The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson and the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine William Kristol debated in front of an enormous but respectful crowd Monday night regarding the current U.S. presence in Iraq.
The debate, titled “Iraq and War on Terror: Were We Wrong?” was moderated by political science Professor Benjamin Cohen. Although the event was scheduled to take place in Campbell Hall, over 2,000 people overwhelmed its 800-person capacity. Event organizers sent the overflow crowd to Corwin Pavilion and Buchanan Hall, where attendees watched the debate broadcast on closed-circuit television.
Arguing against the war, Wilson said invading and occupying Iraq was not in America’s best interest. In contrast, Kristol said the war served to benefit both America and the growth of democracy in the Middle East.
Kristol said the war in Iraq was necessary to change negative trends in the Middle East.
“Judgment on the prudence of this war is based upon whether or not you think the status quo of the Middle East is sustainable,” Kristol said. “The story of the Middle East in the ’80s and ’90s is increased radicalism, increased support of terrorists. … I think the president was right to break this cycle, no matter how clumsily we’ve handled it. I think it’s fair to say that the trend toward democratization and reform in the region has been strengthened, not weakened.”
But Wilson said the war in Iraq instead served to strengthen terrorist groups.
“In the war on terror, we have grown the number of potential terrorists exponentially,” he said. “If you believe by abusing force you’re going … to contribute to the emergence of an Arab middle class, … you forget that doctors and lawyers do not win revolutions. Zealots win revolutions. [This war] has been a terrific recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.”
It was inevitable that the U.S. would have to either go to war with Saddam Hussein or back down from its policy of containment, Kristol said.
“The containment of Saddam was not sustainable,” Kristol said. “We couldn’t keep up the sanctions and the no-fly zones. The choice facing the Bush administration was whether to let Saddam prevail. We would have had to pull back and give him victory, which would have been disastrous.”
Kristol also said the purpose of the war was purely benevolent, and that the U.S. has nothing to gain from it.
“I think we should be proud to have done it,” Kristol said. “It’s a selfless act. We’re not getting anything out of it.”
Wilson argued that the government’s current justification for the war is different from the justification that was given before the war started. He said this difference would make the American public hesitant to support such an intervention into world affairs in the future.
“It’s said that the world is better off without Saddam, but it was never a question of that,” Wilson said. “Because we find ourselves in a war different from what we were sold – a madman, badman, moral war – we will eventually revert to our policies of isolationism and leave the Middle East a far worse place than we found it.”
Kristol disagreed, saying he did not believe the war would result in a U.S. shift to isolationist policies.
“I don’t think we’re going to cut and run in Iraq,” Kristol said. “If [John] Kerry is elected in November, I don’t think he’s going to cut and run either.”
The argument that Saddam had ties with terrorist groups – one of the original justifications for invading Iraq – was without merit, Wilson said.
“There is no evidence that Saddam had operational ties with al-Qaeda,” Wilson said. “As if this secular, megalomaniacal autocrat was going to give away the crown jewels of his defense program, his supposed weapons of mass destruction, to a bunch of nihilists that had pledged enmity to his secular rule.”
Kristol said ties between dictators and terrorists are very common in world politics and that there was no reason to think the situation in Iraq was any different.
“There were ties between Saddam and terrorists,” Kristol said. “The more we learn about these dictators, the more we see that they trade [weapons of mass destruction] with terrorists and do have ties with these groups.”
Meghan McBrearty, a second-year Spanish and psychology major, said she agreed with Wilson but preferred Kristol’s presentation.
“I felt that Wilson had a lot of great points, but Kristol enunciated his thoughts better,” McBrearty said. “Kristol’s arguments were easier to follow, but Wilson’s made more sense to me.”
Wilson, a UCSB graduate, acted as U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the first Iraq war and was responsible for freeing 150 American hostages seized by Iraq during this time. He was also the last American official to meet with Saddam Hussein before the first Iraq war began.
In addition to being the editor and founder of the Weekly Standard, Kristol also serves as a regular guest on the Fox News Channel. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during the first Bush administration. He has also taught politics at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Congresswoman Lois Capps said she was pleased with the crowd’s restraint and respect for the speakers.
“They may not have necessarily changed people’s minds, but I think they helped people to understand the other side’s point of view,” Capps said. “I think good, honest debate and discussion is the heart of democracy.”