A Noble Attempt to Build Public Discourse Encounters a Major Obstacle: Fred Barnes

Monday evening I attended the U. Miami edition of The People Speak: America Debates its Role in the World which was a marquee edition of the 1000 or so related events being held around the country this fortnight.

The run-up to the meeting was not auspicious. Neither in some ways—mostly relating to the presence of Fred Barnes—was the meeting.

As I noted in my earlier entry on this subject, the national web site announcing the event listed only one speaker, conservative former state representative Carlos Lacasa, and the moderator, Ambler Moss. No 'progressive' to balance the 'conservative'. There was exactly zero publicity on campus. Not one poster. Not one announcement in the email newsletters they spam us with twice a week. The university's online web calendar's entry for today stated this:

There are currently no events posted for date(s) indicated above. Please check back soon.

So I figured it was probably cancelled. But it was a nice evening, and wasn't a long walk.

In fact it wasn't cancelled, although the turnout was light. [I have a suspicion that the lousy publicity probably was due to the consultants hired to run the event, an outfit called “Protocole”. At the reception, one of them gave me a business card with the firm's URL on it—www.protocolecorp.com, which resolves to an ad for an unrelated ISP who is probably their host. A PR firm that can't organize its own web page is highly suspect.] But it wasn't that enlightening either. Nevertheless, in several ways—ranging from interesting, to slimy, to nutty, and back again to hopeful—the debate was perhaps a fair microcosm of the national debate.

There were in fact three speakers. In addition to Mr. Lacasa, there was a second 'conservative' speaker, one Fred Barnes, who edits a magazine in Washington that I gather people take seriously. I don't know if he thought that the provinces didn't deserve the good stuff, or if he's always this awful, but his performance was basically rebarbative. The 'progressive' was George Volsky, a man with a varied resume, including a long stint as the New York Times's Florida correspondent, consulting for RAND and for the Hoover Institution, and who is currently a columnist and “cultural editor” for a tiny local paper, The Coral Gables Gazette. As it happens, I got to talking to him at the reception before the event without knowing he would be a speaker, and he seemed pretty interesting, but we didn't talk much about foreign affairs.

The speakers were supposed to address four topics, which they simplified to (1) pre-emptive invasion/Iraq; (2) humanitarian intervention; (3) foreign aid; (4) the UN [it was supposed to be international institutions and the rule of law]. The www.jointhedebate.org web site had useful materials explaining both sides of the debate questions, but these were not given to the audience. It was also unclear to what extent the panelists had read them.

Mr. Barnes went first. What follows is close paraphrase unless enclosed in quote marks. He explained that there were eight criteria (which he later said he invented that morning!) that should be satisfied before a pre-emptive strike, and that Iraq satisfied them all. The criteria were:

  1. Does the country have weapons of mass destruction, or can it create them “very quickly”.
  2. Has it used WMD's in the past.
  3. Is it defying efforts to make it stop creating the WMDs
  4. Has it attacked other nearby states
  5. Does it support terrorism
  6. Does the government kill its own people;
  7. Is it a clear threat to other countries;
  8. Is there no hope of prompt regime change without invasion

Barnes then recited the Republican talking points: Saddam had plans for missiles that could reach Ankara and Cairo. He had biological agents. [A comment I knew was rank exaggeration from this .] He had hidden arsenals the size of Manhattan; we have only inspected a few of these and there's plenty of space left in which he could have hidden all the good stuff. [Several questioners later asked in various ways why these criteria couldn't be used by other countries to justify attacks on the USA: it has huge stockpiles of WMD's, it defies attempts to stop making them, it has used them in the past, it has attacked other countries, in the view of several questioners the US supported terrorism in Central and South America, and the prospects of regime change may be low.]

On the question of humanitarian aide, Barnes was wishy-washy. For it in principle, but lukewarm at best in practice, since it all gets stolen by the ruling classes and doesn't trickle down to the masses.

Lacasa was more middle of the road than Barnes. He was for pre-emptive strikes, but only in extreme cases; he thought the jury was still out on whether Iraq qualified. He was very much against surrendering any sovereignty to the UN. As he himself admitted, he isn't a careful student of the details of foreign affars. Indeed, like so many people in this part of the world, he was much better infomed about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr. Lacasa suggested at one point that as the US was clearly justified to threaten to engage in pre-emptive self defense in that crisis (and, he implied, would have been fully jusfified in attacking Castro's Cuba) it followed that at least in some cases (when the missles are staring you in the face right next door) pre-emptive attacks must be justified.

Volsky spoke third. His arguments against intervention were primarily pragmatic. He suggested that attackers usually regretted it in the long run, citing examples from biblical times to the present. He also noted that the US had lost many friends by its actions in Iraq. I'd write more about what he said, except that he was hard to hear because he didn't speak into the microphone.

There were a large number of questions from the audience, including several earnest high school students, who asked some of the best questions ('define terrorism' was one). One crazy person in the front—a man dressed in bright orange scrubs with his hair done up in Bo Derek braids with seashells attached—asked something long and rambling about trains carrying nuclear waste, which he seemed to think was at the root of the problem. He also clapped wildly, and alone, every time anyone made a remark that he liked.

One very nervous lady asked the very best question of the day: wasn't the real issue not that the US had to attack countries that frightened it, but rather that the US made other countries afraid by its policies? And wouldn't a better policy be one that concentrated on the 17,000 third world deaths per day from preventable and treatable diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and TB?

Generally, the audience questions were at least as thoughtful as the panel's answers. There was a nice variety of young and old, with some self-described foreign visitors (some of whom were quite vocal about the way in which the attack on Iraq had evaporated the US's former moral authority, which one suggested was perhaps at an all-time high after 9/11.) Indeed, listening to the high schools students made me think they could do a better job editing a certain magazine….

If Fred Barnes is what passes for informed thought in conservative Washington circles today, it's no wonder the republic is in such a mess. In response to a question about the missing WMDs, Barnes reiterated that Hussein had an arsenal including missiles tipped in aflatoxin (surely the worlds most slow-acting chemical weapon!). Then — having failed to rebut suggestions there were no nuclear weapons or near-weapons in Iraq — he suggested (quoting Condoleezza Rice) that we should be prepared to invade threatening countries before we discovered the war had begun with a mushroom cloud. Never mind that the Kay report says that all the Iraq Survey Group evidence collected to date indicates that there were not any active programs to develop or produce chemical or nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the most offensive thing Barnes said was that there were “two kinds of people: Sept. 10th people and Sept. 12th people.” The idea was that if you didn't support attacking Iraq, you were some sort of ostrich-headed wimp who was ignoring the fact that the nation was attacked (by someone other than Iraq, but don't bother us with details…). I found the waving of the (irrelevant) bloody shirt offensive, especially as even George W. Bush now admits that there is no evidence of any connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.

In response to another question, Barnes was very misleading. He insisted that Bush himself had never suggested, at least before the invasion, that there was such a link. Bush certainly made the connection afterwards, notably in his famous 'victory' speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. There Bush said, “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 — and still goes on…. The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding.”

The Barnes line from the talking points conveniently elides the many ways in which (1) Bush strongly hinted at the connection, persuading many Americans that it existed and (2) Veep Cheney and other ranking administration spokespersons made the connection explicit, saying (after the invasion) that Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

Ultimately, I came away from the event with mixed impressions:

  1. Surprised both that they couldn't find two progressives to balance two conservatives on a panel in Miami (although, to be fair, Rep. Lacasa ended up sounding much more middle-of-the-road than Barnes);
  2. Impressed with the audience—almost none of whom were affiliated with the University due to the wretched publicity—which was often more thoughtful than the panelists;
  3. Amazed that anyone takes Fred Barnes seriously.
  4. Persuaded that written texts, with hyperlinks to original sources, are a better way to debate complex issues in public. Which is one good reason to blog.
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4 Responses to A Noble Attempt to Build Public Discourse Encounters a Major Obstacle: Fred Barnes

  1. Brad DeLong says:

    Well, Fred Barnes is one of the very few Washington pseudo-reporter types who has been described to me as a guy who “when he feels like it, just makes stuff up.”

  2. cafl says:

    Fred Barnes was formerly White House reporter for TNR during the Reagan administration. This was at the beginning of the bad days of TNR. There was a period there when he wasn’t “out” as a Republican, I believe, but still saw himself as a conservative dem (like the other neocons.) But he was an apologist for Reagan at that time.

  3. russ says:

    re: A Noble Attempt to Build Public Discourse Encounters a Major Obstacle: Fred Barnes

    LOL! Yet more whining by clueless, leftie/liberal parasites with no real reason to continue to plague society with their ianane and factless rants…

    The fact is that Fred Barnes is quite a bit more factually correct than you parasites should be obvious, leftie/liberals can’t stand the fact since it undercuts their reason for whining…

    [Note: I have deleted multiple copies of this comment spammed to the blog by "russ" - Michael']

  4. Keivn says:

    Which country is this?

    Does the country have weapons of mass destruction, or can it create them “very quickly”?
    Possesses one of the largest stocks of nuclear weapons in the world
    Has it used WMD’s in the past?
    Only nation to use nuclear weapons (twice).
    Is it defying efforts to make it stop creating the WMDs?
    Actively engaged in “defensive” weapons programme aimed at eliminating threat of
    relatiatory nuclear attacks – in direct contravention of previous weapons limitations treaties. Refuses
    to sign up to the international campagin for anti-personnel landmine ban (surely a weapon of long-term
    mass destruction in those countries blighted by recent wars).
    Has it attacked other nearby states?
    Invaded Granada and Panama and undertook numerous (acknowledged and unacknowledged) minor
    encursions into Latin and South American counteries. On the brink of war with Cuba in the 60′s
    Does it support terrorism?
    Providing training to anti-goverment military and para-military groups in ‘unfriendly’ regiemes. Also
    has a habit of propping up governments of questionable human rights credentials when it suits – Iraq
    being a particularly ironic example of this!
    Does the government kill its own people?
    Many US states seem convinced that capital punishment works!
    Is it a clear threat to other countries?
    Iran and N-Korea among others would think so. And if it doesn’t ratify the Kyoto protocol lots more
    countries will start to wonder…
    Is there no hope of prompt regime change without invasion?
    Nope :)

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