Interrogating the Project of Military History

May 13 - A busy couple of weeks, and no time to even make excuses for the dearth of entries.  Instead I merely note that two nights ago a number of entities at the Ohio State University, including the Mershon Center, the College of Humanities, and the Moritz College of Law, hosted the following:

The United States and Iraq:  Why We're There, Where We're Going
An Educational Forum

The event was held Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. in the cavernous, somewhat muggy Independence Hall lecture auditorium, capacity 720.  About 500 people, mostly undergraduates but some faculty, grad students, staff and members of the community, showed up to hear three panelists sketch out the current situation in Iraq and field questions from the audience.  The panelists were

Richard K. Herrmann, professor of political science and Director of the Mershon Center, who, from 1989 to 1991, served on Secretary of State James Bakerís Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State;

Mary Ellen O'Connell, William B. Saxbe Designated Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law and author of several books on international law; and

Sabra Webber, an associate professor in both the Department of Comparative Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures who has written widely on folklore, ethnography, and the Arab World.

I served as moderator and, weeks ago, had the original idea for the forum, though my role in its organization was analogous to the pebble that forms the nucleus of a snowball.  Many other people, including the undergraduates in the Dean's Student Advisory Group, did all the heavy lifting.

I started to write my brother Scott (a former US Army captain and current rock-ribbed Republican) about the forum.  The email got so long I decided to let it do double duty here, with only minor changes and a few bracketed clarifiers:

Hi Scott,

I already sent you what turns out to be just a link to the OSU article on the forum, so I have pasted in the full text on the theory that you may find this more convenient to read.

At the end of the Lantern article, I've added my own commentary.

The Lantern - Campus
Issue: 5/13/04


Symposium focuses on Iraq failures
By Will Paoletto

Three Ohio State professors voiced their opinions on the controversial U.S. occupation of Iraq at a packed forum Tuesday in Independence Hall.

Richard Herrmann, professor of political science and director of the Mershon Center, examined the broader issues of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. He was followed by Mary Ellen O'Connell, professor of law, who addressed the international law aspect of the invasion and occupation. Sarah Webber, professor of Near East languages and cultures, spoke from the perspective of the Iraqi people.

"I think we went to Iraq and hoped that three things would turn out a year later," Herrmann said. " (First,) we hoped that the United States would not face the threat of weapons of mass destruction by anyone in Iraq.

"It turned out the threat was not as great as anyone thought, so you can say 'mission accomplished,' or you can say there wasn't much to accomplish," he said.

"The second was we hoped to sever any links there were between the regime in Iraq and al Qaida, and we hoped to reduce the likelihood to zero that the Iraqi regime would be able to provide weapons, money or any other type of opportunity to terrorists who might attack the United States or allies."

As it turned out, the link between al Qaida and the regime in Baghdad was very unclear before and seems no clearer now, Herrmann said.

"Fighters supportive of al Qaida have come into Iraq. In many ways, we have created a bigger terror problem in Iraq than (we) solved, at least within that country and at home," he said.

Hermann said the third hoped-for accomplishment was to initiate a regime change and shift Iraq toward a democratic government.

"The violence was originally thought to preside primarily in the areas north of Baghdad where there is a large concentration of Sunni. They were particularly reticent of the privileges of the past," he said.

But now the resistance is spread widely and is evident in the south - the area the United States hoped would be most grateful, Herrmann said.

"CNN and USAToday did a poll in Iraq in April of 3,200 Iraqis," he said. "Seventy-five percent-plus feel we came to Iraq to take their oil, to weaken the Arab state and put an American military presence in the Middle East to pressure Saudi Arabia on oil issues, relieve us in the long-run dependency of Saudi Arabian oil and provide for Israel to simply crush the Palestinian resistance.

"And they believe we are well on our way toward accomplishing those things," he said.

Herrmann spoke of three options the United States now has regarding Iraq, the first of which is the U.S. staying.

"On July 1, we switch a little bit from an occupying force to a force that's there as a free-Iraqi government, but (it is) a government that has no option to ask us to leave," he said. "It's a government that also doesn't control its own ministry of finance or defense."

Another option is to leave Iraq immediately, but Herrmann said that may lead to civil war in Iraq.

"The last option is the international option. Have a U.N. high commissioner come in with legitimacy with the United Nations, the European Union or the Arab League," he said.

O'Connell said because Iraq is a foreign, sovereign state, the law relevant to it is international law.

According the U.N. charter, a state may only use force in limited circumstances, such as in self-defense if it suffers an armed attack.

"At no time did President Bush say that this country was above the law. At no time did it say that no international law binds this country," she said.

Human Rights Watch put together a 50-page report that concluded excessive force was used in a number of occasions in Iraq. The result was a disproportionate loss of life and property, O'Connell said.

O'Connell completed an in-depth investigation that concluded the United States failed to meet its obligations to international law before it even entered Iraq.

"An occupied power has obligation to restore and maintain order, stop looting, protect irreplaceable treasures, provide for the basic needs of the population and ensure the humane treatment of all persons in detention. These are arguably the most important basic principles of occupation," she said.

Fulfillment of these basic obligations in a nation like Iraq required that coalition forces send a large and appropriately trained military force. She said a study estimated that a force of 500,000 troops would have been necessary to properly occupy Iraq.

The United States has just over 130,000 troops in Iraq today, she said.

"Secretary of Defense (Donald) Rumsfeld refused to believe all the experts who said a large force would be needed; he also refused to take seriously our legal obligation," she said. "For me, the 'Rumsfeld Doctrine' is the use of underwhelming force to create overwhelming problems," O'Connell said.

Following her words, the crowd applauded.

Webber said Saddam Hussein used to be a friend of the United States and was placed in power by the CIA.   [While the first part of the sentence is accurate, the second part is not.  Unless I simply missed it, I did not hear Prof. Webber claim at any point that the CIA had placed Saddam Hussein in power.]

She also said there is no clash of civilizations in Iraq, and the United States has never been able to force a country to become democratic in a short time frame.

"We've never successfully nudged a country into democracy unless we stayed a long time, as we did in Japan, South Korea and Turkey," she said.  [Here I think the reporter misheard "Germany" as "Turkey."]


As near as I can tell, the reporter left before the second half of the forum began, probably to meet his deadline.  The prepared remarks were informal and introductory--I asked each person to speak for about 20 minutes.  Then we all took a 10-minute break, while the crowd got refreshments and handed in 4x6 cards on which they were asked to write their questions.  A group of students assisted me in quickly going through the stack to find questions that seemed especially good or questions that were most frequently asked.  Because the prepared remarks were relatively skeptical of the US invasion as it has developed, I front-loaded questions that took direct issue with the skepticism.  But there weren't many of these.  My impression at both this forum and the one held last year is that students comfortable with the Bush administration's policy and conduct don't come to these things.  The crowd tends to be made up mainly of people who are distressed by the policy or simply curious to know more.

If the reporter had stuck around for the whole thing, he would have found that Rick Herrmann (who served on Sec State James Baker's staff during the 1990-1991 Gulf War) remains an adherent to the "Bush I" game plan.  Liberating Kuwait by force made sense, a drive on Baghdad did not, containing Saddam Hussein was the most workable policy.  Now that we're in Iraq, however, the only viable option is to stay there, come fully to grips with the complexities of the issues, and secure the best outcome we can.  Mary Ellen O'Connell, who taught international law in the DoD [Department of Defense] for three years and whose husband was a forward-deployed military interrogator in Desert Storm, agrees with Rick.  She thinks the Bush II administration is playing fast and loose with international law and that this is seriously undercutting our ability to get the outcome we want.  Sabra (not Sarah) Webber was mostly just at pains to give the Arabs in general and the Iraqi people in particular a human face.

Significantly, she brought with her an Iraqi professor who joined the panel during the Q&A.  The Iraqi professor was succinct but eloquent whenever he spoke.  In response to a question that wondered if the most likely outcomes in Iraq were civil war, fragmentation, or a new dictatorship, he replied that in his opinion none of these disasters would occur.

All four panelists thought that, whatever the wisdom of attacking Iraq and however dubious the rationales, the idea of fostering democracy in Iraq was both good and achievable.  Their doubts on this score focused greatly on the Bush II administration's ability to understand and handle the complexities.  Rick was particularly forceful about the built-in legitimacy problem any Iraq government would have given the near-universal perception that it must be a creature of the US.  Both he and Mary Ellen thought a better though imperfect solution would be to involve the UN to a much greater degree.

I wish the reporter had been able to incorporate these things into the article.  Other things I can tell you which the reporter would understandably have omitted include the fact that at 9 o'clock, when I was about to wind down the "official" part of the forum, a man stood up and angrily though quite lucidly announced that we had not dealt at all with the real reason the US invaded Iraq.  With one of those comments-ill-disguised-as-a-question that are probably unavoidable at these things, he rapidly sketched out his thesis that we had done it pretty much directly to aid Israel in its bid to stamp out the Palestinian resistance, and to my ears he came close to amplifying this into a world-Jewish-conspiracy.

I stopped him at that point, mainly just to create an interval in which those who wished to do so could leave, since it was 9 p.m.  But scarcely anyone left and a few voices from the audience seemed to imply that they thought I was trying to squelch the guy.  When we got going again I picked up his question and planned to divide it into component parts, but as it turned out the panelists gave him a very comprehensive answer even though all I asked them to address initially was the question of the "real reason" for the invasion.

Rick's response is the one that I best recall.  Essentially he accepts the portrayal in Bob Woodward's Bush at War and Plan of Attack (though he mentioned neither book and I don't know what he thinks of them) that elements in the Bush II administration disagreed with the 1991 decision not to go for Baghdad, were skeptical of the containment of Saddam Hussein, and that after 9/11 President Bush agreed with their assessment that Iraq should be invaded, partly to remove the WMD threat and partly to change the game in the Middle East by creating a democratic Arab government friendly to the US, which in turn would pressure other Arab nations to democratize as well.  Thus for the reasoning as he understood it--Israel was not a big factor.

However--and this is a big however--Rick thought that US foreign policy toward the Middle East was based on premises left over from the Cold War.  Those premises were obviously out of date.  What then about the use of military force to preserve access to the strategic resource of oil?  Needless:  the sale of oil was the ONLY source of revenue the Arab oil states had.  Their ability NOT to sell oil was severely restricted by the patent certainty that the result would be the impoverishment of their countries within a few months.

What did that leave?  The policy of supporting Israel as more or less the only sure US ally in the region--but an ally whose support in the post-Cold War era is of very limited relevance.  Rick didn't quite go this far, but the thrust of his comments was that judged in realpolitik terms, US support for Israel creates more problems than it solves.  It certainly is one big reason the US has become such a target for Arab terrorists.

Summing up, Rick said that he welcomed the question about the relationship of Israel to the US incursion into Iraq.  It was a very good question.  He even thought that Mossad [Israeli intelligence] had been a likely source of the intell that indicated Iraq had a much more serious WMD program than has so far surfaced.

You'd think that getting such a response, and at least two more of comparable thoughtfulness, would have given the questioner a sense of having been heard and of having his concerns addressed.  Not a bit!  I don't think he heard a word anyone said.  As soon as the panel concluded he launched into his next salvo, this one arguing that George W. Bush was a conservative evangelical Christian floating in a premillennialist haze convinced that he was on a mission from God--a sentiment which may have its points but really got beyond the bounds of anything that could reasonably be discussed and certainly threatened to derail the forum.  I don't remember exactly what I said.  People tell me that I was at first polite to the guy and then, when that didn't quiet him, basically told him in no uncertain terms that I was not going to let him monopolize the evening and that other people had questions too.  To his credit, he didn't say another word.

At the time, I didn't have any feel for whether I had handled the guy in the right way or whether a more adroit moderator could have dealt with him less testily.  I certainly discovered from the next two questioners that they thought I was a biased moderator--they said so, though I didn't immediately understand why.  (It turned out that they thought, because I paraphrased the questions on the 4x6 cards, that I was just making up my own.)

Because by this time the remaining crowd was of manageable size, I began taking questions directly from the audience.  That didn't satisfy, either; a lady got up and opined that since we'd started out with the note card format, we should stick to it.  I got the impression the crowd liked that idea, so I just handed the remaining cards to the panelists.  They picked through them and selected questions they thought they could answer and which had not been addressed before.  This system actually worked very well and I think in future forums I may suggest that we go that route.

Rick answered a few and Sabra answered a few. A surprising number of questions concerned international law--so many that Mary Ellen simply expressed regret that she did not have time to answer so many good questions.  It was now 9:50 p.m. and I was told we needed to wrap things up, having by now gone nearly an hour over the officially-scheduled time.  I gave the Iraqi professor the last word.  He said something sane, sober, constructive, positive and mercifully brief, and on that note I concluded the forum.

Afterward a number of people came up to thank the panelists, who really did an excellent job and were very good sports to stick around after what for each of them had already been a full day.  A few people came up to thank me for what otherwise I could fairly call the thankless job of serving as moderator.  A student who'd helped me pick out the questions said he could hardly keep silent when I was accused of just saying whatever I wanted--he knew that everything I said corresponded to a real question.  I appreciated that very much.  At the same time, appearances do matter and in the future I will have to look more obviously like I'm relaying audience questions.

Every comment I got touched on the fellow who announced himself at 9 p.m.  A day later I got this email from a student: it's typical of what others told me verbally:

"I am a history major and a member of the Dean's Student Advisory Group in the College of Humanities, and I was in attendance at the forum last night at Independence Hall.  I just wanted to send you a note saying that I thought that you did an excellent job as moderator of the panel.  The event went very well in my opinion, and you did a fine job of handling the situation with the 'agitator' (that's the best word I can think of) who made himself known around 9 o'clock.  As a DSAG member I'd like to thank you for making our program so informative and enjoyable, and as a history major I'd like to thank you for representing the department so well.  Thanks again."

I'm sure that an equal number of people thought my performance was biased or inept, that some thought the panel biased or unbalanced, that others thought the room too warm, the microphones abysmal (I sure did!), and so on.  What strikes me in the end is how easily we criticize the Bush II administration or their Democratic opponents, or the Arabs, or the Europeans, and so on endlessly, when in reality it is no mean feat to get 500 people together in the same room merely to have a conversation about these issues.  Multiply the challenges of organizing, publicizing, and executing such a forum--the hiccups and technical difficulties, the misperceptions and aggravations, the human dynamics, the interweaving of statements, questions, and responses, some eloquent, some obvious, some cogent, some overgeneralized, some overlong--multiply them by about a million and you probably get close to the challenges and complexities of shaping or contending with American foreign policy in the post 9/11 world.





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