The Nation magazine was well represented on June 3 at Pace University’s public forum on “9/11, Iraq, Empire and Democracy.” Featured panelists included Egyptian professor and human-rights activist Saad Edin Ibrahim; Chris Toensing, editor of Middle East Report; Jonathan Schell, Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute; and former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens. The evening was convened by (former Nation editor) Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, editors of the recently published Iraq War Reader, as a way to extend the debates–over unilateralism, pre-emption, the UN and US foreign policy–that surfaced in their bipartisan collection.
The evening’s two overarching themes were the invasion of Iraq and what the future of the Middle East might hold. On the first question, with the initially scheduled Weekly Standard editor William Kristol unable to attend, it fell to Hitchens alone to defend the US war. Citing Saddam’s tyrannical rule, Iraq’s admission earlier last year that it had a program to develop weapons of mass destruction and the fact that it hosted “international gangsters” like Abu Nidal, Hitchens argued that the war was ten years overdue. He took aim at the antiwar movement, whose members, he claimed, had abdicated their historic responsibilities. He was glad their political tendency had not held sway for, had it, “Kuwait would still be the nineteenth province of Iraq, the ethnic cleansing of Kurdistan would have gone unpunished, Bosnia would now be part of Greater Serbia, Kosovo would be another cleansed howling wilderness and the Taliban would still be the government of Afghanistan.”
In marked contrast, Schell affirmed the central role of peaceful movements in bringing about democratic change, one of the stated aims of the US invasion. Pointing to the flowering of democratic regimes in the last two decades of the twentieth century, Schell noted that the majority of these transformations from the Philippines to Czechoslovakia had been brought about through popular peaceful movements. He contrasted what he considers authentic regime changes with what he called the absurdity of imposing freedom and “democracy” by force. America’s occupation was, he argued, not a new story but the “story of the twentieth century: In almost every case the foreign conqueror was driven out.”
On the subject of Iraqi reconstruction, panelists were unanimous in their condemnation of the occupying power’s inept management of Iraq. Hitchens went so far as to say that “someone in Washington should be impeached.” This drew loud cheers from the largely antiwar audience of students, faculty, journalists and other followers of current events.
The struggle for democracy and liberal reform in the Middle East was another recurrent theme. The audience and panel members reserved special warmth and respect for Saad Ibrahim. A leader in the fight for democracy in Egypt, the professor was jailed along with twenty-seven others for attempting to monitor elections, and sentenced to a seven-year term, but he became a cause célèbre, and was recently ordered released by an Egyptian court.
Perhaps paradoxically, this physically frail man who had paid the highest price for the values of peace, justice and democracy being espoused that night, was the most hopeful and the most generous. He stressed the inextricability of democracy and peace. The facts of his case proved, he said, that the pro-democracy battle in the Middle East could be fought and won. Citing the more than a dozen wars in the Middle East in the past fifty years, Ibrahim insisted that “If you want to avoid another war, if you want to avoid another Saddam Hussein, you have to work toward peace and democracy in the Middle East.” This seemed to be one idea that every panelist on the stage could support.