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March 6, 2003

To go to war against Iraq or not: Panelists present differing views

A highly charged discussion of a potential U.S. war with Iraq ended in an impasse last week, as the four speakers remained firmly entrenched in their positions.

GSPIA professor and moderator Donald Goldstein told the audience of about 300 at the forum’s conclusion: “You came here and you’re not going to change your minds. But we’ve got to respect each other’s opinions. This is serious stuff. You don’t have to agree with any of [the speakers]. But they certainly were passionate.”

The Feb. 25 debate/discussion, “What should the United States do about Iraq now?” featured Bay Buchanan, president of The American Cause and former treasurer of the United States; Robert G. Hazo, director of Pitt’s American Experience program; Jack Kelly, national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, and Cyril Wecht, Allegheny County coroner.

The four speakers agreed on only two points: that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a brutal tyrant and that he likely does not yet possess nuclear-weapon capability.

The pro-war Kelly and Wecht said that the “butcher of Baghdad” should be deposed and, barring his unlikely acceptance of exile, killed or brought to trial; that a U.S. military strike on Iraq would be swift and clean (“The war will last 3-5 days, a week tops,” Wecht maintained), and that Iraq’s military and civilian population would widely support a U.S. invasion.

Of the two anti-war speakers, Hazo called President George W. Bush an “airhead, who knows nothing about foreign policy… who is either obsessed or ignorant,” and who is about to direct “hundreds of billions of dollars to put us in the position of committing geopolitical suicide.”

But Buchanan, while disagreeing fundamentally with the president’s Iraqi policy, expressed empathy for him. She said, “I think he’s sincere. It’s the president’s most important job to protect the American people.

President Bush believes our people are threatened. And if he believes it, he has an obligation to take action.”

Both doves agreed that chances were extremely slim that a war can be avoided.

Hazo said that only an internationally respected figure like former President Jimmy Carter or Pope John Paul II could mediate a way out of war, “but reality precludes optimism. I’m afraid the decision has already been made [to attack Iraq],” as evidenced by the more than 200,000 U.S. troops deployed in the Gulf region.

Buchanan said only Saddam’s acceptance of exile could allow the Bush administration to save face without going to war at this late stage.

Following are summaries of the four speakers’ arguments, in the order in which they spoke.

Robert Hazo

Focusing on a U.S.-Iraqi war’s uncertainties, Hazo said fundamental questions remained to be answered: What is America’s exit strategy? How much will a war with Iraq cost, and who will pay for it? Can the stagnant U.S. economy and overburdened taxpayers stand the additional budget deficits that likely will result? Will the United States be greeted in Iraq as liberators or enemies? Will Muslims consider an invasion of Iraq to be an attack on Islam, leading to a large-scale cross-cultural war? Will a U.S. presence in the region following a military conflict open the United States to more terrorism? How will a war affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other shaky relations in the Middle East? Is Saddam truly a threat to our national security?

Hazo maintained that North Korea and Iran, both of which are closer to becoming nuclear powers than Iraq, are greater threats to the United States than “this tin-pot dictator” Saddam.

He said that many U.S. allies who support Bush’s going to war “were bought. They’re not supporting him out of conviction.”

“We must try to stop [going to war],” Hazo said. “I am ashamed of my government.”

Jack Kelly

Using a “get him before he gets us” argument, Kelly painted a stark contrast of well-prepared invading U.S. ground troops that could handle easily the Iraqi biological and chemical weapons arsenal, versus what he saw as a possible, perhaps likely, alternative: devastation unleashed on an unprepared U.S. public dealing with a similar attack in a densely populated city.

Smallpox, anthrax or other chemical or biological agents wouldn’t threaten the U.S. military, but would devastate the civilian population, he said.

Kelly scorned anti-war activists in this country and abroad, likening protesters to appeasers of Hitler.

“The most blatant and despicable of the lies ‘activists’ tell is that their opposition to war with Iraq is driven by concern for the Iraqi people,” when about 1 million of them have been murdered by Saddam, Kelly said.

Saddam has been reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction and, based on his history, is willing to use them, Kelly added.

If the United States does go to war with Iraq, “it will be the first war in history in which one side will be more concerned with the safety of the people of the country they are invading” than the enemy leader is concerned for his own people.

“Iraq is a clear and present danger. Bush believes it, and I wholeheartedly agree with him,” Kelly said. “It is not feasible to ignore the threat.”

Bay Buchanan

Buchanan said that for America to go to war, the country needs more than a vague motive that Saddam is a “bad person,” since in that respect he has plenty of company among leaders in the region. “It has to be in our national interest. We’re talking about invading and occupying a foreign country, the first time we’d be attacking a country that cannot hurt us.”

Not only is world opinion sharply divided, but many of Saddam’s neighbors are questioning the wisdom of war with Iraq, she said. “If Saddam is a threat to his neighbors, why do they want us not to attack?”

Bush has not made a convincing case for attacking Iraq, Buchanan said. Saddam will not have nuclear weapons capability for at least two years, he hasn’t been tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks or domestic anthrax scares, he has no provable connection with Al Qaeda, and he hasn’t used any weapon of mass destruction since 1988, she maintained. “We should not go to war on the wings of lies,” she said, adding that a war with Iraq would distract the United States from the greater threat of terrorism.

“What is it about the last two years [since Bush has been president] that has changed, that we have to get [Saddam] now?” Buchanan asked repeatedly. “He’s been contained for 12 years,” she said, adding that his regime is considerably weaker now because of United Nations-imposed sanctions and weapons inspections, enforcement of the “no-fly” zone and greater Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.

Buchanan also warned of the “unintended consequences” of a war with Iraq, which would likely destabilize an already jittery region, encourage anti-American terrorists worldwide, jeopardize U.S. relations with a number of Islamic countries and, possibly, trigger a biochemical or other devastating attack by a cornered Saddam.

“The only way that he would use weapons of mass destruction, and this is according to United States and British intelligence reports, is if he were attacked himself,” Buchanan said.

Cyril Wecht

Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 Kurds with hydrogen cyanide in one day in 1988, and as many as 100,000 Kurds have been murdered during his regime, Wecht pointed out. “He has nerve gas, mustard gas, 10,000 tons of anthrax, and he’s shown an unhesitating willingness to use these chemical weapons,” Wecht said.

Americans should take seriously Saddam’s repeated threats to destroy them. “Are Saddam Hussein and other crazy people just bluffing when they say that they want to march into Israel and push the Jews into the sea and kill the devil Americans?” Wecht asked. This is not mere rhetoric, he said, adding that allowing Saddam to acquire nuclear weapons would make deposing him more difficult and dangerous.

Wecht said that American involvement in the region is not primarily military, that U.S. goals are not colonization or seizing oil supplies, and that support for an invasion to topple Saddam among Iraqis themselves is strong. “Iraqi soldiers will not fight,” Wecht said. The United States can get the bulk of its military forces in and out quickly. “This is not a country out to dominate the world.”

He also said the Gulf region depended on America’s economic support. “They want our soldiers out. Well, take out every American soldier. But also take out all the Levi’s, all the McDonald’s, all the Coca-Cola. Let them have their own world” and see if they’re better off, he said.

America must protect its own interests with or without support from its would-be allies such as France and Germany or formal backing by the United Nations, Wecht said.

The Feb. 25 discussion was sponsored by the University Honors College, the Pitt Alumni Association, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the School of Social Work and the Institute of Politics.

—Peter Hart

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