Iraq crisis: US roadshow has a hard time selling war to prepare the nation for war

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The Independent Online
IN AN unexpectedly lively public gathering yesterday in Columbus, Ohio, the top three officials in President Bill Clinton's foreign policy team endured constant heckling and a barrage of probing, aggressive questions as they embarked on a public relations initiative to persuade Middle America of the case for war in Iraq.

The questions from members of a large audience packed into Ohio State University's basketball stadium proved more enlightening than the answers, for they revealed that the United States public echoes the misgivings expressed by members of Congress and a large number of military and foreign policy specialists in Washington about a military strike against Saddam Hussein.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and White House national security adviser Sandy Berger were continually on the defensive during a 90-minute "town meeting" broadcast live yesterday afternoon on CNN. The tone of the event was set within seconds of Ms Albright opening the event with a prepared statement. As she finished saying that Iraq's weapons arsenal was "the greatest security threat we face" a chorus of jeers rose up from high up in the stadium, and cries of, "One, two, three, four, we don't want a racist war!"

The CNN presenters clamoured for silence and the world's most powerful woman pleaded in vain to be allowed to speak, prompting and applause from the majority who did not wish to see Columbus fixed in the eyes of the watching world as a by-word for crass discourtesy.

The first round of heckling abated as it dawned on the anti-war protesters that the ordinary folks in the audience shared many of their doubts about US objectives in the Gulf.

If Iraq is a threat to its neighbours, asked the first questioner, why are the neighbours not supporting US military force against Iraq? Ms Albright was not entirely convincing in her response that Iraq's neighbours had indeed asked the US for help.

Then a military veteran who said he had lost a son in the Vietnam war rose up and asked, "Will we send in the troops and finish the job or are we going to do it half-assed?" Mr Cohen who, as former senator is more accustomed than Ms Albright to tough crowds, replied that America's aim was to contain Saddam, not to topple him.

To a question about the likelihood of Iraqi civilian deaths and the possibility that President Saddam might use women and children as human shields at his weapons sites, Ms Albright, more confident, replied: "I am wiling to make a bet that we care more about the Iraqi people than Saddam." Mr Berger, a cerebral back-room adviser who looked uncomfortable in the spotlight at first, suggested intriguingly that "Saddam may try to create his own casualties before the fact".

One woman in the audience wondered whether it made more sense, if Saddam was "a repeat offender", to focus on removing him rather than inflicting casualties on the Iraqi people? Mr Cohen said it was important to distinguish between "what is do-able and what is desirable".

As the questions rained in it became apparent that the Clinton administration had a hard sell on its hands. Watching members of Congress, many of whom are up for re-election this autumn, may have been emboldened to give more strident voice to their misgivings.

On one thing, however, all Americans would have agreed. Mr Cohen, wrapping up the session with a nod to the triumphs of democracy, observed that such vocal opposition to government policies would not have been allowed in many other countries, including Iraq.