The Bush administration and its neoconservative advisers are pursuing a myopic agenda for regime change in the Middle East, despite the failure of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to establish meaningful democracy thus far, according to New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh.
In the 39th annual Meiklejohn Lecture, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hersh tracked the chronology of events from Sept. 11 to Abu Ghraib, interjecting skeptical analysis of U.S. relations with Iran, Pakistan and neo-conservative ideology based on his 46 years of experience covering national security issues.
Alexander Meiklejohn, member of the Class of 1893, a Brown professor of philosophy and Dean of the College, was a firm advocate of academic and press freedoms. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas gave the first Meiklejohn lecture in 1963. Other speakers have included former Attorney General Janet Reno and a mix of judges, lawyers and academics.
Hersh’s reputation as an unrelenting investigative journalist, best known for exposing the My Lai massacre in 1969 and Abu Ghraib prison abuse in May 2004, made him a fitting selection for this year’s lecture because of Meiklejohn’s strong advocacy of the First Amendment. But Hersh did not speak on press freedom at length and never mentioned the First Amendment. Instead, he delivered a lengthy analysis of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, disparaging the “beyond-belief bad” situation in Iraq and declaring “Iran on the target list – big time.”
Jessleyn Radack ’92 introduced Hersh, whom she described as her “inspiration, mentor, kindred spirit and hero.” Hersh wrote about Radack, a former Department of Justice ethics lawyer, after she garnered media attention in 2003 for leaking e-mails to Newsweek implicating the department in ethics violations in the case of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.
“Sy Hersh redeemed my belief, and that of so many others, that justice will prevail and triumph,” Radack said. “He gave legitimacy to what I shouted alone into the darkness for three years.” Radack also quoted a note Hersh had written her that read: “There may be no truth, but there will always be history.”
Hersh’s own speech traced the “alternative history” he said he has been writing for the past three years. “I’m gonna tell you what’s on my mind,” he began.
Often criticized for a liberal bias, Hersh made no attempt to disguise his sentiments about the Bush administration or the neoconservatives whose “distinct, definable … palpable” ideology he said has driven Bush’s foreign policy. “The problem is that George Bush is convinced he’s doing the right thing,” Hersh said. “It doesn’t matter how many body bags come back. At some level he thinks he’ll be vindicated.”
Hersh continued a scattered and disparaging summary of the military’s interrogation tactics in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and the administration’s resistance to media pressure. “It doesn’t matter what we write, we can’t shape (Bush),” Hersh said. “If you think it’s a little terrifying, it is. Other (presidents) felt the heat, this guy doesn’t.”
The current government’s attempts to erase its actions with words, Hersh said, presents a further challenge to reporters who “have to listen to words, write words.” Hersh’s reputation for breaking stories of government secrecy – which has earned him five George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize – has largely been built on his cultivation of anonymous government sources.
Hersh referred frequently to his trademark insider sources and wondered aloud about how to describe anonymous sources “without burning them.”
Hersh implied that the current Congress does not provide him with good sources. “You can’t get them to play, they don’t want to risk it,” he said. “They bring new levels of meaning to the word ‘supine,’ ” he added.
Reiterating ideas from his recent work for the New Yorker, Hersh said the administration is justifying the military’s abusive treatment of prisoners such as that in Abu Ghraib under the “constitutional guise” that the commander-in-chief can do whatever necessary to make conditions safer for troops on the battlefield. He questioned the success of the Iraqi elections nearly six weeks ago. “Where is the democracy in this? Why don’t we have a prime minister? Who do you think is interfering with the process?” Hersh said, adding that the administration would like current Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to lead Iraq.
Though he said the neoconservative commitment to democratic change is sincere, Hersh doubted that Bush would actually prefer the results of regime change in the Middle East, specifically in Lebanon, Syria or Pakistan. “Has (Bush) thought about anything beyond just a moment?” Hersh said. “Democracy doesn’t mean an end to terror, but in the neocon mantra it does.” Mentioning undemocratic or dubious leadership in Tunisia and Kyrgyzstan, Hersh criticized the selectivity of the Bush agenda for regime change.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the arrest of John Walker Lindh gave the administration a “ticket to ride, because we were collectively angry,” Hersh said. “We could have worked with the Taliban,” Hersh said, emphasizing the Islamist regime’s internal divisions. While most Americans believed the war on terror was “over” by 2002, Hersh said he has documents – which he would have turned into a book, had Bush lost the 2004 election – indicating the Bush administration had already decided to go to war in Iraq.
“If you thought this was sheer madness and said as much, you … didn’t get your year-end bonus, people weren’t talking to you,” Hersh said, describing the pressure in Washington at the time for career intelligence officials to support action in Iraq. “You gotta drink the Kool-Aid.”
Hersh’s current outlook for Iraq was particularly negative. “We’re at a point where we’re almost dealing with willful malfeasance,” Hersh said. “If there’s salvation it won’t be anything that any of us do, it’ll be the boots on the ground.”
He suggested the situation might deteriorate into civil war and said the description of those opposing U.S. forces as “rebels” or “insurgents” is misleading. “We use the word rebels, insinuating we won the war,” Hersh said. “But we’re fighting a war against people we went to war against (in the first place) – it just turned out they didn’t fight the war in the same time scale we did.”
The abuse tactics Hersh wrote about in May 2004 were not dissimilar from those “senior senators” told Hersh were being used in Guantanamo Bay, he said. “Here’s what the rules were: Do whatever you goddamn please – don’t kill ’em, but do whatever you want,” Hersh said.
Looking ahead, Hersh said the Bush administration is investigating bombing targets in Iran and ignoring European requests for multilateral diplomatic efforts.
Much of Hersh’s speech echoed his writing in the New Yorker, particularly his thoughts on Iran.
“None of the information was new,” Benjamin Bright-Fishbein ’07 said. “I’ve read about most of it in the New Yorker before. But the chronology he laid out was what I found fascinating.”
“I love chronology as a journalist,” Hersh said, citing the military’s awareness of Abu Ghraib abuses months before he was leaked an internal report on the incidents, written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Toward the end of his speech, Hersh contrasted his experience tracking down soldiers involved in the My Lai killings in Vietnam with the difficulty of reaching those from Abu Ghraib.
Derek Seidman GS said he found Hersh’s “depth and stream-of-consciousness” style compelling.
“Smart, vocal liberals are few and far between these days,” said Madelyn Morris ’08. During the lecture and question-and-answer session, however, there were no conservative voices to be heard. None of the questions challenged Hersh’s pointed statements about neoconservative ideology or his controversial claims about Iran – which the administration has at least partially denied. The only heated exchanges occurred when Hersh urged students to skip prefacing comments and get to their questions more speedily. “Let’s go, let’s go,” Hersh said. “I want to get out of here by 9.”
Despite his preference for brevity and sobering analysis – characteristic of a longtime newspaper reporter – Hersh said Americans should be able to expect the same honesty and distaste for lying from their government that they do from their families. “It’s a bad bargain,” he said. “We demand (honesty) in our own lives, but don’t even begin to expect it from our leaders.”
As his speech neared its end, Hersh reflected on his own journalistic career for the first time. “I think if there’s a general principle in my work, it’s holding people to the highest standard possible,” he said.