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November 11, 2002

Public Issues Forum debates Iraq policy

By Michael Terrazas

Five minutes into the first Emory Public Issues Forum, held Nov. 6 in White Hall 208, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and columnist Jay Bookman compared the United States to an elephant.

“And the whole world sleeps next to that elephant,” Bookman said. “Americans don’t really know this; we don’t appreciate our dominance in the world. This is partly because we think of ourselves as a ‘nice’ elephant, but even nice elephants make their friends nervous.”

The question of whether that “nice elephant” should roll over and flatten Iraq was the topic of the inaugural forum, sponsored by the Joint Activities Committee of Emory College and Campus Life and attended by perhaps 150 people.

Bookman headlined the panel, and joining him were three Emory professors: Mahmoud , Al-Batal, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies; Abdullahi An-Na’im, Candler Professor of Law; and Frank Lechner, associate professor of sociology.

Bookman opened the event by saying America is facing a crossroads, one of those “moments in time that establishes a nation’s character and what kind of country we will be for the next 40 or 50 years.”

On the one hand, the United States can adopt a foreign policy consistent with its own values as a nation, Bookman said, which includes working multilaterally with the rest of the world and observing the rule of international law. The other alternative, he said, is “to set the United States apart from the law—if another country looks at us funny, we reserve the right to take them out.”

The essence of American ideology, Bookman continued, is that power corrupts, and the U.S. system of government is based on the idea of not concentrating too much power in one place. In a post-Cold War world, global power is indeed concentrated in one place—the United States—and Bookman said a U.S. attack on Iraq could signal the beginning of an “American empire,” complete with all its imperial trappings.

“During the Cold War, we told ourselves that we were fighting world domination,” Bookman said. “Was that true? Or were we only fighting so that we could dominate the world?”

In his response, An-Na’im said he brought “a view from the other side,” being a Muslim from Sudan who has spent much of his life in the region of the world that is causing such concern in the United States. No matter how benevolent America believes itself to be, those who come under its force of will—those countries that could be targeted for U.S. “liberation”—are not so certain.

“Imagine how offensive it is when someone comes into your house and just rearranges your furniture,” An-Na’im said, “let alone reorders your life.”

Lechner provided the sole hawkish voice on the panel, saying the United States has a duty to oust Saddam Hussein from power. The record of the Gulf War and subsequent arms inspections in Iraq, Lechner said, proves Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction.

He said America should learn from its recent experience with North Korea; in 1994 former President Bill Clinton negotiated an agreement in which North Korea pledged not to produce nuclear weapons, but recently it’s become known that the country reneged and has been pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

“That kind of approach may work in Sunday School, but it doesn’t work with a dictator,” Lechner said. “Removing the most egregious violator of international law [in Hussein] is the single greatest thing we can do on its behalf.”

Lechner said recent U.S. and United Nations military interventions in countries like Kuwait, Bosnia and Afghanistan prove that America can be “a force for good” and that concerns about “American empire” are overblown.

Al-Batal brought a wry sense of humor to his remarks, saying he came to the panel
“as one of those Muslims who would like to be saved from ‘liberation.’”

“There is a lot of liberation to be done in the Middle East,” Al-Batal said, ticking off a list of countries ruled by oppressive regimes and/or ruthless dictators. “Are we willing to engage in the liberation of 20 or 30 countries? Because we are opening the business of liberation, and we need to be prepared for it.”

The single question that bothers many in the Middle East, Al-Batal said, is why now? Why has the current administration, he asked, made Iraq and Hussein its highest priority when no proof has been offered that the country had anything to do with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

“Where was the United States [in the 1980s] when Hussein was gassing and killing 5,000 of his own people? Why didn’t America act then?” Al-Batal said. “It was because, at that time, Hussein was fighting for the United States against Iran. He was Bully Jr. working for Bully Sr.”