|I am pleased to have been invited to speak at this
forum. A free exchange of ideas is essential to the mission of higher education.
Free speech is threatened – even on this campus – so I welcome all
of you who have chosen to come out today for an exchange of ideas. Higher
education should be the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of ideas, and the
hallmark of this pursuit is the willingness to have one’s ideas challenged.
For many people, college is the first opportunity to encounter people different from one’s self. It is difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. I encourage all of you to seek out those whose opinions are different from your own. If you are against the war, seek out the best writing by its supporters. If you are for the war, seek out the best writing by its opponents. If you are in a debate about this or any other issue, try always to respond to your opponents’ strongest arguments, not their weakest ones.
Because I am a geography professor, I am going to begin my remarks with a list of countries. Tell me if you can figure out what these countries – which I will read alphabetically – have in common.
• BermudaSome of these countries supported the war in Iraq and some did not. They all lost citizens in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Let me give you another list:
• ChileThis is a partial list of Latin American and Caribbean countries that have experienced intervention – by which I mean uninvited military action – by the United States. In some cases – such as the Dominican Republic and Chile – the purpose of the intervention was to remove a leader considered too liberal by U.S. policy-makers. In other cases – such as Guatemala and Honduras – intervention was on behalf of U.S. commercial interests. Still other interventions were part of larger geopolitical struggles between the United States and other powers, such as Spain and the former Soviet Union. The first U.S. intervention in Panama helped to separate that country from Colombia in order to build the Panama Canal.
The interventions I listed would come as a surprise to most people educated in the United States. They were, for the most part, small chapters in our nation’s history. These interventions loom large in the history of the smaller countries, however, and most young people educated in Latin America could easily recite the historic details of these various conflicts. Similarly, students educated in Africa or Asia could recount various U.S. interventions in their parts of the world that would strike the average North American student as obscure or trivial. I happen to be a specialist in Latin America, so I have listed countries from that region.
What does this have to do with Iraq? Everything. Like it or not, to be a citizen of the United States is to be at the center of a worldwide empire. It is a benevolent empire in many ways, but it is an empire nonetheless. We live in Rome.
I had the privilege of being in Brazil about one week before President Bush began the attack on Iraq. I did not find anybody there who supported the war. I also did not find anybody there who criticized the U.S. or its people in general. I attended an anti-war march and rally, and listened very carefully to what was being said. Speakers decried imperialism and they criticized George Bush, but they did not express hatred or disapproval of our country.
One speaker at that rally insisted that President Bush was out of synch with the rest of the United States, which is, he said, primarily a Christian nation. Brazil is primarily a Christian nation, too, and this speaker could not understand how people with a common faith could come to such dramatically different conclusions about the war. Rather than accept this paradox, he asserted that the president must be out of touch with his own people.
I need to make one more list:
• Ferdinand Marcos
These are all tyrants who were useful to the United States at some point in their careers, and who received our support or at least our tolerance. In many cases, we had to then convince the world that our former clients were the most horrible of people, and usually we were correct. I have learned to get very nervous whenever I hear an American president describing an individual foreign leader as cruel, corrupt, and in need of removal. The demonization of the leader is always the first step in preparing the U.S. public to think in terms of removing that man (and it is always a man). When the president starts talking about the bad man at the top and stops talking about the rest of the people in the country, I know what is going to happen next.
In the case of Saddam Hussein, it would be difficult to find anybody who was opposed to his being removed from power. President Bush’s characterization of him was generally accurate, and all reasonable people agreed that Iraq and the world at large would be better off without Saddam Hussein in power. It was not agreed, however, that this removal should be brought about regardless of cost.
In other words, if the question is: “Should he stay or should he go?” most people would answer “GO!” But if the question is: “Should he go, no matter the cost?” many people wanted to know, “What would the cost be?” Many foreign governments and millions of U.S. citizens were convinced prior to the war that the cost of removing Saddam Hussein would simply be too high.
Those costs include money, U.S. service members, and Iraqi dead.
I would like to get back to geography now. Another cost is somewhat intangible and difficult for many in the U.S. to understand, but it is very real. That is the cost of introducing a brand-new legal concept to justify the war. This is the concept of pre-emptive self defense, which the White House introduced in the autumn of 2002 as part of its national defense doctrine. You can still read it on the White House web site. Without any precedent in international law, this doctrine asserts the rights of the United States to intervene in another country, not for any actions it has taken or threatened to take, but merely for it having the capacity to take those actions.
This is a reckless foreign policy for at least three reasons:
Following September 11, 2001, the United States earned a great deal of sympathy from people throughout the world who shared our sense of loss and fear. After all, we are far from the first country to be attacked by Al-Quaeda. We have now squandered that sympathy, and we will have to work very hard to mend the fences if we are to face a future that is more prosperous, peaceful, and secure.
I know many people of good will who supported the invasion of Iraq. For them, the benefit of removing Saddam Hussein outweighed the costs. Many people supported the war for all the wrong reasons, though. A bumper sticker I saw last week makes me worry about our chances. It read:
FIRST IRAQ, THEN FRANCETo equate Iraq and France, even in jest, reveals a proud and determined ignorance of the facts. The person displaying this message is a caricature of America that many in the world fear: a country that is strong but ill-informed, with no sense of history and less sense of geography. Let us not make that the face we present to the world. It is neither possible nor desirable to isolate ourselves forever from those allies who disagreed with us about this war.
In closing, I would like to mention the story of John Brady Kiesling, who resigned from a twenty-year diplomatic career two weeks before the war on Iraq. I would like to read you a paragraph from his eloquent resignation letter to Secretary of State Powell:
The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.He had most recently been a diplomat in Greece. He ends his letter – which has circulated widely on the Internet – on a more optimistic note:
I am resigning because I have tried and failed to reconcile my conscience with my ability to represent the current U.S. Administration. I have confidence that our democratic process is ultimately self-correcting, and hope that in a small way I can contribute from outside to shaping policies that better serve the security and prosperity of the American people and the world we share.I encourage you to read Mr. Kiesling’s letter, which is easy to find online. I will be posting a link on the Iraq page of my own web site. You can also read a more detailed explanation he published in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine just yesterday. I share Mr. Kiesling’s optimism about the basic goodness of America and Americans. Otherwise, I would not bother exercising my right to speak with you here today.