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Iraq Options Debated by UCLA Panel
Crowd at panel discussion of Iraq. All photos by Leah Halvorson.

Iraq Options Debated by UCLA Panel

A volatile overflow crowd of students, faculty, and community members jammed an auditorium in Kinsey Hall on the UCLA campus October 16 to hear a discussion of U.S. options vis-a-vis Iraq.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

Some 400 people crowded into a hall meant for 300 on the UCLA campus Thursday afternoon to hear and participate in a heated exchange of views on the Iraq situation. Speakers included former Clinton Administration Middle East specialist Dennis Ross, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, columnist Arianna Huffington, and UCLA professors Joyce Appleby (History, emerita) and Amy Zegart (Public Policy). The meeting was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute and the Ron W. Burkle Center for International Relations. It was chaired by International Institute Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett. The meeting was held the same day that President Bush signed the congressional legislation authorizing his administration to take military action against Iraq.

The meeting revealed sharp divisions among the panelists and even more so among the audience over whether the U.S. has a legitimate quarrel with Saddam Hussein and what should be done about it.


Dennis Ross brought a considerable Middle East experience to the discussion. A career diplomat who served in the Middle East for the Reagan, first Bush, and Clinton administrations, he had been instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement and successfully brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997. He is best known for serving as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, an ambassadorial level position. He is currently director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While critical of President Bush's handling of the current crisis, Ross was the firmest among the panelists in insisting that Saddam Hussein constitutes a real menace in the region and that this is not an invention of Washington politicians.

"He has chemical and biological weapons now. He wants nuclear weapons, as a shield to protect him in a new war," Ross said. "His policy has been incredibly aggressive for more than twenty years. In 1980 he invaded Iran. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait. There is no reasonable basis to expect that he will refrain from new aggression against his neighbors if he acquires nuclear weapons. After eight and a half years of war with Iran most analysts said he would be crazy to start a new war in Kuwait--but he did just that."

Ross said that Saddam is on the verge of a nuclear capability and that in the current post-9-11 climate of terrorist attacks on the United States and its citizens abroad that these would be used if Saddam is not disarmed quickly. "Saddam Hussein has been singularly immune from the effects of deterrence by the threat of U.S. force. On the contrary, Saddam sees nuclear weapons as his deterrence against the United States to permit him to renew attacks on his targets in the region."



Columnist Arianna Huffington gave voice to the antiwar sentiment on the panel. "President Bush is using September 11 to justify his pre-September 11 objectives," she said. "This undermines trust in our leaders. We are seeing a continuing shifting of the claimed grounds for preparing a war against Iraq. Bush says you can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Iraq. That is not true. No one has proved any link between September 11 and Iraq. It is repeatedly asserted but never proved. This is very troubling. Many politicians who vote for Bush's resolution privately say they don't agree with it. This is spinelessness, a lack of leadership." A large and vocal part of the audience loudly applauded her remarks.

Others on the panel were more critical of President Bush's handling of the situation than opposed to a war with Iraq per se.


Joyce Appleby, past president of American Historical Association, declared, "One of the great casualties of the last year is how a great nation should meet a challenge such as Saddam Hussein. There has not been a reasoned debate. There has not been an attempt to negotiate a solution with our allies. We have been bellicose and simplistic." She castigated President Bush for usurping Congress's right to declare war, and the Congress for permitting it: "I am very disappointed in Congress for this resolution," she said. "All summer Bush acted as though consulting Congress was an option, not a constitutional requirement. Then Bush finally came to Congress, but he did not frankly ask for a declaration of war but for a blank check. We will see a large public debate over this." She added, "Opposing war now is not to say that there are no grounds for war. The process is key. We should have forced inspections. We should not try to rush into a war because it would be better [for ground conditions in Iraq] to meet a window of opportunity by February 2003."

"Saddam Hussein has been playing an endless delaying game," former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan told the crowd. "I have been in politics long enough to know when someone has no intention of coming to an agreement and is just stalling for time. If I were president and could not get an agreement for unconditional inspections I would act. But it must be done intelligently."


Amy Zegart took up the widespread public alarm at the new Bush doctrine of the right to a preemptive strike. "Most people are disturbed by the shift from deterrence to preemption," she said, "But the fact is that in international relations, deterrence has a poor track record. It was a total failure in Cuba in the 1962 missile crisis. The Russians and Cubans had been told repeatedly that the United States would not tolerate intermediate range missiles in Cuba, but they put them there anyway. Deterrence did not stop the Soviet Union from invading Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is even less likely today to be able to restrain Iraq. With the shift to terrorist acts by small groups it is more possible than ever before for Iraq to hide its fingerprints in actions against its neighbors. It is also pretty clear that Saddam intends to place roadblocks in the path of effective inspections, which makes the road of inspections a delaying tactic by Saddam that will end in confrontation a little later. If you are against war you should logically also be against inspections," as confrontation is implicit in them.

What Happened to the Axis of Evil?

Arianna Huffington quickly denied that the debate over deterrence affected her reasons for opposing the war. She drew cheers when she said, "This president is very uncomfortable with complexity. Remember the Axis of Evil? The threats, dangers, and evil of the world were implausibly reduced to only three countries. Now the three countries are reduced to only one. We are sending an envoy to North Korea, and saying nothing about Iran.

"The terrorist attacks of today do not come from Iraq. Bush is trying to re-fight the Cold War, with a clearly defined enemy: Iraq. It is incredibly deceptive to claim that the American people are behind this war. There is an antiwar movement before the war has even begun, and the polls already show that if there is the prospect of serious American casualties, support for Bush's war drops to 39%."

This raised a discussion among the panelists of whether high casualty levels should be a criteria for not taking military action against Iraq. Dennis Ross argued that even if casualties proved to be very high now, that they would be enormously higher later if we waited until after Saddam had acquired atom bombs. "British Prime Minister Tony Blair says his estimate of when Saddam will have a usable atomic bomb is 1 to 5 years. But that is based on data from 1998 when the inspectors left. It is argued that Saddam will not dare to start a new war. But the whole history of this man is that Saddam always miscalculates. It is only a matter of time before he has nuclear weapons, and it will be a very different world than this one."

Amy Zegart said that the Bush administration "has made a terrible case for war." There is "no evidence of a direct Al Qaeda-Iraq connection," the main argument Bush has used to justify his war preparations. Nevertheless, she added, there are grounds to strike at Iraq even if Washington has failed to state them. "The real connection is in the general situation of the terrorist groups and the rogue states. Every rogue state knows the United States cannot be defeated militarily. The new strategy is to attack civilians--as just happened in Indonesia. It is asked, why single out Iraq? It is true that there are a number of rogue states, but it is perfectly reasonable in confronting this new attack that comes from many disparate centers to move against a leading rogue state. Even if Saddam did not directly instigate September 11 he supports terrorism and has conducted terrible repression. In 1987-89 he killed 100,000 to 200,000 Kurds."

The Debate Heats Up

As the meeting then moved into the question period the discussion became more heated and many sharp questions were posed. It was repeatedly pointed out by members of the audience that the most heinous of Saddam's crimes--the poison gassing of Iranian troops and the massacre of the Kurds--happened long ago and were tolerated if not supported by the U.S. government at the time and should not serve as pretexts for new actions against Iraq. "Are these just excuses for war now when they are long over?" one person asked. "What about Muslim world reactions if there is war?"

Double Standards in American Policy

One questioner accused the United States of having a double standard: "There have been more UN sanctions against Israel than against Iraq in the last ten years--sixteen in fact. Why should we use the UN sanctions as an excuse to attack Iraq?" There were loud boos from many members of the audience when Israel was mentioned and a commotion in which there were shouts of "Double standard!" and "Free Palestine!"

Dennis Ross took the mike to respond: "Yes, there are double standards in American policy. We are accused with some justice of talking about democracy but only applying it toward those we don't like. But the critics here today have a double standard also. They say Israel is as bad or worse as Saddam Hussein and say there were supposedly more UN sanctions against Israel than against Iraq. The 11 UN resolutions against Iraq really were economic sanctions, a very serious step. There have been a number of UN resolutions critical of Israel, but not a single one of those called for sanctions against Israel. They were on a wholly lower level of condemnation. It should be said that the UN also has its double standards. There has been no UN resolution against Hamas for the suicide bombings. Isn't that a double standard?"

Another audience member asserted that it was U.S. support of Israel, and of repressive Arab governments, that sparked the terrorism and that if these were stopped the terrorism would also end. Amy Zegart replied, "Most people in the Middle East hate the U.S. because of the failure of the Arab governments, many of which are repressive regimes. But if the U.S. were to abandon Israel and withdraw support from repressive Arab regimes you can be assured that Al Qaeda would not close up shop."

"Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died because of sanctions," one audience member asserted. "How can the U.S. justify this?" Zegart replied, "Saddam Hussein refused to comply with his pledge to hand over weapons of mass destruction. He, not the U.S., bears the responsibility." Richard Riordan dissented from this, saying he opposed economic sanctions under any circumstance as injurious to innocent citizens and not likely to promote democracy.

Distrust of the stated motives of Washington was summed up by the questioner who asked, "Was September 11 just a window of opportunity?" Calls of "Oil!" came from here and there in the hall. Dennis Ross retorted, "It wasn't oil that transformed policy toward Iraq. It was September 11."

Several speakers from the audience called for inspections under UN auspices as an alternative to war. Ross commented that he was not opposed to trying inspections, but "Will inspections work? Not without sincere cooperation from the regime. Saddam could have normalized relations at any time in the last ten years. Instead we had a persistent show of bad faith on the agreed-on inspections. He had trucks pulling materiel out of facilities as inspectors arrived at the front door. There are too many places to hide things in a big country for inspections to work if you have a government that really doesn't agree to have them. I'm not saying don't try inspections, but I don't think they will work when Saddam has spent 4 years hiding his weapons."

Clearly these answers did not satisfy the opponents of U.S. intervention in Iraq. But all speakers received applause and support for their views from significant sections of the crowd, indicating that this view, while strongly held by many in the room, was far from unanimous.

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