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College Perspectives on the Iraq Debate

October 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: For the second straight autumn, college students across America began their academic year with a nation on a war footing.

Last year, it was the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, which drew widespread public support. But this year the question of regime change in Iraq is producing sharply different opinions. Sporadic protests are sprouting up at colleges across the country. From Wesleyan to Wisconsin to Berkeley, some students and faculty are demonstrating against the prospect of war. However, they’ve been overshadowed by demonstrations over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue that seems to have more currency on campus.

During the Vietnam War, college campuses were a focal point of opposition for tens of thousands of students. Today, with only talk of a shooting war, the protests are small, their participants few. But no matter the size, they are increasingly coordinated. A series of protests this past Monday linked schools in the Boston area. And there are large demonstrations planned for October 26 in Washington and San Francisco. There are also students who support action against Iraq, but so far few have demonstrated.

With us in the studio to discuss student sentiment on campus are four college newspaper columnists: Vincent Lloyd of The Daily Princetonian and Princeton University, Joseph Godsey of The Tiger at Clemson University, Leah Caldwell of The Daily Texan at the University of Texas in Austin, and Mousa Hamad of The Broadside at George Mason University in Virginia. Welcome to all four of you.

Vincent Lloyd, has the question of military intervention in Iraq gripped the campus at Princeton? I mean, is it something that people are talking about?

VINCENT LLOYD, Princeton University: Well, shortly after September 11, 2001, there were really strong active groups that were formed on both sides of the war on terrorism — Princeton Peace Network and Princeton Committee Against Terrorism, these two groups have really been reenergized in the past several weeks around this issue of Iraq.

The peace organization, holding a large rally on Saturday of this week, and the Committee Against Terrorism publishing still a newspaper promoting the Bush administration policy on this issue. And so people have really begun talking about this again, especially in the last couple of weeks. The beginning of the year it was still more sporadic, but it’s increasingly a main issue on people’s minds.

TERENCE SMITH: Mousa Hamad, what about the situation at Georgetown University?

MOUSA HAMAD, George Mason University: The situation at Mason… our campus is extremely diverse. We have a large Arab population, a large Muslim population, which fuels to the added energy of already fact that people have formed their opinions on this issue. And when you factor in that with people who are strongly for or against it, there’s definitely a lot of talk on both sides as far as, you know, people are voicing their opinions and definitely making them heard.

TERENCE SMITH: Leah Caldwell, what about the situation at the University of Texas? Your former governor seems to know what he thinks the country ought to do. Has it got the attention?

LEAH CALDWELL, University of Texas, Austin: Yes, definitely. There’s a broadening anti-war movement at U.T. It’s definitely gaining momentum with different organizations on campus. It’s definitely an issue of conversation. There’s even student government initiative by a member of student government that actually wants to formally oppose a war in Iraq. So…

TERENCE SMITH: And is there sentiment as well in support of military intervention?

LEAH CALDWELL: Yes, but it’s definitely not as vocal as the antiwar protest, but it is evident.

TERENCE SMITH: Joseph Godsey, what’s the situation at Clemson?

JOSEPH GODSEY, Clemson University: At Clemson, I think that one thing that is positive is while people form strong opinions about the issue, there’s a lot of discussion about, you know, “let’s look at both sides of the issue. Let’s break down the points, should we declare war or should we not?”

It is impressive to see how Clemson is reacting to it and actually weighing in the points of the issue, rather than immediately making a decision on it.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you discern the prevailing view, say at Princeton? I mean, I know you’re not a pollster, but from talking to people

VINCENT LLOYD: Well, I think there’s a lot more vocal antiwar sentiment, and seeing educational events like teach-ins that have happened greatly attended on the antiwar side. So I think the vast majority of the campus community is either ambivalent or siding with the antiwar side of the issue.

TERENCE SMITH: But you said there is this other group.

VINCENT LLOYD: Yes, there is a small but vocal group that’s supporting the Bush administration efforts in the situation in Iraq.

TERENCE SMITH: Mousa Hamad, what do you find?

MOUSA HAMAD: George Mason, it’s almost that if you went to talk to ten people, five would be for and five would be against. It’s definitely really, I feel, like a really big split. I feel that definitely goes back to George Mason being one of the more diverse campuses, and with that diversity comes, you know, many different opinions. And I think it’s hard to pick one way or the other which way it’s leaning. Both sides are vocal, both sides are definitely trying to make their opinions heard, more so than antiwar as everybody expressed on their campuses as well, but those that are in favor of war definitely submitting columns; there’s definitely stuff going around, letters to the editor, and such, which would lead one to believe that the sentiment is pretty split at Mason.

TERENCE SMITH: Leah, you said that the preponderant opinion is opposed to military intervention at your school, at your campus. Is it gathering momentum in terms of attention to the subject and interest in it?

LEAH CALDWELL: Yes, definitely. Many people on campus will come up to different groups and they’re essentially curious on what the Bush administration’s plans are. And they want to know more information on it so they’re better able to, you know, make an informed decision on whether or not we should be intervening and attacking Iraq.

TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. Can you judge the sentiment at Clemson?

JOSEPH GODSEY: I think, as everybody else expressed on their campus, it’s really not a clear… it’s not clear on either side where the majority of the campus stands. But it’s easier to hear students who are speaking out. And then also there’s always students who tend not to express their views. They’re reserved about it.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, you’re columnists and at your different newspapers. When you’ve written about… have you written about the subject and when you have, if you have, what reaction?

VINCENT LLOYD: Well, I’ve heard about this in terms of comparing it with, for instance, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, also in light of U.N. resolutions which aren’t being enforced. And my opinion in the column was more that it’s through selective action on the part of the Bush administration to be enforcing these U.N. resolutions on the part of Iraq and not on the part of Israel-Palestine. And, of course, whenever you write something about Israel- Palestine, you get people’s very strong opinions, and that was the reaction that I experienced at my campus.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, what did they say?

VINCENT LLOYD: Well, people talking about anti-Semitism… in the… when you’re criticizing…

TERENCE SMITH: Accusing you of it?

VINCENT LLOYD: Yes, yeah. And other comments along those lines.

TERENCE SMITH: And from the other side of the argument?

VINCENT LLOYD: There have been people very supportive, of course. There’s a divestment from Israel campaign on the Princeton Campus, which has been very supportive of those sorts of critiques of Israeli policies.

TERENCE SMITH: And did you, beyond noting selective… what you called selective enforcement of resolutions, did you take a position yourself?

VINCENT LLOYD: On the war?

TERENCE SMITH: On the idea of military intervention?

VINCENT LLOYD: I haven’t vocally taken a position on it.

TERENCE SMITH: What about you, Mousa?

MOUSA HAMAD: Well, Well, I’ve written several pieces that have gone in our opinion section, and as usual, you do get feedback when you write about an issue so charged. And I actually had one guy tell me that I was a Hulk Hogan fan just looking for a fight.

TERENCE SMITH: Was that because you had spoken out in support of the President’s position?

MOUSA HAMAD: I’m very in support of his position, because I feel… I made the analogy of when you know you’re going to get in a fight, you don’t let the other guy hit you first. And everybody’s arguments are well, Saddam hasn’t done anything to us yet and why should we go in? And, you know, you almost compare it to the appeasement– you don’t want to go as far as to say– but the appeasement that took place before War World II: You give someone an inch, and they’re going to take a mile. And I think there is a point you just need to stop it. I think there’s a point where it just goes too far.

TERENCE SMITH: And what reaction did you get when you wrote that?

MOUSA HAMAD: I got the reaction of being accused of looking for a fight. I got the reaction of being naive to what’s going on. I was told that I was wrong. You get people… people are very charged about the issue and they just… and I… the following issue we had a letter to the editor from a gentleman that just went through and refuted every point that was made in my column, in my piece. So…

TERENCE SMITH: Leah, what have you written and what has been the reaction to it?

LEAH CALDWELL: Well, I’ve written on, basically, the Bush administration’s motives for this war they’re about to wage in Iraq, which they will. I believe it is imminent, even though there has not been credible evidence against Saddam Hussein that he possesses weapons of mass destruction. No matter how hard the Bush administration tries, it is simply not there. The reaction that I’ve received…

TERENCE SMITH: Was your column questioning the motives?

LEAH CALDWELL: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: It was?

LEAH CALDWELL: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: To what end?

LEAH CALDWELL: To what end? As… essentially how the Bush administration is not necessarily after, you know, human rights for Iraqi citizens, or it’s not even about weapons of mass destruction. It’s simply about controlling the resources in the Middle East.

TERENCE SMITH: Oil.

LEAH CALDWELL: Oil.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, what sort of response did you get to that when you wrote it?

LEAH CALDWELL: Well, like, by and large, it’s a positive response. Definitely people appreciate activism in writing, you know, writing that promotes change and that, you know, definitely want to see humanitarian aid instead of bombs being dropped on citizens. And… but you get the occasional comment, you know, “hippies.” You know, which is not really derogatory, but some conservatives think it is.

TERENCE SMITH: How about you, Joseph?

JOSEPH GODSEY: Well, I’ve kind of related the situation with Iraq a lot to the international foreign policy of the United States say in relation to international criminal courts, some things in the past year that the Bush administration has really taken action on in one way or another. So in that respect, I really entertain the thought of how our foreign policy is moving as a nation and how it is going to affect us later on.

TERENCE SMITH: And how did you suggest it was moving, in what direction?

JOSEPH GODSEY: I think, in general, we’re moving more towards being a unilateral nation and acting alone, and I think we’re at a stage, an era in the world where we can’t survive alone as a superpower. And we have to acknowledge movements like the international criminal court and other global movements and say, “you know, at least look at the merits of them before striking them down initially.” It’s not just about the U.S. as an entity alone, but it’s “let’s look at what other people have to say and their thoughts on issues.”

TERENCE SMITH: What reaction did you get to that?

JOSEPH GODSEY: I think… I mean, you still have kind of the remnants of September 11 and the patriotism that was built up for that. I mean, traditionally, the United States hasn’t been as much of a foreign policy has not been our strongest suit as a nation because we’ve also had the choice to… we’ve had the ability not to have that. So there wasn’t a huge uproar, because I didn’t address the Iraq situation as directly, going down and breaking down the situation. But people did, you know, say “why are you so concerned about foreign policy and working together, you know, for human rights?”– and things of that nature.

TERENCE SMITH: One of the great debates — I would ask any of you this — is, of course, whether the United States should go it alone if necessary, if the allies don’t support the U.S. in a military intervention. How does that influence your views? What… does it… if you had to do it alone, how would that change your view, if at all?

VINCENT LLOYD: If the U.S. had to go…

TERENCE SMITH: Yes.

VINCENT LLOYD: Well, my view would be that the U.S., whenever taking action, should be trying to build a consensus among the international community before unilaterally acting, and not unilaterally acting if there is not an international consensus about an issue. Looking not just to other nation-state actors, but also human rights communities, civil society, et cetera.

TERENCE SMITH: And Joseph, you were making that point as well.

JOSEPH GODSEY: Right. I think it’s really one of the biggest faults I think we’re making right now, we are not clearly stepping through the mechanisms of the international community as proposed and going through international law. I mean, that’s… as much as justice and system of law is a basis for life in the U.S., it also has to be for the international community.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Mousa, you have written in support of military intervention. What if that military intervention had to be conducted largely or solely by the United States?

MOUSA HAMAD: Well, going on something that he just said, you know, that we need to go through the different aspects of the international community and so forth, well, what happens when we do that and we still have no results? You know, then what do we do? I mean, the object of every nation, of every country is survival, and the object of every country is to look out for itself first. And if we go through the international… you know, if we do the international song and dance, so to speak, and, you know, act what the U.N. wants and what all the international bodies want and we still get back to where we are now, you know, then what?

TERENCE SMITH: But do you want to see United States do that first?

MOUSA HAMAD: Obviously, it would be within everybody’s benefit if the United States went ahead and acted with everybody else and there was… because Saddam would then see it’s not just the United States; there’s an overwhelming consensus that something is wrong. But should it come to it and the United States feel it necessary and there be overwhelming evidence, I would definitely support unilateral action by the United States.

TERENCE SMITH: Leah, what do you think of that?

LEAH CALDWELL: Essentially, America should not treat world opinion as irrelevant, because it is the most relevant aspect of whether or not we should go to war or not, and the U.N. has final word, not America.

TERENCE SMITH: And so?

LEAH CALDWELL: And so we should definitely treat the U.N. as an organization with respect.

TERENCE SMITH: And you would seek that support, –

LEAH CALDWELL: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: — but what if, as Mousa suggests, there came a point when that support was not there?

LEAH CALDWELL: There should be no unilateral American action — none.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. That’s going to be the last word. Thank you all four very much.