Campus journalists joust over Iraq
Mark Danner cautions prudence; Christopher Hitchens says, ‘Bring it on!’

By C.C. Holland

05 February 2003 | As the drumbeats of war sounded last week, two prominent pundits made some noise of their own.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Christopher Hitchens and Mark Danner — both affiliated with the Graduate School of Journalism — took opposing sides in a debate at Zellerbach Hall. The question? How America should wield its power in Iraq.

The spirited exchange, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of Californiia, was the latest in a series of events developed by the journalism school and the Goldman Forum on the Press and Foreign Affairs. In his opening statement before the capacity crowd, Danner, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, argued against the need for war. The United Nations inspection system in Iraq is working, he said. An invasion would only inflame anti-American sentiment in the region, strengthen al-Qaida, and lead to a long, onerous, and politically expensive occupation.

“Iraq is effectively contained,” he said. “Al-Qaida cannot defeat the United States. But the United States can defeat the United States by occupying a major Arab country.”

Danner attacked the Bush administration’s fixation on regime change, dismissing the phrase as a “noxious euphemism” that “suggests the United States can change regimes in Iraq with all the difficulty and muss of changing your shirt.” Danner reminded the audience that while American losses numbered only 200 in the Gulf War of 1991, 100,000 Iraqis, including as many as 4,000 civilians, died — suggesting that regime change won’t be quite as bloodless and easy a process as the administration would have people think.

Hitchens: ‘There is no neutralist position...’
Hitchens, currently the I.F. Stone Fellow at the journalism school and a longtime contributor to both Vanity Fair and (until recently) The Nation, claimed that Danner was missing the point — which is that war has effectively started, thanks to the policing of the no-fly zones in Iraq, and that standing on the sidelines is no longer an option.

“An engagement with Saddam Hussein has already begun,” he said. “There is no neutralist position that can be occupied.”

Hitchens said the United States has a moral imperative to act, and that we need to finish what we started in 1991. “We owe a duty to these people, having betrayed and disappointed them so much in the past,” he said. “We also owe a duty… to the 4 million Iraqis who are forced to live overseas in exile from their own country.”

Liberating Iraq’s oil is another reason for U.S. involvement, said Hitchens. Amid a chorus of boos, he decried a popular antiwar slogan.

“Blood for oil? Blood for oil was shed when Saddam gassed the Kurds and nothing was said by the administration … when we stood by and preferred the stability of the regime to the matters of principle,” Hitchens said.

Danner: ‘... futile and self-defeating ...’
Danner maintained that the fallout from a war would prove too high a price to pay. “I’ve learned to suspect dreaming imperial dreams,” he said, comparing U.S. policy to a fickle spotlight that, when it moves on, leaves destruction and death in its shadow.

Danner also voiced suspicions regarding the administration’s true reasons for moving forward. Its motives, he asserted, “don’t have to do with making a new world in the Middle East, they don’t have to do with democracy. They have to do with power. This seems to me a very futile and self-defeating thing to do politically.”

He said invading and occupying Iraq — the latter an effort that could stretch on for years — would strengthen autocratic control and repression among Iraq’s neighbors. The United States would play into al-Qaida’s hands by “destroy[ing] itself politically throughout the Middle East, creating havoc where none existed before.”

He advocated instead increasing the number of inspectors in Iraq and implementing new policies to allow bombing at sites where Hussein refuses inspectors access.

Hitchens called that approach unworkable: “To inspect a country the size of Iraq … you’d need to be the government of Iraq.” Further, the crumbling of Hussein’s regime is inevitable and the best course of action is not caution, but preparation. He lauded the Bush administration for taking steps to contribute to the “rehabilitation of Iraq.”

Attacking the notion that invading Iraq would empower al-Qaida, Hitchens recounted how someone once warned him that if Osama bin Laden were killed, thousands more bin Ladens would take up his cause.

“If people rise up to take his place,” he said, “they’ll be killed as well. There are more of us than there are of them, and we are smarter, and cleverer, and more tolerant. And we too have unalterable convictions. We too believe that our culture and civilization mustn’t be offended, defamed, raped and defiled, and we will fight for that.”

The two found common ground in calling Hussein “a bad man” but agreed on little else. Danner conceded that the President seems determined to go to war, but held out hope that public opinion could sway the administration’s resolve.

Hitchens saw it differently.

“What will happen will be this,” he said. “The President will give an order. [The attack will be] rapid and accurate and dazzling and overwhelming … [and] will be greeted by the majority of Iraqi people as a moment of emancipation. And I say, bring it on.”