JEFFERSON CITY — The last time Missourians voted for a U.S. senator, the war in Iraq was a pivotal issue. It was, in fact, one of the reasons cited by Republican Sen. Jim Talent as to why he lost to Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill.
That was 2006.
Four years later, the scaled-back war in Iraq has seldom been mentioned in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Rep. Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. In fact, national security issues in general have been superseded by domestic issues — the economy, energy policies, health care and government spending.
Unlike the candidates four years ago, Blunt and Carnahan both generally agree with President Barack Obama's current troop surge in Afghanistan. And they both express reservations about Obama's schedule to begin withdrawing those troops.
But Carnahan and Blunt, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, differ on nuclear policies and the continued detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
Blunt and Carnahan answered several questions about national security policies in separate interviews this past week with The Associated Press. Here are their responses:
Question: What do you believe is the greatest threat to the security of the United States? And how should it be addressed?
Blunt: "The greatest threat to the country's security right now is the threat of our terrorist enemies and the attacks that they are likely to launch that will be indiscriminate.
"We need to be sure that we're trying to do all we can to disrupt their activities, to monitor their communication and to send every possible message that the retaliation for those acts of terror would be significant and costly for them."
Carnahan: "We face a number of grave threats, including transnational extremists, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, and particularly hostile regimes like Iran and North Korea." She also cited the national debt and the "addiction to foreign oil."
"All of those are going to take someone to be thoughtful about how to keep America safe ... and not turn these kind of national security issues into a political football."
Question: More U.S. and NATO forces have been killed this year in Afghanistan than in any year since the war began in 2001. President Barack Obama has increased U.S. troops there to about 100,000 in an effort to turn back the Taliban, and he plans to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. Do you support his strategy? Why or why not?
Carnahan: Supports the troop surge and agrees the U.S. cannot make an open-ended commitment for troops in Afghanistan. But she expresses reservations about the July 2011 target to begin withdrawing troops.
"I don't think the specific date is realistic," she said. "I think it needs to depend on what conditions on the ground are like and whether other objectives are being met."
Blunt: Generally supports the surge as a way to challenge the Taliban but opposes the scheduled July 2011 beginning date for troop withdrawals.
"I think the surge, from the first moment, was significantly undermined by announcing a deadline where we would leave," he said. "If we announce that we have an 18-month plan for Afghanistan, the Taliban only has to come up with a 19-month plan."
Question: President Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for suspected terrorists within his first year as president. That hasn't happened yet. Do you support efforts to close that site? And do you believe terrorist suspects should be tried in U.S. courts?
Blunt: No on both.
He said the Guantanamo Bay site should remain open because "it does not create additional targets in the United States for those who follow the same ideology of the people that are held there."
He also believes that people captured as part of the war against terrorists — who have not committed acts on U.S. soil — should not be tried in U.S. courts. "We have never given our military enemies access to civilian courts," he said.
Carnahan: Supports efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay site but opposes trials in U.S. courts for terrorist suspects.
"We have a system of military tribunals that was set up just for the purpose of trying folks like this," she said.
"I understand that they haven't come up with a good alternative to Guantanamo yet, but I hope they'll continue to work on that, so that it stops representing to the rest of the world and our enemies a way to recruit more folks to attack us," she said.
Question: The U.S. has participated in sanctions against both Iran and North Korea in an attempt to discourage their development of nuclear weapons. Do you believe sanctions are the best course of action, or should some additional action be taken?
Carnahan: Supports sanctions against Iran and North Korea that include an international consensus, including from countries such as China and Russia.
"I'm pleased that recently they came up with a stronger set of sanctions, but we have to coordinate those with our allies around the world," she said.
Blunt: Believes the sanctions are too weak and that the U.S. should keep open the option of other actions.
"Sanctions would be fine if they were adequate to do the job," he said. But "sanctions that don't work actually make the situation worse, because they convince the people the government's doing something it's not actually doing."
Question: Earlier this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14-4 to ratify the New START treaty with Russia, which would reduce nuclear warheads for each country by about one-third and change inspection procedures. Would you vote to ratify the treaty? Why or why not?
"This is a place where we need to put politics aside and get that done," she said. "Folks who have looked at this feel like not only is it the right approach to reduce the number of nuclear arms, but it's done in a way that continues to make sure America can defend itself and stay safe in a very volatile world."
"The way they count the nuclear warheads is not adequate, and the things that are left out of the agreement are more to the advantage of the Russians than us," he said.
For example, he said, the treaty would count some weapons with multiple warheads as a single weapon, and Russia has more of those types of weapons than the U.S.