Dialoguing with Baghdad: Lessons We Learned

It’s hard to make war on a people after looking them in the eye and speaking with them. It’s just as hard to abandon a people after you’ve spoken to them and heard of their plight.

This week I returned to North Carolina to reconvene a televised dialogue that began four years ago between students at Davidson College and the University of Baghdad. Produced by Abu Dhabi TV, this was the third conversation bringing together the two campuses.

The first took place on March 12, 2003, on the eve of the war we all knew was coming. There were stirring exchanges that took place during that dialogue. But maybe the most powerful moments came when the show was over and the screen went black, and we left worrying about the uncertain fate of our counterparts in Baghdad.

Back then our U.S. students were divided, reflecting the national debate over the wisdom of the war. The Iraqis were resolute. One student spoke of their collective fear of the war, saying it was like "living with a gun pointed at your head." He woke up each day, he said, uncertain if it would be his last. A woman student mocked what she called the "joke" she had heard about Iraqis greeting soldiers with flowers, and gave the chilling warning that if even one American entered Iraq, "We will fight you."

After the war began, we reconvened on May 8, 2003. This time our group in Baghdad was forced to meet on the rooftop of a university building, because there was no electrical power in the city, and the students and television crew had to rely on sunlight. When we asked the assembled group the opinion on whether this was an invasion or liberation, fewer than ten percent believed it was liberation. The rest called it an invasion and occupation, complaining bitterly about the absence of security, power, water and other services.

And so, almost four years to the day, I went back to Davidson to reconnect with the University of Baghdad students, to explore once again the value of dialogue. Sadly, the situation in Iraq had worsened. Our Baghdad group had to assemble in the secured Intercontinental Hotel, since their campus was deemed too dangerous a location for the taping. Of the group of thirty who assembled, most had lost a family member in the fighting, most said they had no regular electricity or running water in their homes, and all spoke of the insecurity of everyday life.

The 150 Davidson students who assembled included a few returnees from the 2003 dialogues. When I asked the U.S. group if the war had been worth it, almost all agreed that it had been a mistake and "not worth it." Roughly half said that they had initially supported the invasion, but had turned against it for a variety of reasons, including the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the realization that it wasn’t the promised "cake walk," and concerns that the entire effort had been badly executed.

The live conference provided students with an opportunity to ask each other questions that sought to lessen the 6,500 mile divide between them. When asked by a Davidson student to describe his daily routine, one Iraqi student eerily echoed a comment from the first dialogue, noting how each morning he wakes not knowing if this would be his last as he described his fear of simply leaving his home to go to campus.

The Baghdad group spoke eloquently of their concerns and also of their deep ambivalence. Most made it clear that they wanted American troops to leave, but were equally frightened by the prospects of the chaos that might follow a U.S. departure. One woman captured this ambivalence in a single sentence: "We need help – don’t leave us," the student begged, "but at the same time, leave as soon as possible."

It was important to the Baghdad students that their American counterparts understand that they don’t believe their country is in a civil war. Rather, it is a power struggle between competing political groups, with innocent Sunnis and Shi’ais caught in the middle. One student noted that many Baghdad residents have Sunni and Shi’ai parents – marriage between the two sects being common in Iraq. After hearing this powerful testimony, some of the Davidson students – some of the most well-educated liberal arts students in the country – confessed to being surprised. Although one half of them had taken a course in Iraqi history, they admitted to being unaware of Baghdad’s history of religious coexistence. Some were caught off guard by the Iraqi students’ appeal for help in strengthening their government and security forces, and in restoring the city’s infrastructure and services.

One woman from Davidson complained that the current "bi-polarity" of the U.S. political debate focused too much on either "staying the course" or setting a date for withdrawal, and didn’t address the concerns she had heard or make space for a consideration of the needs of the Iraqi people. That brought up the question of responsibility.

One of the more eloquent opponents of the war during the initial 2003 dialogue had expressed his fear, then, of the big mess we might be getting into in Iraq. Well, here it was – "the big mess" for which we are most assuredly responsible – staring us in the face and demanding our help.

As I was being told that we had but one minute of satellite time remaining, I asked one final question of my Davidson group: "After hearing what you’ve heard, how many of you think we should stay in Iraq?" Almost every hand in the room went up. In post-dialogue conversations, it was clear that this final vote in no way constituted an endorsement of the Bush Administrations’ surge policy. Rather, it was a call for a deeper discussion about what must be done to own up to our responsibility in Iraq.

In the end, our dialogue left an indelible mark and raised more challenging questions than it answered. Thanks go to the courageous students and faculty of Baghdad University for their willingness to participate; to Davidson College for helping us; and to Abu Dhabi TV for making it all possible.