Iraq and the Trans-Atlantic Split: A View from the American Heartland
For Nebraska, a prairie state with 1.7 million residents in the center of the United States, the war in Iraq is far from an abstract matter. With its small population and low unemployment, the state has been significantly affected by the call-up of reservists. The transfer of these citizen-soldiers to active duty has raised concerns about the loss of law enforcement officers and medical staff. Three percent of Nebraska State Patrol members have been called to military service so far, and a more extensive call-up of reservists could cost the force almost 10 percent of its officers. In one town near Omaha, a complete call-up would pull away nearly one-fifth of the community's police force.
Surprisingly, when U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, a veteran congressional leader on foreign policy who has represented the state's 1st district since 1979, recently held nine town meetings over a two-week period in eastern Nebraska, almost no questions were asked about Iraq. This in a district that includes the university and state-government center of Lincoln! (Bereuter himself also plays a leading role in foreign affairs; he was recently elected president of the NATO parliamentary assembly.) A newspaper reporter found the lack of comment so unexpected that he wrote an article focusing on that point.
Whatever the reasons for the lack of comment at the congressman's meetings, one factor can't be a lack of alternative information sources beyond the familiar CNN-style coverage. The "BBC America" news channel is available on cable television in eastern Nebraska. In Omaha, each weeknight a public radio station broadcasts an hour of BBC news as well as the Canadian news program "As It Happens."
In Nebraska, as elsewhere, says John Comer, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), "you can have your own satellite dish which links to a lot of different news sources. I think it's more a question of motivation and a function of one's level of education."
Bereuter himself comments that Nebraskans seem to have a wide array of access to information on developments in Iraq, even if they can't pick up a copy of the special sections on the Iraq campaign produced daily by newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. "I don't think there is that much difference in access," he says.
Nor can it be said that this is a result of Nebraska's "isolation" from the events of the day. The University of Nebraska Medical Center, a state-run medical school in Omaha, is under serious consideration to become a national bioterrorism research laboratory. The U.S. Strategic Command, located at Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha, was significantly revamped last year. The command has absorbed the U.S. Space Command formerly located in Colorado Spring, Colo., and taken on a variety of new duties beyond StratCom's traditional focus on strategic nuclear weapons. Some of those tasks, such as involvement with satellite surveillance, are relevant to the Iraq campaign. The command has also been given authority over missile defense and research into using conventional and nuclear-equipped missiles for bunker-busting purposes.
Which is not to say that antiwar sentiment has been absent in Nebraska. Of the many letters and telephone calls received on the Iraq issue by U.S. representatives from the two urban districts in eastern Nebraska, the clear majority have been against U.S. military action.
A prominent voice in these discussions has been Nebraska's senior U.S. senator, Chuck Hagel. A Republican who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, he was outspoken in urging caution in the months leading up to the start of allied action against Iraq. In a curious twist, Nebraskans for Peace, a long-time activist group best known for opposing the state's death penalty, has repeatedly pointed to Hagel's cautionary statements in an effort to bolster its arguments against a U.S. campaign against Iraq.
Comer observes: "The common ground between what is clearly a minority organization in terms of numbers in a state where ‘patriotism' -- in quotes -- is the order of the day is perhaps remarkable in itself. But the marriage of an organization like Nebraskans for Peace and a U.S. senator is, I think, somewhat unique." Not that Hagel, who was up for re-election to a second term last year, suffered politically from his lukewarm attitude toward the Bush policy on Iraq. On the contrary, the state Democratic Party put forward no party-backed challenger. The only Democrat challenging him on the ballot was a pauper candidate. Republican activists did not voice public disagreement with Hagel's stance on Iraq, although his failure to endorse the Bush policy prior to the start of military action probably did not sit well with some of the state's GOP loyalists.
What explains the leeway that Hagel receives in Nebraska as he voices foreign policy views so independent of the Republican administration's? Several factors: Hagel is a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat, and that status provides him with a measure of respect whenever the discussion in Nebraska turns to matters of war and peace. His forceful, articulate nature seems to strike a positive chord among many Nebraskans.
Republican activists in Nebraska have been grateful to Hagel for helping the state GOP move beyond its factionalism to regain one of the state's U.S. seats from Democratic control. Although Hagel rocks the Republican boat with his internationalist foreign policy stances, in most other areas of policy he has usually been a reliable vote for positions advocated by the administration and the Republican leadership in the Senate.