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April 19, 2004

Campus experts discuss ‘Iraq debacle’

By Jennifer McNulty

It was a sobering discussion that took place last week when four UCSC professors gathered to discuss the role of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Edmund "Terry" Burke
Edmund "Terry" Burke

Paul Lubeck Paul Lubeck

Alan Richards Alan Richards

Ronnie Lipschutz Ronnie Lipschutz
Photos: Victor Schiffrin, UCSC Photo Services

The four panelists, who warned at a similar event more than a year ago that a U.S. invasion would enrage the world’s Muslim population and could degenerate into a military quagmire, shared a deep despair as they discussed U.S. political and military options in the Middle East.

“We should have understood what we were getting into,” said history professor Edmund “Terry” Burke. “Nevertheless, for those of us who opposed the war, it has now become our war. Just pulling out is not a solution, even though it might make us feel a lot better about what we’ve done.”

Burke was joined by sociology professor Paul Lubeck, environmental studies professor Alan Richards, and politics professor Ronnie Lipschutz for the discussion, "After the Iraqi Debacle: Toward a New U.S. Foreign Policy in the Muslim World," sponsored by the UCSC Center for Global, International and Regional Studies. About 100 people attended the event.

As Iraqi resistance to the U.S. military presence grows, the Bush administration must seek a negotiated settlement that will keep Iraq from disintegrating into civil war, the panelists agreed. But there is no backing away from the consequences of an ill-conceived invasion that has enraged Muslims around the world, they emphasized.

The Bush administration’s rationale for the invasion--the notion that the United States could democratize the Middle East--was “deeply deluded and profoundly dangerous,” said Richards, who was invited to give a presentation during spring break to 300 uniformed officers at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.

Hearing no dissenting views, Richards told the UCSC audience that, “There are a lot of people in the U.S. armed forces who understand exactly how crazy this thing is.”

The incendiary demographics of the Muslim world include a population of more than 300 million people, two-thirds of whom are under 30 years old, and little economic opportunity. Unemployment levels are high, urban living conditions are deplorable, and government leaders are incompetent and corrupt, said Richards. Against this backdrop of social despair, horrific wartime images of American bombing and Iraqi civilian casualties are being broadcast around the world, fomenting hatred.

“Throughout the region, everything we do is in a fishbowl,” said Richards. Every U.S. action threatens to antagonize the largest population of young Arabs the world has ever known--a population that is “very deeply angry.”

“Our actions fuel their anger,” he said. “It is delusional to think that outsiders can fix the problems inside their society.”

Echoing Lubeck’s comment that the U.S. invasion was a move “right out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook,” Richards cautioned that a generation of young Middle Eastern men with “very little to lose” are turning to Islamic fundamentalism and embracing its anti-American message.

“This problem is political, not military,” Richards said of the chaos in Iraq. “There is no such thing as a military solution. We can’t dictate forms of governance to other parts of the world.”

For the Bush administration, the deterioration of the situation in Iraq could have dire political consequences in November’s presidential election, observed Lipschutz. “American troops are at risk, and the Bush administration can’t afford an upsurge in casualties,” he said.

All four speakers agreed that chances are slim that the U.S. will meet the June 30 deadline to hand over power in Iraq to a sovereign government.

“The best scenario I can come up with is to find a credible, legitimate intermediary to establish negotiations with representatives of the various groups in Iraq,” said Lipschutz, floating the possibility that the European Union could play such a role. “But because of the Bush administration’s unwillingness to admit mistakes, I think it would be extraordinarily difficult for them to agree to something like this.”

Establishing elections in Iraq won’t be easy either, cautioned Richards. “Elections require security, but you can’t have security without a legitimate government, and you can’t have a legitimate government without elections,” he said.

This is not the first time Iraq has been occupied by a foreign power, noted Burke, who recounted the period of British rule that preceded Iraq’s 1958 revolution and the political, social, and economic convulsions that accompanied the subsequent booming oil years.

Despite the media’s focus on Iraq’s ethnic cleavages, class conflicts are “at least as important, if not more important,” said Burke. “When you combine the real deprivations of 10 years of sanctions, plus recent U.S. actions, you see that their society is in real difficulty. We should not be surprised by the major social movements that are emerging.”

Calling for a return to U.S. foreign policy based on multilateralism, Lipschutz quipped, “It wasn’t very exciting, and I had trouble teaching it to my students, but it was a serviceable foreign policy.”

“Yes, let’s dust that off,” responded Richards.

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Globalization and Islamic Social Movements working group of the UCSC Center for Global, International and Regional Studies.

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