New York debates Iraq

A series of debates about US foreign policy ranged from dull predictability to childish ranting. Isn't there another way?

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

With over 600 people in the elegant main hall of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (and more than 200 turned away at the door), WNYC Radio host Brian Lehrer hosted a discussion entitled ‘Were We Misled?’ (1).

Arguing for the motion was David Corn, Washington correspondent for The Nation, Fox News contributor and author of The Lies of George W Bush. In the same corner was Bob Graham, former Democratic Senator of Florida and 2004 candidate for president. Against the motion was the now-infamous Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair columnist and author of more than 10 books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. He was supported by Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University and member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, as well as a former member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

The event kicked off with some tapes being played of former statements made by former secretary of state Colin Powell to the United Nations, and by US president George W Bush saying that there ‘was no question that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction’. It was a somewhat Orwellian moment when we then heard later tapes denying such stories. Many sniggers occurred after tapes recording defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s shifting position; from there being ‘No doubt that [Saddam] has chemical and biological weapons and he is….working on nuclear weapons’ to a later recording ‘this administration and others, all along agreed there were chemical and biological weapons but…not nuclear ones…’.

Bob Graham posed the now much argued position that the Department of Energy (which has the most experience with the ways in which uranium can be enriched) was ignored by the CIA specifically with regard to aluminium tubes that were discovered. When Lehrer asked him directly if he thought the president had lied, he bowed out and said that the information presented to the public was different to that presented in private. Well there’s a surprise.

In fact, the very title of the event belies the petulant implication of the question; that we were all duped and lied to. To his credit, Hitchens made this point, in his own inimitable style, telling people to grow up and stop whining. However, while he may be right about that, he should apply the same (often compelling logic) to his own arguments. Hitchens has become a huge promoter of the cause for Western intervention in Iraq, with a complete disregard for any discussion of national self-determination and the autonomy of sovereign states.

While Hitchens’ deadly accurate portrayal of the long history of CIA lies and cover ups hits the mark, he then seems to jettison his critical faculties by rolling out mantras about ‘mad mullahs, Islamo-fascists and psychopaths’, as though these fairy tale terms shed any light on the course of action required in contemporary Iraq. His argument, simply put, is that the world is better off and less in danger of al-Qaeda attacks and other scary ‘ Jihadist terror’ threats since the West finished the job it started back in 1991. One wonders how such a smart and funny writer on so many issues is able to collapse into banal clichés in order to legitimate acts of war. The fact that he has recently completed a book on Thomas Jefferson seems not to affect his view. One wonders how he believes democracy can ever be imposed from above, rather than being a consequence of collective struggle, as in the American Revolution.

Ruth Wedgwood was determined to repose every question as one of jurisprudence, and invited us to consider ‘if cocaine goes in and no cocaine goes out, what are we to conclude?’ (the cocaine in this case being weapons). Meanwhile, David Corn became increasingly animated and distraught as the evening continued, with emotive yelling conveying his obvious anger at the Bush administration (and Hitchens).

The debate never considered in any depth the ideas of democracy, or what it means to believe in a set of ideals and be willing to fight and die for them. Unfortunately the debate’s title illustrates the narrow terms of the discussion – and participants did little to expand upon this. There was no real opportunity for the audience to engage with the panel, except for a short question that could be written down on a card – of which two ended up being put to the speakers.

The following evening, Hitchens was billed again, this time in a debate against Playthell Benjamin, WBAI radio host and also a journalist for Vanity Fair among others, with Michael Wolff chairing, entitled ‘The Thrilla in Manhattan-illa’ (2). It was indeed very much reminiscent of a boxing match, with some of the adrenalin one can expect from a Don King event. In reality, though the Cooper Union Hall certainly had an air of expectation, it quickly disintegrated into disappointment and, at times, mockery.

While Benjamin declared himself to be a real atheist, (the yardstick being when he faced death on a ship he was the only one who never prayed) his presentation at times seemed reminiscent of a sermon. We were reminded about the ‘blood-stained history of western imperialism’ as a general backdrop to understanding America and American foreign policy. He accused Hitchens of being ‘a learned man on a fool’s errand’ and declared that he did not care about Kuwait, or Iraq for that matter, as the entire issue had been dreamed up by the right-wing think-tank Project for a New American Century and then ‘put in to action’. He told us that ‘white people think African Americans are the same as them but a bit darker’ – however, ‘we look at things differently…. I’m worried about democracy in the USA’. While this got a big cheer and applause from some of the (increasingly agitated and noisy) audience, Hitchens came back with some ferocious jabbing and hooks of his own. Once again, however, he was poking at Islamo-fascism.

I put it to both speakers that rather than them both ranting on about ‘fascists and Nazis’ it was better to have a sober, calm and considered debate. I then specifically asked Hitchens why he felt compelled to play up the obsession with terror: are we not, after all, in danger of elevating a relatively minor threat of terror into an international self-fulfilling prophecy? His answer traversed national self-determination for the Kurds (‘I won’t let anyone patronize them, I won’t‘) through to him being able to ‘decide myself on a position’ that may indeed correspond with the current establishment, but that is ‘a decision I have come up with myself’.

The debate almost entirely collapsed at one point, with the chair, Michael Wolff (supposedly Vanity Fair’s enfant terrible but looking like a lost little boy with the larger lads) unable to control the sniping and bickering remarks of the two speakers and the audience screaming, booing and cheering.

As I was walking back to the west village in Manhattan, I reflected on how depressing the last two evenings of debates had been. One debate where the audience did not get to participate and the panellists regurgitated tired positions; the other where it was more like a school yard scrap.

I pondered finally on the debate I attended on Tuesday evening, held by The Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation at The Graduate Center. Entitled ‘Should we stay or should we go?’, it at least attempted to interrogate the ideas behind being America’s involvement in Iraq a little more. Unfortunately, here too, the speakers, (General) William Odom (against the motion) and Peter Brookes (for the motion) could only seem to fall back on competing versions of fear to motivate their arguments. While Odom presented a bleak view that if the US stayed, terror would increase and more lives will be lost, Brookes painted a picture of unparalleled doom if the US were to leave – affecting Turkey, Syria and beyond where a ‘domino effect’ would result in ‘the next Caliphate’ being created and further horror (3).

Until we get some gravity into the debate on Iraq, and dissect the ideas behind the obsession with fear and terror that seem to be infecting all sides, we will be faced with juvenile and superficial arguments that shed little light on the situation. We deserve to take the subject, and ourselves, far more seriously than that.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.

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spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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