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April 5, 2007

Ridgway Center director reflects on Iraq, Iran

“I didn’t come here today to tell you I told you so. I came here to say it’s crucial to learn from our mistakes and cut our losses now if we possibly can,” William W. Keller said in a March 23 address to the Honors College in which he called for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and urged caution in the nation’s dealings with Iran.

As United States troops marked the start of the nation’s fifth year in Iraq, Keller, director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, noted that his last invitation to speak to the Honors College was in 2002, prior to the invasion of Iraq. Recounting how he’d expressed concern that a strategy of military action would upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, cause widespread human suffering and damage American interests, he pointed out that since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, “All this has come to pass and more.”

In spite of midterm elections that Keller said were “a clear indication that the American people are fed up with the lies and mismanagement emanating from Washington,” he cautioned, “I want to pose a very clear warning that we may once again be on the road to ill-advised military adventurism, this time with Iran.”

“I urge you to consider that this administration has steadfastly refused to take pre-emptive preventive military action off the table. This is a core plank of the Bush doctrine, which is at odds with basic sovereignty and international law,” he said.

Labeling the action against Iraq “unprovoked aggression,” Keller said the president has damaged both American foreign policy and the American republic itself.

“By invading Iraq under false pretenses he has torn apart the fabric of international relations and upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Moreover he has alienated much of the Islamic population of the region and the world as well as some of our closest allies in Europe,” Keller said. “At the same time, the administration has damaged liberties of the American people. He has undermined fundamental rights at home, including privacy rights and the rights of habeas corpus.”

Keller called for a change in direction in the Middle East, saying, “Unless there is a fundamental course correction, the situation is likely to deteriorate in cascading sectarian violence, civil war and disorder across the region,” he said, adding that the result could disrupt the flow of oil — “with potentially drastic economic consequences not only for North America and western Europe but for China and the rest of east Asia as well.”

Keller continued, “Many military leaders I have spoken with feel the war in Iraq cannot be won. They see it for what it is: a hotbed of insurgency, a widening civil war, a magnet for foreign fighters and a training ground for new recruits for the al-Qaeda movement. They’d like to get out, but the president is steadfast in his convictions.”

Keller noted that for the majority of Americans, the war has not forced a sacrifice of any kind, “beyond paying a little bit more at the gas pump.

“Unless somebody in your family or a close friend of yours was sent to Iraq, the war to most Americans is an abstraction. It is something you can choose to ignore simply by turning off the media,” he said, adding that “support the troops” sentiments seem hollow in the face of the sustained occupation in Iraq.

Acknowledging the bravery and skill of the American troops, he noted, “The best way to support our troops would be to have a considered public debate and to devise a strategy to bring as many of them home as possible and to do so in a measured way.”

Keller counted the cost of the war, noting that 3,300 coalition fatalities and 23,500 wounded soldiers “will be our constant reminder.”

Beyond the loss of life, which includes 58,000-300,000 Iraqis, the financial costs are estimated at some $400 billion to date.

“You have to wonder about the opportunity costs,” Keller said. “How many teachers could we have hired? How many hospitals could have been built? How much medicine could have been distributed around the world to people with AIDS or who are on fixed incomes or with no health insurance?”

Keller cautioned his audience to heed the signs of a rising campaign by the president and his advisers to vilify Iran.

“It is clear enough that the administration is building a case for augmenting its military assets in the region in the event they choose to launch a preventive assault on Iran,” he said, citing several examples.

“Last month we were told the deadliest bombs used in Iraq were made in Iran,” Keller said. “This time, unlike the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the president and his spokespeople are highly cautious, saying they aren’t quite sure of the intelligence. But the message is clear: They are saying Iran’s government is interfering in Iraq and Americans are dying as a result.”

Keller noted that it is clear that Iran is enriching uranium in a way that can be used for nuclear fuel or for weapons. Citing experts’ opinions that Iran would be unable to produce a nuclear explosive device for some five-10 years, he said, “There is time for diplomacy in Iran, time for negotiation. But that is not the impression that one gets from the administration.”

Keller said that Pitt and other centers of higher learning share a responsibility to “hold our leaders to a higher standard.”

Saying he believes the nation has reached a tipping point in the politics of the Middle East, Keller argued the decisions that are made now — including sending additional troops to Iraq or the possibility of militarily engaging Iran — “will haunt us for a generation to come.”

He argued it is time to go beyond merely saying that the situation in Iraq is untenable.

“It is time to cut our losses now. But this is not what is happening. The United States is engaged in a military buildup in the region and our relationship with Iran is growing more antagonistic every single day. This is the wrong strategy,” he said.

“It is time to take military action against Iran off the table so we can begin the process of diplomatic reconciliation,” Keller said.

He called for America to work with Iraq’s neighbors and outline plans to withdraw U.S. troops in order to signal that the peace and stability of the Persian Gulf ultimately resides with the people and governments of that region.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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