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Petition, Talks Fuel Iraq Debate at MIT

By Kathy Lin


The debate over possible U.S. military action in Iraq has hit MIT on several fronts, with a major petition gaining support on campus and a series of discussions this week.

Monday, security experts debated the pros and cons of waging war with Iraq at a forum sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies. On Thursday, an “Iraq Teach-In” will conclude with a talk by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who has already spoken at MIT in the past month.

Thus far, more than 27,600 members of the U.S. academic community have signed an online open letter opposing a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The petition, which began as University of Minnesota professor David L. Fox’s personal statement of his anti-war opinion, gained much attention when MIT professor Nancy Kanwisher posted it online just under a month ago.

“I think there’s widespread opposition to the Iraq war that hasn’t been as visible as it should be, and that the Web is a great way of allowing people to voice their opinions about the issue,” Kanwisher said.

Petition gaining momentum

The petition is steadily gaining signatures and donations toward an advertisement in The New York Times as the Bush administration continues its efforts to rally public support for a war on Iraq.

The petition and ad “clearly show the opinion of a large population,” said Professor of Mathematics Haynes R. Miller, who was among the first signers of the petition. “War is not the answer.”

In September, Fox wrote to the Minnesota Daily to express his anti-war opinions, which he “had been ... thinking about and expressing among friends since the events of Sept. 11.” He found his colleagues “very willing to add their names” to the letter, so he and his friends sent e-mails to colleagues across the country to “get even more names for greater impact.”

The online effort to collect signatures for the letter was pioneered by Kanwisher, who helped lead the campaign to urge MIT to divest from companies with ties Israel that began early this year. What stands out about this campaign, she said, is that “it’s been deemed as uncontroversial. Many people are just grateful for our doing this, and so far I’ve only received three negative e-mails. With other issues, we’ve gotten hate mail left and right; this is a really unusual response.

“The letter gained signatures so rapidly that it caught me off guard,” Kanwisher said.

The advertisement in Times is scheduled to run next week. After that, Kanwisher said she has tentative plans to “get the word out by talking with various government officials,” though there has been no official presentation of the petition to date.

CIS hosts forum on war with Iraq

At yesterday’s forum, the pro-war case was presented by Kenneth M. Pollock, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq and a senior fellow and research director at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

“I don’t like making this case, but it’s where my analysis leads me,” Pollock said. “I believe that containment could have worked, but there were changes that needed to be made in the early 1990s that weren’t made ... and no real hope of containment can be revived now.”

The problem he cited is that Iraq is “so good at hiding their weapons of mass destruction,” making any arms inspectors job very difficult, if not impossible. In addition, “arms inspectors only check to see if Iraq is complying with regulations,” Pollock said; “there is no way for inspectors to strip Iraqis of their weapons unless they’re willing to comply.”

Pollock said that Saddam Hussein is in an economic and political position to acquire materials to build nuclear weapons, and “it’s only a matter of time before he does.”

Stephen W. Van Evera, associate director of CIS and professor of political science, argued against war with Iraq. While acknowledging that “Saddam Hussein is a serious threat with large imperial ambitions and dangerous weapons of massive destruction,” Evera said that there are more imminent issues that the administration should focus on.

“Russia and Palestine are far likelier places for al Qaida to get nuclear materials from,” Van Evera said. “Is it worthwhile to spend so much money on Iraq and not on Russia, which has much more nuclear power?”

“Given the Bush administration’s foreign policy reflexes and the judgements that they’ve made, are they ready for the job?” Van Evera asked. Rather than waging war, the U.S. should focus on homeland security and deal with al Qaida and “loose nukes in Russia,” Van Evera said.

Van Evera also argued that there is a chance that war on Iraq would further support al Qaida’s claims of U.S. imperialism, which could trigger more acts of terrorism.