Dan Grobstein: New Yorker Festival: Iraq and Evolution

I went to the New Yorker Town Meeting on Iraq last night at Town Hall in NYC. I wouldn't want to say that what I write below is absolutely a correct version of what was said. I didn't take notes and I'm not a reporter.

Douglas Feith couldn't answer a direct question. He went off on tangents having nothing to do with the question. The panelists were asked what they would have done differently. He couldn't come up with anything other than to say that he had some proposals that weren't acted upon. He did say that the looting after the fall of Baghdad was the fault of the military command on the ground. I guess he's getting back at Tommy Franks for calling him the fucking stupidest man on the planet.

James Woolsey started out by saying that Saddam had killed a gazillion people over the past thirty years and that averages out to about 60,000 a year and therefore since we invaded and only 25,000 are killed, that's an improvement. (And if Bill Gates walked into a room we'd all on the average be millionaires.) Woolsey did say that he doesn't understand why the administration didn't, immediately after 9/11, work for fuel efficiency to give us some shared sacrifice and also take some of the danger away from disruption of oil supplies.

Rend al-Rahim (I'm not sure if she's the current ambassador or not), spoke about how great it is that there have been elections and negotiations over a new constitution and that the Iraqis want democracy. She was asked about sharia law and the rights of women in Iraq and she said that they were working very hard in the negotiations for the new constitution to get as many rights for women as possible.

The New Yorker writers were all very unhappy with the way that the war has been handled. Mark Danner said he thought at the time that it was stupid to invade Iraq. Woolsey turned that around and berated him for saying that Danner was saying that it was stupid to think that the Iraqis could have a democracy. George Packer started out by reading an email from an Iraqi Sunni friend who had gone into the wilds of one of the Shia controlled towns. He said that there were daily beheadings and that the insurgents were in control of the town. We don't really know what is going on because we can't travel anywhere in the country.

Bob Baer thinks that the Saudi situation is dangerous. He thinks that the only way out of Iraq without a civil war is some sort of regional muslim cooperation, though he doesn't know how to do this. I believe he was the one who said that the Iraqis are historically xenophobic. He believes that we should be planning to protect the Saudi oilfields. Also he said that he was in Iraq meeting with tribal leaders (I guess in the Shia areas) and they were escorted to see him by Iranians.

Someone said (I think it was Baer, though it might have been Danner or Packer) that there wasn't a Sunni leader with enough stature to control the Sunnis. They need to be convinced that they are going to be part of Iraq and won't be screwed.

Kanan Makiya wasn't there. He was scheduled, but was sick.

I walked away from this thinking "boy are we screwed."

I also saw Richard Dawkins give a talk this morning about evolution. He's the author of "The Ancestor's Tale" which I plowed through a few months ago. He (and other leading evolution people) won't debate the "intelligent design" nuts because they don't want to give them more stature and make people think that there is actually something to argue about. He discussed this with Steven J. Gould before Gould's death and that is what they decided. He says that he thinks of religion as a virus that infects children when they are small. Their brains are wired to believe what their parents tell them. It is important for reproduction that they believe that when their parents tell them not to bathe in the river because of the crocodiles they will believe. They learn this religion stuff and believe it into adulthood. He says that creationists say that the eye, for example is too complex to have evolved. And there hasn't been enough time for it to evolve. He can show a dozen different ways that an eye has evolved in different animals. He says that any sight at all, including seeing shadows vs. brightness is better than blindness. You can tell that a predator is coming for you. He says that actually we wonder why there are so many time periods in evolution when nothing seems to be happening. Actually there is much more time than is necessary for the evolution of the eye. The creationists say that since it is too complex then god must have done it. However, Dawkins says that god is a very complex idea and where did god come from?

This is some stuff that I put together from the web before I went to the Iraq talk so that I would have an idea of who all these people were:

Jeffrey Goldberg, moderator: staff writer for the New Yorker

Robert Baer, Former CIA Case Officer and Author of "Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude." Think About This: Whenever You Buy a Tank of Saudi Arabian Gas, You are Helping to Finance Terrorism.

Mark Danner, staff writer at New Yorker. professor at Berkeley and at Bard. Writes about foreign affairs & American politics, including Latin America, Haiti, the Balkans and the Middle East. He speaks and debates widely about America's role in the world.

Douglas J. Feith, Douglas J. Feith is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. His responsibilities include the formulation of defense planning guidance and forces policy, Department of Defense relations with foreign countries and the Departmentís role in U.S. Government interagency policy making.

Kanan Makiya, Kanan Makiya is a professor of Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. He also directs the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University; where he is attempting to make available for scholarly research some three million pages of official Iraqi government documents captured by the Kurds following the Gulf War in 1991.

The Baghdad-born Makiya is founding director of The Iraq Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes public activities concerning democracy in Iraq. In October 1992, he acted as the convener of the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi National Congress, a transitional parliament then based in northern Iraq.

Professor Makiya has collaborated on two films for television, the most recent of which exposed for the first time the 1988 campaign of mass murder in northern Iraq known as the Anfal. The film was shown in the United States under the title SADDAM'S KILLING FIELDS and received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Television Documentary on Foreign Affairs in 1992.

His books, published in English, Arabic, Kurdish, and French, include REPUBLIC OF FEAR (written under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil) and CRUELTY AND SILENCE, which was awarded The Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on international relations published in English in 1993. THE ROCK: A SEVENTH CENTURY TALE OF JERUSALEM has just been published by Pantheon Books in New York.


George Packer, George Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003. In addition to his coverage of Iraq, he has written on the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, and the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel. Packer was awarded two Overseas Press Club awards for his work in 2003, one for his Iraq coverage and the other for his reporting on the civil war in Sierra Leone. Packer, a 2001-2002 Guggenheim Fellow, has contributed articles, essays, and reviews on foreign affairs, American politics, and literature to The New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harper's, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard, Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, and Columbia. Packer is the author of "The Village of Waiting" about his experience in Africa. His book "Blood of the Liberals" won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He has also written two novels, "The Half Man" and "Central Square." Packer was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. After graduating from Yale in 1982, he served in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rend al-Rahim (2003 text:) Iraq's embassy in Washington has been empty for thirteen long years, but Rend al-Rahim, just named as the new ambassador, is about to move in. Rahim left Iraq almost thirty years ago. For much of the time she has lived the U.S., where she helped found a pro-democracy think tank, and spent time advocating for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Since the departure of the Iraqi President, Rahim has been back home, several times. And while she praises the US effort to oust Saddam Hussein, she has tough words for America's post-war planning -- she says it was full of security failures and misinformation. When asked what should come next in her homeland Rahim says, "Iraqis want everything summed up in the single word democracy."

R. James Woolsey

R. James Woolsey is an attorney and former director of the C.I.A (1993-1995) who labels U.S. policy on Iraq over the past ten years "feckless." He strongly advocates a thorough investigation into Iraq's possible linkage to terrorist attacks against the U.S. and has sought to prove the Iraq connection in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He was interviewed in mid-October 2001.

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