Sept. 19, 2007 — Just days after President Bush followed Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s testimony before Congress with an address to the nation announcing a limited troop draw-down, the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs inaugurated its National Discussion and Debate Series with a spirited conversation about the United States’ best interests in the Middle East — and how the U.S. should proceed in Iraq.
The debate was first of five that the center, in partnership with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, will host during the 2007–08 academic year on various issues of the day.
Produced in an “in the round” format in the Dome Room of the University’s Rotunda, the debate featured four of the country’s leading experts on Iraq and the Middle East, debating the resolution: “Keeping troops in Iraq is vital for American national interests in the Middle East.” Margaret Warner, senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," moderated the discussion. Fred Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and lead architect of the “surge” plan, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and former Central Intelligence Agency Middle East specialist, argued for the resolution. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council, argued against it.
In the first 20 minutes, each participant had five minutes to make a case. Kagan and Gerecht argued that the U.S. must remain in Iraq to continue fighting Al Qaida in Iraq, and to prevent Iran from radicalizing its Shia population and further destabilizing the region.
“[Al Qaida’s] continued existence in Iraq, if it were not checked, would pose a great danger to American interests throughout the region, and ultimately I believe throughout the world,” Kagan said. The global Al Qaida movement has indicated that it regards Iraq as the central front in the war against the United States, Kagan said, and pulling out of Iraq would allow the group to take advantage of what would be perceived as a U.S. defeat.
But the problem with the U.S. mission in Iraq, offered Mathews and Freeman, is that we see it only through the lens of the American effort, which distorts the picture of what’s happening inside the country. Current U.S. policy, combined with an extremely unstable and dangerous situation, makes an ongoing involvement futile, they argued.
“[I]n a struggle like this, an insurgency against a foreign military power, in a political struggle for power, there is universal truth,” Mathews said. “And that is that there is no military solution. There is only a political solution. This was true for the French in Algeria. This was true for the Russians in Chechnya. It is true for the Israelis with the Palestinians. It is universally true.”
Warner asked the questions in the next, more free-form segment, and addressed the influence of Iran in the Middle East politics and Iraq’s internal politics, the importance of benchmarks, and how the military is affected by keeping troops on the ground. A third segment allowed the debaters to respond to questions from the audience both in the Rotunda and on the Miller Center web site.
While the debate took place in the Rotunda, a separate event at Newcomb Hall, co-sponsored by the Arts and Sciences Council, offered U.Va. students and the general public an opportunity to watch a live feed and to ask questions of Warner, Freeman and Gerecht afterward.
The debate was webcast live and archived on the Miller Center Web site at www.millercenter.org/debates. It aired on PBS affiliates in Charlottesville, Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk and Central Virginia, as well as on WVTF public radio, and will air on the new PBS World digital television channel later this month. The conversation continues via interactive Miller Center group pages on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Google and Yahoo.
The National Discussion and Debate Series, the Miller Center’s newest initiative, was created by Miller Center director Gerald L. Baliles as way to educate and engage the public on issues of national importance to the governance of the country. The goal, Baliles said, is to “elevate the level of civility in the public discussion of the complex questions of our time.”
“Too often, the idea of ‘debate’ in this country is overtaken by sound bites and heated arguments rather than a reasoned, informed exchange of ideas,” Baliles said. “This series is an extension of the Miller Center’s mission to examine important issues, and through it we aim to contribute to the national conversation with a genuine, thoughtful give-and-take that will both inform people and provoke dialogue.”
The second debate, set to take place on Nov. 13 in Washington, will look at how technology and national security affect the privacy rights of citizens; the participants will debate the resolution: “In the light of technological advances and the war on terror, Americans should lower their expectations for privacy?” Future events in the series will address health care, immigration, and the changing nature of “family” in America.