Author: Brian Fung
National editor for The Washington Post Rajiv Chandrasekaran criticized the Bush administration for mismanaging the Iraq war in a lecture on Oct. 30 about his experiences as the Post’s Baghdad bureau chief before and after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Seats at the talk were in short supply as students, faculty and staff crowded into McCardell Bicentennial Hall to attend the event, a part of the College’s “Meet the Press” guest lecture series.
Accusations that Chandrasekaran leveled at U.S. officials included the hiring of unqualified GOP loyalists to work in Iraq, their failure to communicate effectively with local leaders and the misuse of valuable assets in the face of a growing insurgency. An accompanying string of rapid-fire anecdotes often provoked incredulous laughter from the audience.
Though open campus dialogue about the Iraq War has been lackluster for much of the conflict’s duration, audience members at last Tuesday’s lecture probed Chandrasekaran with incisive questions about, among other things, the degree of access he enjoyed with respect to high-level officials and the role of private military contractors in the region.
Chandrasekaran recounted the history of the Iraq War as seen through the lens of the Green Zone, the sheltered seven-square-mile part of Baghdad that since 2003 has served as the U.S.’s base of political power in Iraq.
“The sub-Saharan privation and wild-west lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around outside the walls,” said Chandrasekaran. “On the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed.”
Chandrasekaran also described his experience as a journalist in a conflict zone. He credited the U.S. invasion with actually making his job easier – for a time. Where he once had to be accompanied to interviews by a government thug, he said, Saddam Hussein’s ousting meant that he could travel anywhere and talk to anyone. Soon, however, the insurgency made being an American in Iraq more dangerous than it had ever been under Hussein.
“We did all sorts of creative things to cope,” said Chandrasekaran, who culturally camouflaged his armored Jeep Cherokees to look like Iraqi vehicles. “One was made into the Flower of Lebanon taxi cab, and the other was made into a genuine Shiite ghetto-mobile.”
A Palpable Silence
Scholar-in-Residence Sue Halpern, who first established the “Meet the Press” lecture series in 2003, said she hopes Chandrasekaran’s lecture encouraged students to think critically about political issues on a campus where public discussion about the Iraq War is nearly nonexistent.
“The costs of the war are being borne in so many different ways,” said Halpern in an interview. “We need to talk about it. We need to be educated by people who actually know something about it who don’t simply have opinions about it.”
But even opinions, according to College Republicans co-president Heather Pangle ’10, are in short supply at the College. With a Democratic majority of students on campus, conservatives here say it is often difficult to provoke political discussion without taking withering fire from the left.
Tensions between liberals and conservatives exploded two months ago when the College Republicans displayed a number of posters across campus to commemorate the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Many found the posters, which depicted acts of hate being perpetrated against the United States by Muslim extremists, highly objectionable. As the anti-war organization Iraq Study Group retaliated with posters of its own, one of the disputed displays was found torn from its bulletin board.
Meanwhile, several attributed the lack of rational debate on Iraq to the difficulty of connecting to a war that requires little personal commitment and is literally half a world away.
“We haven’t sacrificed at all,” said Garofano. “Not one bit. As far as taxes go, as far as a draft goes, we haven’t been told to sacrifice one bit.”
According to Halpern, even thinking about the war – now in its fourth year – is fatiguing to many Americans who simply want to live their lives.
“One of the problems with having a conversation about a war that is far away, not only geographically, but also from our day-to-day experience,” said Halpern, “is that it becomes somewhat theoretical.”
The news coming out of Iraq, however, is hardly abstract – a notion that has led some at the College to question why students remain largely uninformed about the conflict, let alone contenting themselves with being politically inactive.
Some suggested that the College’s relative seclusion might contribute to the problem. Middlebury’s rural location prompts many students to describe the College as a bubble where individual interests often take precedence, rendering news secondary if not irrelevant.
But Pooja Shahani ’09 has little patience for those who complain that news is hard to come by in pastoral Vermont.
“Proctor has newspapers all the time,” said Shahani, who urged students to routinely scan major headlines. “It’s not that hard. Don’t use that as an excuse, because that’s no excuse at all.”
Shahani went on to commend student organizations for educating students about the war in Iraq. Dining hall displays, sponsored by the Iraq Study Group and the College Republicans, have in recent weeks sought to explain the major presidential candidates’ different positions on the next step in Iraq. Carmola described as “very educational” a presentation and discussion last week, sponsored by Dialogues for Peace, on the current Kurdish uprising near the Iraqi-Turkish border. And, according to Halpern, the College’s “Meet the Press” series will continue over the next several months with lectures by reporters like Adi Raval, who has served in Iraq as the BBC’s bureau chief in Baghdad.
Revelations and Revolutions
While much of the campus languishes in political apathy, there was, however, no evidence of it on Oct. 30. Students walked away from Chandrasekaran’s talk visibly shocked by some of his anecdotes.
“The most disturbing thing to me was when he got into the screening for the Coalition Provisional Authority,” said Jeff Garofano ‘10.5. “Some [job candidates] were asked if they supported Bush, if they opposed Roe v. Wade. Not only is that incompetent, not only is it cronyism, it’s almost its own creed.”
Deb Wakefield ’11 called some of Chandrasekaran’s stories, such as one about a 24-year-old college graduate tasked with reopening Iraq’s stock exchange, “frightening examples of people who were totally inadequate.”
Chandrasekaran received mixed reactions to his explanation of a developing proposal for reforming Iraq into a semi-federalist state. Under the new plan, which, according to Chandrasekaran, is only now being quietly discussed within private circles of government, officials would devolve more autonomy to local leaders at the expense of the central government, with the latter still retaining some degree of authority.
Director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs and James Jermain Professor of Political Economy Allison Stanger, said she was skeptical of the proposal.
“If you were starting with a clean slate, maybe, but at this point in time, I don’t think it’s likely to bear fruit,” said Stanger in an interview. “Turning it over to the Iraqi people is a recipe for civil war. I can’t think of any democratic federal regime that has been successfully constructed after the constituent groups have started killing each other.”
But Stanger’s colleague, C.A. Johnson Fellow in Political Philosophy Kateri Carmola, disagreed, arguing that, even as the initiative to promote security gets handed back to Iraqis, nationalism might still supersede sectarian divisions and hold the country together. “Greater autonomy is the way of the future for states so they don’
t have to break up, but they can still give greater rights to their minorities,” said Carmola. “It should have been implemented from the very beginning.”
The plan still faces significant obstacles. Beyond the fear among some Iraqis that it would see the country effectively cleaved into three – a notion that Chandrasekaran said was misguided – the proposal has received little support among American policymakers.
Whether the federalism initiative will be implemented, and whether it could ultimately stabilize Iraq, are questions that have yet to be settled. But it is clear that whatever the answer, its implications will have profound effects upon U.S. policy abroad – which is why, some say, that the College needs more debate.
“Being well-informed is something a lot of college students don’t have time or don’t make time for,” said Pangle. “But by having a different opinion in front of you – or multiple opinions in front of you – you’re forced to make a decision as to which one you agree with, or which one is more correct. And that’s important.”