Ten years ago, this week, Bill Clinton was doing his best to get the US embroiled in war with Iraq.
The previous month, Matt Drudge had tipped off the world that Newsweek had preventing Michael Isikoff’s story about President Clinton’s sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky from going to publication. Clinton needed a distraction–and quick. Once again, the President invoked an all-too-familiar mantra: Saddam Hussein had to be stopped before he got his hands on weapons of mass destruction.
Unbelievably, on February 18, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and national security advisor Sandy Berger visited Ohio State University for an internationally televised “town hall” meeting to warm up the country for a carpet bombing of Iraq.
CNN and the Clinton Administration joined hands to try to ensure peace and quiet. A university press release mandated that no cameras, banners or placards would be permitted in the arena. Purses and bags were searched and metal detectors were the order of the day. Outside, an armored personnel carrier was parked in an alley across the street.
Only a relative handful of carefully screened individuals were issued red or gray tickets and were allowed to ask questions at the “town hall”. Even they were questioned as to what their question was and how they were going to ask it. CNN agreed that no one could bring notes to the microphone. The ushers included soldiers in uniform. Other uniformed soldiers were stationed in seats throughout the arena to cow anyone from challenging the presenters.
Jon Strange, a public school teacher, joined a handful of activists at Ohio State University in forming the Columbus Coalition for Democratic Foreign Policy to confront the “Three Musketeers”. “Basically, there were sixteen to twenty groups — mostly students — involved in organizing it,” said Sultane Salim, a Ohio State senior and president of the Muslim Student Association. Others, like former OSU student body president Rick Theis, had a Plan B.
Madeline Albright had appeared on 60 Minutes two years earlier and was asked about the statistic that half a million children had died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions. She replied, “We think the price is worth it.” When she took to the microphone, people started shouting at her the moment that she threatened to use military force. They pretty much stopped her cold. Defense Secretary Cohen got similar treatment. Burger was forced to admit, “We have a divided house.” Then a “NO WAR” banner was unfurled. Then the initial question was posed from the microphone:
Q: “I am an assistant professor in the Ohio State University. My question is to Secretary of Defense, Mr. Cohen. The American Administration has the might and the means to attack the Iraqi state, but does it have the moral right to attack the Iraqi nation?”
Much sputtering ensued. (The evening’s transcript–including the shouting–can be enjoyed at http://www.fas.org/. CNN gave the fish eye to the questioners at the three microphones and pulled in the reins. Rick Theis’ Plan B was spoiled, as CNN repeatedly refused to turn on his microphone. When he voiced his dismay, he was physically dragged away by security.
As the questioners continued to be carefully vetted, the shouting got louder and more frequent. Carrying people out of their seats only increased the volume. Finally, CNN sought to buy peace by offering to let Jon Strange ask a question if his group would stop shouting. (By the way, they never did.) But the exchange was priceless.
Q: “Yes, I have a question for Secretary Albright. Why bomb Iraq, when
other countries have committed similar violations? Turkey, for example…”
“–Can I finish? For example, Turkey has bombed Kurdish citizens. Saudi
Arabia has tortured political and religious dissidents. Why does the
US apply different standards of justice to these countries?”
ALBRIGHT: “Let me say that when there are problems such as you have
described, we point them out and make very clear our opposition to
them. But there is no one that has done to his people or to his
neighbors what Saddam Hussein has done or what he is thinking about
Q: “What about Indonesia? You turned my microphone off.”
ALBRIGHT: “I think that the record will show that Saddam Hussein has
produced weapons of mass destruction, which he’s clearly not
collecting for his own personal pleasure, but in order to use. And
therefore, he is qualitatively and quantitatively different from every
brutal dictator that has appeared recently, and we are very concerned
about him specifically and what his plans might be. Do you have a follow-up?”
Q: “Thank you. My microphone is off. There we are. What do you have to
say about dictators of countries like Indonesia, who we sell weapons
to yet they are slaughtering people in East Timor?”
“What do you have to say about Israel, who is slaughtering Palestinians,
who impose martial law? What do you have to say about that? Those are
our allies. Why do we sell weapons to these countries? Why do we
support them? Why do we bomb Iraq when it commits similar problems?”
When Albright hemmed and hawed, Strange unleashed a zinger:
Q: “You’re not answering my question, Madame Albright.”
A few minutes later, Rick Theis, scratched and bruised, somehow
got himself to the microphone at the foot of the stage to get in the
final question of the night:
Q: “Okay, first of all, I want to apologize for disrupting earlier. The
reason I did was, I was told by this person here that I would not be
allowed to speak.
“Further, this is not an open forum; it is a media event staged by CNN.
If this were a town meeting, if this were a schoolboard meeting or
some other town meeting in a democracy, people would be allowed to
make statements as well as ask questions.
“Now, the point that I would like to make the question I would like
to ask is, how can these people sleep at night; because we are not
going to be able to stop Saddam Hussein, we are not going to be able
to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction, all of them. President
Clinton admitted it. All he wants to do, Clinton said, was send a
message to Saddam Hussein.
“If he wants to send a message, we the people of Columbus and Central
Ohio and all over America will not send messages with the blood of
Iraqi men, women and children. If we want to deal with Saddam, we deal
with Saddam; not with Iraqi people.”
When Albright responded in her closing remarks, “We need your support,” the protesters shouted back, “You can’t have it!”
The next day, pictures of Rick Theis in his green sweater were broadcast around the world, while the Clinton Administration was covered with ridicule. When he was asked why he didn’t support US military involvement in Iraq, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said “Not even Ohio supports it.” Clinton’s war efforts had come to naught, for the moment. (On the other hand, lest we forget, there was “low-level” US aerial bombing of portions of Iraq throughout the entire Clinton Administration). But it was a clear victory. As Jon Strange later put it: “Three dead in Ohio.”
There was a moment, nine months later in November, when Clinton came within eight minutes of setting off an all-out carpet bomb attack in a desperate attempt to avoid impeachment before Sandy Berger got him to revoke his order in a last-minute act of sanity. A month later, Clinton finally fired a far more modest flurry of missiles on the last day of the House impeachment proceedings. Although Clinton brazenly dubbed it “Desert Fox”, it was better known as the sequel to “Wag the Dog”.
It’s important to remember that people do have the power, when they decide to really roll up their sleeves and use it. On March 19, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq occupation, thousands of people will engage in onviolent civil disobedience in Washington DC, led by Iraq veterans and military families in the wake of their Winter Soldier war crimes tribunal. http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Hundreds of similar actions will take place around the country on that fateful Wednesday. In San Francisco, Direct Action to Stop the War has been reborn, and plans to return to the San Francisco financial district to shout a message loud and clear. This time around, the plan is for large numbers to expose and confront Iraq war profiteers such as the Carlyle Group in their own front yard, after standing in solidarity on March 15 with the West County Toxics Coalition and communities of color against Chevron’s Richmond refinery–it pollutes the surrounding population while it processes Iraqi oil. http://bayareadirectaction.wordpress.com
The United States has created a shambles. 650,000 to 1 million Iraqis dead or wounded, 4,000,000 displaced. Nearly 4,000 U.S. service people killed and over 40,000 wounded and neglected by our government. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations reap huge profits as they put the squeeze on the Iraqi government to acquiesce to their plans to control Iraq’s oil. U.S. citizens face a bill of 2.8 trillion dollars, and a military budget that has got to be redirected to fund human needs. We don’t have to be silent. We can shout–All At the Same Time.
No more blood of Iraqi men, women, and children. If we can take action together, like the students at Ohio State showed us ten years ago in the face of great odds, maybe we can find a path that leads away from this devastating winter in America–and towards the promise that the vernal equinox provides.
BILL SIMPICH is an organizer with the Iraq Moratorium–SF, one of the supporters of Direct Action to Stop the War. He can be reached at email@example.com