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The rowdy crowd highlighted the risks of "town meetings."

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Iraq Special Report

  U.S. Officials Heckled at Iraq Seminar

Cohen, Albright, Burger/Reuters
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright answers a question about U.S. foreign policy. She is flanked by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, left, and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. (Reuters)
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A01

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Feb. 18—President Clinton's national security team came for a seminar, a measured explication of limited ends and means in the contemplated bombardment of Iraq.

But the presidential delegation ran into a rumble here today at Ohio State University's St. John Arena. In a 90-minute free-for-all, in which CNN's moderators lost control from the opening moments, a team led by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was shouted down, booed and cross-examined by a raucous crowd that was markedly skeptical -- for disparate reasons -- of its government's intentions in the Persian Gulf.

Billed as a "town meeting" that would air and answer the questions of ordinary citizens, the foray into middle America exposed the government's foreign policy elite to a deep seam of public anxiety about the country's collision course with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Strong applause greeted questions on the morality of shedding blood for American interests in the gulf, on the risks of inviting terrorism against the United States, and -- from other quarters in the arena where the Buckeyes play basketball -- on the Clinton administration's refusal to turn its sights on Saddam Hussein himself.

Starting with the first question from the floor -- "Does [the Clinton administration] have the moral right to attack the Iraqi nation?" -- Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger were confronted with doubts, often passionately expressed, about nearly every aspect of a possible attack. Audience members interrogated the officials about the lack of international support for bombing, the scale of civilian casualties, the feasibility of reducing Iraq's weapons stocks, and the likelihood of having to attack the country again and again to achieve U.S. aims.

Interrupted at one point by both applause and boos from the 6,000 people in the arena, fewer than 1,000 of whom were close enough to ask questions, Berger said, "We have a divided house, I think."

In a barely civil exchange a few minutes later, Albright and one questioner squared off over a question about why the United States might bomb Iraq while not using force against other countries that violate human rights. Hecklers, who primarily were in a group seated at a distance from the stage, interrupted Albright's response until, eventually exasperated, she said, "I am really surprised that people feel that it is necessary to defend the rights of Saddam Hussein, when we ought to be making sure that he does not use weapons of mass destruction."

The questioner confronted her angrily, "You're not answering my question, Madame Albright."

But criticism came from both sides. At another point, an older man with a quavering voice and a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap rose to say he had lost a son and a nephew in Vietnam and had "stood in the gap" for 20 years in uniform himself. "If push comes to shove and Saddam will not back down," he said, "are we willing to send the troops in and finish the job or are we going to do it half-assed?"

Much of the crowd erupted, with many standing to applaud and shout approval. For several long moments the din prevented Cohen from replying.

"If I could respond," he said, struggling for the floor. Then he gave a rambling reply on his recent visits to the aircraft carriers USS George Washington and USS Independence.

"We do not see the need," he concluded, "to carry out a large land campaign in order to try to topple Saddam Hussein."

Plainly taken aback at first by the intensity of the crowd, Albright, Cohen and Berger held whispered conferences during commercial breaks and at least two aides fanned out into noisy parts of the arena to calm a few dozen organized hecklers, who interrupted the presentation with repeated chants of "We don't want your racist war." Campus police and a diplomatic security agent assigned to Albright carried some of the most aggressive hecklers bodily outside.

The event had the peculiar intimacy of an international media event, with callers contributing questions from Israel, Holland and Germany, where a man identifying himself as a U.S. soldier said, "If a soldier's . . . life needs to be lost, let it be mine." But having chosen CNN to host the forum in part because its international viewership is said to include Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, officials took pains afterward to warn the Iraqi leader against misinterpreting what he saw.

"I don't think for a second that he can or should think that 40, 50, 200 people in a room of 6,000 reflect the will of the American people or are in any way going to influence the president of the United States," Berger said in an interview after the meeting. "Ultimately there's only one man who decides, and he decides not based on the polls or on 40 screamers but on our national interest."

Officially, administration officials adopted a light tone in describing the event, with State Department spokesman James P. Rubin acknowledging that "Washington is a very insulated environment" and adding, "They felt they were welcomed to the democratic process in Ohio."

Lacking the provocation of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait or the easy clarity of a policy to roll it back, the government's foreign policymakers have wrestled with the challenges of explaining an approach to Iraq they regard as far more complicated than the alternatives put forth by critics in Congress and the general public. Today they found themselves caught between opposing passions with a largely passionless argument for what Cohen called measured action "to contain a threat."

Afterward, Berger acknowledged that the Clinton team's answers were not always suited to the pace of a television debate.

"The instinctive thing to do is to say, 'Get rid of Saddam Hussein,' " Berger said in his post-game analysis, conducted at the Buckeye coach's table against a wall filled with basketball statistics. "If we had time to sit down with these people and say, 'How many months, how many soldiers, how many casualties?' support for that would fall off rather quickly."

But that tutorial never took place, and many in the audience said they left without the answers they came to hear.

"I would like to see that they're not putting our troops in a situation where there's not a clear-cut objective," said David Browning, 35, a Marine veteran who lays sheet metal in a union shop.

Berger said later he thought many Americans have "hard questions" that they want "to get out of their system" before concluding that there is no recourse available but war.

"There wasn't a question we were asked that we haven't asked ourselves," he said.

In the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George Bush spared no effort to demonize the man whose name he deliberately mispronounced. In one news conference he spoke of Saddam Hussein's "rape and assassination," "cold-blooded murder and rampant looting" of Kuwait.

The Clinton administration has been half-hearted in its moral indictment. Though Cohen again brought photographs today of a dead mother and infant killed in an Iraqi chemical attack, and Albright described Saddam Hussein as a "bully" and a "rogue," they were careful to avoid going too far lest they call further attention to their decision not to seek his removal from power.

Asked about that a second time, Cohen said "a difference exists between what is desirable and what is doable."

"I think everyone in that region as well as the world community would welcome Saddam Hussein's removal from power," he said, but that would "require in our judgment a rather massive force, land forces, and we don't think it's necessary in order to contain him."

Berger, in his closing statement, directed an emphatic remark to the antiwar hecklers in the crowd.

"There are some things worth fighting for," he said, enunciating every word. "And those include fighting aggression, fighting people who threaten their neighbors and fighting to make this world a safer and more secure place for my children and for yours."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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