“The brakes on this runaway train, this runaway history, can be applied, should be applied, and now,” said Dr. Walter Licht, standing at a podium in Huntsman Hall as faculty, staff, and students continued pressing into the crowded classroom, seating themselves in aisles and on the floor near his feet.
Licht, professor of history and associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, was introducing a teach-in organized in November by the newly formed Penn Faculty and Staff Against War to address the looming possibility of an American invasion of Iraq. “The orchestrated rush to war, with the full articulation last summer of the Bush administration’s new unilateralist approach to foreign affairs, are ample grounds to leave many of us feeling very powerless and listless,” he said, lamenting a lack of critique of the potential war from Democrats and the media.
As the room overflowed with members of the Penn community, a second classroom was added with the help of Webcast technology. In addition to Licht, five other Penn professors shared their views on the threat of war.
For Political Science Professor Rogers Smith, a regime change in Iraq may be of less concern than a change of ideology in Washington. “The regime change I’m concerned about is whether, in this period, we are in the process of explicitly embracing the conception of the American regime as an openly imperial republic,” he said, warning against the use of “preemptive wars” to preserve the United States’ status as world superpower.
Another political-science professor, Dr. Ian Lustick, unfurled an American flag as he took the podium after Smith, citing the pitfalls of abandoning the American flag to pro-war forces as one lesson learned from the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. “Every demonstration must have American flags, if only to prevent the cops from beating you.”
Lustick argued that during the other Bush administration, Republican leaders had been cautiously in favor of a war in Iraq that would fulfill American “fantasies of democratization” in the Middle East. But as the second Bush administration edged closer to the possibility of war in Iraq, President Bush’s “leadership was too uncertain to advance clearly toward implementing the invasion,” Lustick added. “And then came 9/11.”
“We cannot say what the war’s consequences will be” in the Middle East, said Dr. Robert Vitalis, associate professor of political science. “It’s going to be a hard-enough time trying to figure out what the consequences were for the region” 10 years after the Gulf War.
“Analysts who think they know what’s going to happen are telling you more about themselves and their prejudices than about the world,” he said, adding that there is no single policy or set of political moves that can be counted on to lead to the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East.
Dr. Edward Herman, emeritus professor of finance, acknowledged that Saddam Hussein “has treated his enemies and minority groups very badly.” But, he added, “the pretense that this justifies [Iraqi] regime change by external intervention is hypocritical.” He pointed out that Hussein had the United States’ blessing in using chemical and biological warfare in the 1980s, when Iraq was combating Iran, then the U.S.’s enemy.
“The only subject the countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria can ever agree on,” Dr. Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet remarked half-jokingly, “is the suppression of the Kurds.” The assistant professor of history added that while no one can predict the war’s consequences, U.S. policymakers must understand the complexity of the situation they may inherit in case of victory. “Can America realistically devise a diplomatic solution that would please all the countries involved—especially Turkey, which retains a sizable Kurdish community within its borders?”
Given her own identity as an Iranian-born American citizen, “It’s really ironic that I’m on this panel defending Iraq from being involved in war with America,” she noted. “The reason I say this is because one is sometimes left with the impression that in the Middle East, old enmities die hard. And I wanted to be a great example of how that is not the case.” Nonetheless, she warned, “by waging war against Iraq, the United States will almost certainly open a Pandora’s Box that will unleash enmities dating back centuries—despite the fact that I’m here speaking today.”
—Sarah Blackman C’03