Middle East muddle
By Jessica Ullian
As U.S. military forces face ongoing resistance in Iraq and United Nations officials frantically seek support for the country’s first democratic election, politicians and pundits face two major questions: will the country be ready for democracy in January? And if not, should elections be held at all?
WBZ-AM talk-radio host David Brudnoy, a COM professor, believes that the necessary ideology — such as a basic understanding of the intent and purpose of democracy — is not in place, but that there is no time to wait for the ideas to emerge.
“Our problem is we’re trying to put an election prior to developing these institutions,” Brudnoy said during a panel discussion at BU on October 19. “But we have no choice. We can’t wait for decades.”
The discussion, sponsored by the U.N. Foundation program The People Speak and entitled American Power and Global Security: A Winning Combination or a Contradiction in Terms? brought together some major names in domestic and foreign policy, and as expected, prompted spirited debate. The group at the Tsai Performance Center — which included Brudnoy, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), former U.S. Congressman Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), and Nabil Fahmy, Egyptian ambassador to the United States — touched on topics ranging from the war on terrorism and America’s relationship with its allies to the controversial nation-building process.
The evening’s moderator was George Stephanopoulos, an ABC News anchor and a former senior advisor in the Clinton administration. He set the tone for the event with his opening question: “Are those elections in late January the end of the beginning of U.S. involvement, or the beginning of the end?” Brudnoy’s reaction provoked varied responses from the panelists: Biden said that Iraq is not in a position to hold a credible election, largely because of failures on the part of the United States, but McCollum pointed to Afghanistan and South Africa to demonstrate the plan’s feasibility.
The bulk of the discussion then centered on Iraq, and dealt largely with the United States’ justification for continued involvement in the Middle East. Brudnoy propounded the American “foundation myth” idea: that individual freedom and democracy are needed to develop any kind of nation. McCollum added that the choice of other groups to use terrorism as a political tactic left the United States no alternative but to attempt to spread its own beliefs.
“In order to protect our own open and free society, that they have attacked,” he said, “we have a choice of either changing the way they live, or they’ll change the way we live.”
Ambassador Fahmy drew applause when he countered by wondering whether the American method of democracy should be duplicated in a Middle Eastern country. “It doesn’t have to be the American process, and it shouldn’t be,” Fahmy said. “Trying to make the Middle East [into] Hollywood will not work.”
The panelists also questioned how much longer the United States should be responsible for Iraq’s stability, in light of the growing number of American casualties in the Middle East.
“My Rhode Island guardsmen and reservists are being overtaxed,” Chafee said. “We just had a 38-year-old guardsman killed in Iraq. As we look to plussing up, where are they going to come from? It’s a huge problem with no easy answers.”
The debate’s focus shifted to a potential change in American leadership when Stephanopoulos opened the discussion up for audience queries, as students voiced their concerns about domestic policies and problems.
“There’s two things I miss most that don’t exist in this country anymore,” said Billy Glucroft, an Emerson College student. “One is our [budget] surplus, and the other is the enormous amount of goodwill that was generated by 9/11 from the rest of the world. And I would like that back.”
Chafee responded with a pledge to rebuild the budget surplus, and Fahmy told the audience that the United States needed to view terrorism as a global problem, not simply an American problem. But Brudnoy inspired the strongest — and most conflicted — audience reaction.
“Who is the sheriff that keeps the bad guys of the world from attacking Europe?” Brudnoy asked. “We are the last best hope of the world, and like it or not, folks, that the world recognizes.”
After both the applause and the jeers subsided, Neil St. Clair (COM’08) asked McCollum if there is a plan for continued American intervention. “Is it going to stop with Iraq,” he asked, “or are we going to take over every regime whose form of government we don’t enjoy?”
“We need to encourage the opportunity for those who want to express it in the Muslim world to have individual liberty and choice,” McCollum answered. “The idea of letting them have that chance to change the world picture for their brethren . . . is absolutely essential for your future, so we don’t have another attack on the World Trade Center or the equivalent in 20 or 30 years from now.”
Finally, a student who did not give her name told Biden she had “a rare opportunity” for him to agree with the president.
“He said we cannot win the war on terror, and the next day he said we can win the war on terror,” she said. “I’d like to know which one you agree with.”
“My hope,” the senator replied, “is that by the time you are my age, this will be a chapter in American history that will have been closed.”