Ueshiba said something about drawing people outside their power base (i.e. off balance), which makes even the strongest person easy to control.
Distancing is very very important in my aikido. Also, it is not so much whether you are near or far, but whether you allow uke into you 'special area' in front of you. i.e. within your extension range. If you do, uke can strike you before you can move.
However this means you can also strike uke. Therefore, I think it is useful to learn good strikes because uke often leaves themselves open to striking. Also, such atemis enable you to do techniques from their defence. I would hate to see aikido turning into a martial art where you are always running backwards (and Ueshiba did not do this). But I think there is a certain amount of drawing uke towards you, even in the irimi techniques. When we do randori I never worry if people do not do a technique, as long as they are out of the way of the attack and don't get into a struggle. Ueshibas famous enlightenment (after facing a top navy bloke with a sword) did not involve techniques, but just evasion.
I quite like the fact that some people think aikido is crap because it stops those who want to use it for violence training. For myself I know it works very effectively in real life (because it once saved my life from an armed attack) and I'm pretty certain any other martial art I could have done would not have been as succesful. Saying this though, 'sincerity' in training definately has to be the key word in aikido due to the dynamic nature of the art, and the way we simulate combat.