iran. When one person said President Bush "could take us through the gates of hell and you would follow him," Smith responded sharply, "I have proven over 27 years that I am not a follower."

Smith presented the residents with a list of pre-war quotes from Democrats who expressed concerns about Saddam Hussein's history with weapons of mass destruction. The congressman said that while anti-war activists have targeted Republicans, members of both parties supported authorizing force against Iraq.

Smith explained why he supports the use of force, which he said was based on intelligence presented to Congress, Saddam's treatment of weapons inspectors and Saddam's brutal treatment of Iraqis.

"We thought there could be a matriculation to democracy rather quickly," Smith said.

Smith said war planners didn't correctly foresee the bombings and other actions taken by militants after the initial fighting.

"That wasn't adequately factored in winning the peace," Smith said.

Smith said military leaders must develop an exit strategy, but that a withdrawal date shouldn't be publicized because extremists could time a civil war based on the withdrawal.

Rena Amada, a retired home day-care worker from Manchester, asked Smith whether he would agree that the war was a mistake. After Smith said it was right to try to give Iraq an opportunity at democracy, Amada said, "war is not the answer."

Rena Amada's husband, Leonard Amada, a retired sales manager and World War II veteran, said it would be impossible for the U.S. to impose a democracy in Iraq.

The goal isn't to "win" the war, but to create space for reconciliation between Iraqis, Smith said.

Liz Arnone of Brick asked how Smith would react to an anti-war candidate next year. He said he doesn't consider the political implications of issues of "war and peace."

"I absolutely do not bring politics into it and I never will," he said.

While Smith expressed hope that the Iraqi army and police are improving, Sandra Davis of Hightstown, a retired marketing employee, said that much of the army and police are infiltrated by militias and that the Iraqi government is failing to function.

"Why should our troops die for people who won't help themselves?" she asked.

Smith said U.S. troops already are moving toward a training role. He asked the residents what they thought would happen should the troops leave.

Herbert Johnson, a retired vocational-technical teacher, said that Iraq would have a civil war similar to the American Civil War.

"It's their responsibility," he said.

Bob Laverty, an East Windsor Regional school board member, asked Smith why his positions on Iraq aren't as prominent on his Web site as his work in other areas, such as international human rights and veterans affairs.

"We're looking at you to be more skeptical," Laverty said.

Smith, a senior member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has asked tough questions about Iraq and Iran, noting that he has asked former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to aid in the release of those who are wrongly imprisoned in his country.

The congressman said he works "day in and day out" on issues related to Iraq, including hearings on human trafficking that prompted changes in how the military uses immigrant labor.

He said he is waiting for Gen. David Petraeus's report next month on the recent increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Roosevelt resident Bob Silverstein, who works on Web sites and writes about science for children, said he believes that Smith took what the group said to heart.

After the meeting, Eve Weissman of New Jersey Citizen Action expressed disappointment that Smith hasn't committed to coming to a public meeting in Jackson with anti-war protesters. Smith said the meeting with residents demonstrated his interest in meeting with those opposed to the war.

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