October 31, 2003

Political Groups Debate Reconstruction of Iraq

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Campus Democrats and Republicans squared off in a short session of verbal sparring last night, as the topic of the postwar reconstruction of Iraq drew roughly 50 students to Goldwin Smith Hall’s Kaufmann Auditorium for a debate organized by the Cornell Political Coalition.

Jake Bronsther ’05 of the CPC moderated, with Raj Shah ’06, Harrison Haney ’07 and Mike Lepage ’05 representing the Cornell College Republicans, and Ben Gruenbaum ’05, Sun columnist Jake Honigman ’04 and Steve Gross ’07 representing the Cornell Democrats.

Lepage opened for the Republicans, arguing that media reports have largely ignored positive developments in Iraq, such as reopening and construction of hospitals and schools. Citing a proliferation of newspapers, a “sprouting” of formerly banned satellite dishes and an election of Baghdad city council members, Lepage elaborated on his contention that the coalition forces in Iraq are helping to establish democratic political institutions.

Iraq may serve to spread democracy, Lepage said: “The farther Iraq moves to democracy, the farther its neighbors will move to democracy.”

As to the grounds for the war, Lepage contended that “the onus was on Saddam to prove the destruction” of weapons of mass destruction, not for the United States to prove the existence of the weapons.

Since Iraq never abided by the terms of the cease-fire after the first war in Iraq, the United States was on firm ground in pursuing the recent war, Lepage said, noting that weapons of mass destruction could still be found in Iraq, a country roughly the size of California.

“They could be buried under some guy’s house,” Lepage said.

Lepage cited recent Gallup and Zogby polls in arguing that Iraq’s citizens supported the U.S. efforts, and he characterized postwar violence in Iraq as a product of groups threatened by the possibility of a democratic system.

For the opposing side, Honigman began by reading President George W. Bush’s statements, while still governor of Texas, against using the U.S. military for nation-building. Honigman argued that Bush used “doctored intelligence” and the still-fresh wound of Sept. 11 to convince Americans to support a war against Iraq.

Honigman noted that members of the Bush administration have ties to the Project for a New American Century, a group that since its founding in 1997 advocated for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.

“You would think they would have carefully planned for the war,” Honigman said.

Instead, Grossman argued for the Democrats, postwar Iraq has suffered from “industrial-grade looting” of its infrastructure, several months with no electrical power, destruction of cultural artifacts and infighting among various U.S. governmental agencies. Grossman noted that the recent rocket attack on Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ’65 was but one high-profile example of the current dangers in Iraq’s capital.

Gruenbaum continued Grossman’s argument, contending that the Bush administration’s plan for the reconstruction of Iraq largely excluded the international community and Iraqi people.

Responding to the Cornell Democrats’ arguments, Haney disagreed with characterizations of the war being one of American unilateralism, pointing out that various other countries were in the coalition with the United States.

“The prefix ‘uni’ means ‘one.’ If I hear another person misuse the word ‘unilateralism,’ I think I might spontaneously combust,” Haney said.

Haney also argued that the war in Iraq can be reasonably linked to Sept. 11 in that it is “part of the larger war against terrorism.”

Shah echoed Haney’s point and added his argument that Iraq is uniquely important because of its geographical location.

“The heart of global terrorism and terror in general is the Middle East,” Shah said.

Gruenbaum questioned the propriety of awarding large contracts in Iraq to major U.S. corporations such as Halliburton and Bechtel. Though the Republicans argued that the two companies were among the largest ones and thus best able to handle the task, Gruenbaum remained unconvinced.

“Wouldn’t the avoidance of any appearance of impropriety be best?” Gruenbaum said, arguing for a transparent, international bidding of contracts related to Iraqi reconstruction.

“Real international involvement in [the reconstruction of Iraq] would shorten the time that American corporations [have to] line their own pockets and therefore is inconsistent with the principles of Karl Rove Political Marketing 101,” Gruenbaum said.

Bronsther then asked students in the crowd to raise one finger if they had a question with a liberal slant, two fingers for a conservative question and a fist for a neutral question. No fists were raised.

Jim Shliferstein ’06, also a Sun columnist, asked the Democrats how their arguments could counter the “overall better quality of life” of the Iraqi people today.

Gruenbaum fielded the question, arguing that such logic would lead to countless campaigns in other nations and that the net result would increase international instability.

“Killing one terrorist creates two,” Greenbaum said.

In closing arguments, the Democrats focused on the need for the United States to be an “honest broker” in its international affairs in order to reduce anti-Americanism abroad.

For the Republicans, Lepage closed by arguing that the war in Iraq “has nothing to do with being an honest broker — it has to do with being right.”

A feisty debater until the last bell, Lepage also thanked his opposition for “even debating logic and reason.”

After the debate, Gruenbaum commented that the active audience participation, from cheers to boos, was the best part of the experience.

Bobby Vainshtein ’07 attended the lecture in part because of an anthropology assignment about representations of the war in Iraq in popular discourse. Vainshtein did not see any clear winner but was most interested by the underlying assumptions of each side’s positions.

“It was almost a reflection of what [debates] are going on in the national scene,” he said.

Archived article by Dan Galindo