123. Iraq, October, 2002

The greatness of our country does not come simply from its natural resources, the industry of its people, its science and technology, or its military greatness. Underlying all that is a deep commitment to justice and fairness –- without which we would not be great, but simply large and powerful.

For almost a hundred years the United States has led the free world in a way that made its citizens proud and much of the world respectful. Occasionally our power has overwhelmed our sense of justice and fairness, but for the most part we have not abused that power and the position of privilege it has won us. Indeed, we have often entered conflicts not our own to defend less powerful states against aggression. That is precisely what we did when we stepped in to defend Kuwait against Iraq in August of 1990. Agree or disagree, oil or no oil, at least it was clear that Kuwait had been attacked and that we, together with our allies, responded in its defense.

When the United States first waged war against Iraq there were two “checks” whereby we could be sure that we were not abusing our power. First, in the words of the playground, “we didn’t start it”; second, other states were prepared to join in the effort. Now we are contemplating a second war with Iraq; proposing to “start it,” to be the aggressor. That is to assume an awful responsibility not only to our youth, but to the noble traditions of this country. If our sons and daughters are to die in this cause, show us all, clearly and unambiguously why. Show us that other nations seek our help -– not by vote-trading, but honest requests from independent nations.

Our challenge is not Iraq, or even Osama bin Laden, it is living up to our ideals in spite of our alleged injuries.

As university presidents and chancellors we have been entrusted with the growth and development of our nation’s most precious asset, its youth. We teach them to temper their desires with concern for others and to make the case for their beliefs. We owe them nothing less.

We teach them the importance of reason and evidence. They deserve that evidence from us.

Some battles are worth our youth, how is this one?

Some battles are the price of freedom, how is this one?

Some battles are nobly fought by honorable men and women,

how can this one be?

There is no urgency here. It is, and ought to be, very difficult to make a case for unilateral attack. Might did not make right when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, why does it now make right when we invade Iraq?

Why does this cruel dictator (among many) need to be replaced? And how is it our obligation to do so? Just because we can does not mean we should. Why are his alleged weapons of mass destruction different from those of other “rogue” states that also threaten their neighbors? Show us that it is not about the oil. Show us that it is right, that it is just, that it is worthy of their young lives and of this proud nation.

Several generations of Americans have benefited not just from the military sacrifices of our fathers and mothers in WWII, but from the honor, integrity and selflessness with which they fought. Will future Americans enjoy similar respect because of this war? or are we squandering not only the lives of these students, but our national honor and respect?