The Clinton administration took its Iraq policy to the heartland on Wednesday, and the heartland responded with a raucous mix of cheers and jeers.
As a global television audience watched on CNN, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interrupted repeatedly by demonstrators who drowned out her remarks with chants, forcing her into silence for several minutes.
“One-two-three-four, we don’t want your racist war,” the protesters chanted, their voices echoing loudly in cavernous St. John’s Arena.
Shouting demonstrators numbered only a few dozen, many of them apparently students from Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Ind. But they were supported at times by applause from hundreds more when they challenged the morality and wisdom of a U.S. bomb strike against Iraq.
Yet it was clear the vast majority of the 6,000-member crowd wanted to give the officials at least a respectful hearing. Indeed, the loudest and most sustained applause followed Albright’s declaration that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.”
Nevertheless, while the 90-minute “international town hall” meeting was intended to continue the administration’s public-education campaign about the Iraq crisis, the spectacle of impassioned dissent conveyed many messages to the global viewing audience - not all of them supportive of U.S. policy.
What gives America the “moral right” to bomb Iraq, demanded a self-described Arab man in a business suit.
Why bomb Iraq when America arms other countries that suppress minorities, including Indonesia’s “slaughter” in East Timor and Israel’s “slaughter” of Palestinians, insisted another young man in a crew-neck sweater and T-shirt.
“Are we willing to send the troops in and finish the job?” asked a third man who said he was a World War II veteran who’d lost a son in Vietnam.
Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and White House national security adviser Sandy Berger maintained their poise throughout. They reiterated points about the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Judging by the sophistication of the questions, the public understands them.
The trio emphasized Washington prefers a diplomatic solution. However, they stressed Saddam must permit the United Nations to mount unqualified inspections of all sites suspected of hiding weapons of mass destruction or else face attack.
Saddam is the immoral one, they contended; the U.S.-led force aims only to uphold U.N. resolutions and disarm a dangerous threat to the world.
Late in the meeting, a self-identified U.S. Army soldier called in from Germany with support for the administration. “I totally agree with what you need to do. Go ahead and do it. If a soldier’s life needs to be lost, let it start with mine.”
That patriotic testimonial inspired generous applause.
Perhaps the most persuasive defense of the administration’s position came at the end, when Berger summed up his message this way:
“Part of what we fight for as a country is the freedom to argue. I appreciate all of you coming. I appreciate most of you listening,” he said wryly, prompting laughter and applause. “We have certainly listened to you, at least those we could understand.”
Berger then emphasized two points: “Number one, we want to resolve this peacefully. But number two, there are some things worth fighting for,” he said quietly. “And those include fighting aggression, fighting people who threaten their neighbors and fighting to make this a more secure world for your children and my children,” he said to warm applause.
Foreign policy experts called the performance a “noble effort” that failed to add to the public’s understanding of Clinton’s airstrike strategy.
Some blamed the White House for miscalculating the antagonism its officials would face on a college campus, while others said CNN was ill-prepared to deal with the informal format of the town hall session and contributed to the chaotic atmosphere.
“It was a difficult crowd,” said Joseph Montville, a former U.S. diplomat and director of preventive diplomacy at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is not a slam-dunk for the administration to make the case for bombing.”
CNN hosts Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff, as well as the administration panelists, seemed surprised by the protesters’ intensity. In the first commercial break, Shaw walked to the edge of the stage, glowered at the audience and shouted, “This program runs for 90 minutes, you’re not going to be allowed to disrupt it!”
Montville said colleagues watching the town hall on television concluded: “Saddam must be enjoying the show.”