Dancing Around the Realities
PREDICTABLY, THE MEDIA played up the raucous disruption at Ohio State University, where the Clinton administration's top Cabinet members were heckled about the Iraq crisis. But many of the questions that were asked were quite serious -- and were a lot better than the answers that were given.
The questions were direct. The answers were like an old soft-shoe dance around the questions. That may be clever when sidestepping questions about Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones. But nobody wants cuteness when it comes to questions about killing and dying.
One questioner pointed out that "the international community has been opposed to the bombing." This included countries in the Middle East, who would seem to be the most threatened by Iraq. "If nobody is asking for our help," the questioner said, how can you justify military action?
To this, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded with lots of words but no answer.
Another question was whether an estimate of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths was now "a realistic possibility."
Secretary Albright replied, "we care more about the Iraqi people than Saddam Hussein does." That is probably true but it is not an answer to the question.
Another question: "Why do you think the other members of the Security Council have been reluctant to support the military action, other than Great Britain?"
Secretary Albright shifted to the fact that other Security Council members had voted to support the resolution that Iraq is disobeying. True again -- and irrelevant again. The question was why only the British are with us on military action.
This is not to say that we should never take military action without international support. In fact, the time is long overdue to reconsider whether we should continue entangling our foreign policy and military action with United Nations politics. But, so long as we are playing this game, we ought to give straight answers about it.
"Why bomb Iraq, when other countries have committed similar violations?" another questioner asked.
Madeleine Albright: "Let me say that when there are problems such as you describe, we point them out and make very clear our opposition to them." Are we talking about pointing something out or about going to war?
The very billing of this event as a "town meeting" was phony, as one of the Ohio State students pointed out. A town meeting is where citizens express their own opinions, whereas this was a format in which only questions were permitted. Yet, when students wanted to comment, instead of just asking questions, both the journalists conducting this event and the Cabinet members on stage treated this as illegitimate.
It is certainly illegitimate for a question-and-answer period after a speech to be treated as an occasion for another speech from someone in the audience. However, this was not billed as a speech, but as a "town meeting" in which "the American people" would express themselves.
That ploy had worked before, when Bill Clinton or his representatives were able to find sympathetic audiences on college campuses and then misrepresent these highly atypical audiences as "the American people." Like so many clever men, Clinton does not know when to stop being clever.
Even after it became painfully obvious to all that this public relations ploy had turned into a disaster, the Clinton administration still could not talk straight. On the next day's talk shows, Secretary of State Albright sidestepped the fiasco and called it an example of the "vibrancy" of American democracy. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen called it "a tremendous example of what democracy is all about."
The larger tragedy in all this is that the Clinton administration has treated foreign policy as just another area in which to play games with words. When we are on the verge of sending young Americans to their deaths, and of unavoidably killing Iraqi civilians, then the issues deserve to be treated much more seriously than sex scandals or illegal fund-raising.
Andre Agassi said that image is everything but nobody elected him president and put the lives
of young Americans in his
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric