The Salon Interview: Camille Paglia

Bad omen: Why the Columbia disaster should make Bush think twice about rushing to war with Iraq.

Published February 7, 2003 7:14PM (EST)

Camille Paglia is a rarity in the increasingly polarized world of public intellectuals, a high-profile thinker and writer who is not readily identified with any political camp or party line. She burst onto the scene in 1990 following the publication of her book, "Sexual Personae." Paglia was a rough-trade feminist not afraid to challenge the orthodoxy of the women's movement or its reigning sisterhood; a professor from a small college with no qualms about torching the Parisian academic trends then enthralling Ivy League humanities departments; a self-proclaimed "Democratic libertarian" who voted twice for Bill Clinton and then loudly denounced him for bringing shame to his office.

Given Paglia's originality and unpredictability, we had no idea what to expect when we phoned her earlier this week for her opinions on the Bush administration's looming war with Iraq. Paglia proudly describes herself as a Dionysian child of the '60s, a generation not known for its martial spirit. And yet, during her long run as a Salon columnist, she developed an enthusiastic following among conservatives, including retired and active military personnel, for her eloquent tributes to family, tradition, country and uniformed service, as well as her stop-your-blubbering take on modern American life.

Paglia retired her Salon column last year to focus on teaching -- she is university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia - and to finish her fifth book, a study of poetry that will be published by Pantheon Books. She returns in the Salon Interview to reveal her opinions on Iraq for the first time. "The foreign press has asked me repeatedly to comment on Iraq, and I've said I don't think it's right as an American citizen to do that. I said I should reserve my criticisms of the administration for home consumption," said Paglia. "That's why I'm talking to you now."

What is your position on the increasingly likely U.S. invasion of Iraq?

Well, first of all, I'm on the record as being pro-military and in insisting that military matters and international affairs were neglected throughout the period of the Clinton administration -- which partly led to the present dilemma. The first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 should have been a wake-up call for everyone. However, I'm extremely upset about our rush to war at the present moment. If there truly were an authentic international coalition that had been carefully built, and if the administration had demonstrated sensitivity to the fragility of international relations, I'd be 100 percent in favor of an allied military expedition to go into Iraq and find and dispose of all weapons of mass destruction.

But most members of the current administration seem to have little sense that there's an enormous, complex world beyond our borders. The president himself has never traveled much in his life. They seem to think the universe consists of America and then everyone else -- small-potatoes people who can be steamrolled. And I'm absolutely appalled at the lack of acknowledgment of the cost to ordinary Iraqi citizens of any incursion by us, especially aerial bombardment. Most of the Iraqi armed forces are pathetically unprepared to respond to a military confrontation with us. These are mostly poor people who have a profession and a dignity within their country, and they're not necessarily totally behind Saddam Hussein's ambition to dominate his region. There's just no way that Saddam's threat is equal to that of Hitler leading up to World War II. Hitler had amassed an enormous military machine and was actively seeking world domination. We don't need to invade Iraq. Saddam can be bottled up with aggressive surveillance and pinpoint airstrikes on military installations.

As we speak, I have a terrible sense of foreboding, because last weekend a stunning omen occurred in this country. Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas -- the president's home state! So many times in antiquity, the emperors of Persia or other proud empires went to the oracles to ask for advice about going to war. Roman generals summoned soothsayers to read the entrails before a battle. If there was ever a sign for a president and his administration to rethink what they're doing, this was it. I mean, no sooner had Bush announced that the war was "weeks, not months" away and gone off for a peaceful weekend at Camp David than this catastrophe occurred in the skies over Texas.

From the point of view of the Muslim streets, surely it looks like the hand of Allah has intervened, as with the attack on the World Trade Center. No one in the Western world would have believed that those mighty towers could fall within an hour and a half -- two of the proudest constructions in American history. And neither would anyone have predicted this eerie coincidence -- that the president's own state would become the burial ground for the Columbia mission.

Including one small town where the debris fell called Palestine, Texas.

Yes, exactly! What weird irony with an Israeli astronaut onboard who had bombed Iraq 20 years ago. To me this dreadful accident is a graphic illustration of the limitations of modern technology -- of the smallest detail that can go wrong and end up thwarting the most fail-safe plan. So I think that history will look back on this as a key moment. Kings throughout history have been shaken by signals like this from beyond: Think twice about what you're doing. If a Roman general tripped on the threshold before a battle, he'd call it off.

The Bush administration is not known for thinking twice -- they pride themselves on their certitude, a certitude that strikes many as arrogant.

I'd call them parochial rather than arrogant. Last summer, Bush's tone was certainly arrogant, but he's quieted his rhetoric since then. I don't know who got to him, his father or the elders around him. Talk about destabilizing the world! "Regime change" and "You're with us or against us" and so on -- impatient, off-the-cuff rants that tore the fabric of international relations. You don't unilaterally demand the overthrow of a government of a sovereign nation, for heaven's sake. It turns our own presidents into targets. As for [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, I think he's some kind of hot dog. It's as if he's trying to pump up his testosterone, to operate on some constant, hyperadrenaline level, to show "I can still hack it, man!" I was of two minds about Rumsfeld's snide comment about "old Europe." On the one hand, I love to see France put in its place, because of course it no longer is the center of the world but keeps insisting that it is. On the other hand, this is yet another example of the ham-handedness of this administration in world relations.

I think that Bush administration officials are genuinely convinced of the rightness of their positions, although their biblical piety is cloying. I think they do intend the best for the American people. It's not just a covert grab for oil to placate corporate interests. But I also think that their current course of action in Iraq is disastrous for long-term world safety. After 9/11, what should have been perfectly clear is that we need a long, slow process of reeducating the peoples of the world, to try to convince Muslims of the fundamental benevolence of American intentions. And we had most of the world behind us in the days after 9/11, except for the Muslim extremists. We desperately need the world's cooperation, from police agencies to informers. Above all, we need moderate Muslims to turn out the homicidal fanatics in their midst.

Do you think the Bush administration's focus on Saddam is a diversion from this global campaign against terrorism?

The real diversion is from other global hot spots. If we get bogged down in Iraq, China might think it's a good moment to retake Taiwan. Saddam is an amoral thug, but he's not the principal danger to American security. The real problem is a shadowy, international network of young, radical Islamic men. And we have played right into their hands since last summer by coming across as a bullying world power, threatening war with Iraq and acting completely callous to the resulting human carnage and death of innocent civilians. What privileges American over Iraqi lives? Why does the chance of American casualties through random terrorism outweigh the certain reality of Iraqi devastation in a crushing invasion?

But don't you think if Saddam were to succeed in his longtime goal of building an operational arsenal of doomsday weapons, that he would then provide an umbrella for this network of terrorists to carry out its plots against the West?

But how are we going to counter that threat? Are we going to bomb laboratories and facilities storing dangerous chemicals and release them in the air near population centers? Are we going to poison Baghdad? This is as barbarous as what we're opposing in Saddam. We need to be going in the opposite direction -- to lower global tensions. This constant uncertainty is bad for everyone. It's bad for the economy, it's bad for people's psychic health, and it's going to endanger Americans around the world. How are we ever going to do business around the world and function in a global market, when any American traveling abroad is subject to assassination?

We know so little about Iraq in this country. It's enormous, and yet most Americans can't even find it on the map. I love to listen to talk radio and have been doing it for years. But I'm frightened by what I'm hearing these days from commentators like Sean Hannity, whose program I listen to when I'm driving home from school. He's conservative, but I'm not -- I'm a libertarian Democrat who voted for Ralph Nader. These days I can't believe what I'm hearing, the gung-ho passion for war, the lofty sense of moral certitude, the complete obliviousness to the world outside our borders. How many people has Hannity known who aren't Americans? Has he ever been anywhere in the world? His knowledge of world history and culture seems thin at best. This is increasingly our problem as a nation -- we can't see beyond ourselves. It shows the abject failure of public education.

But there are a number of people with a more sophisticated view of the world who also endorse war with Iraq -- people like Christopher Hitchens or New Yorker editor David Remnick, who just came out in favor of attacking Saddam.

I do believe that Saddam is a menace and that he must be confronted. But the Bush administration is operating under an artificial timetable. There's no reason not to give diplomacy and expanded inspections ample time to work. We need the support of the world community, not just for this crisis but the next one.

I tried to be open-minded about Bush's case for war. I waited for him to present the evidence for an imminent threat to the U.S. But months passed, and they hemmed and hawed. It was words, words, words. Do they think the American people are fools? That we can't be trusted to understand a casus belli? There was a shiftiness, a sleight of hand, a kind of blustery bravado and smugness: "Well, we know, but we just can't tell you, because it would compromise national security." Give me a break -- we're about to go to war and kill or maim thousands of innocent people. Americans will die too. And they couldn't lay all their cards on the table?

[Rep.] Charles Rangel is quite right that the burden will be borne by a lower social class. The American elite don't view military service as prestigious for their sons and daughters, whom they groom for white-collar professions. In England, however, serving in the military is part of aristocratic and royal tradition.

Rangel and others in the Democratic Party have raised sharp objections to Bush's war plans, but what do you think in general of the Democrats' response on this issue? Have they presented a coherent alternative?

I'm disgusted at the Democratic Party -- what a bunch of weasels. The senators laid down flat in the weeks before the fall election and voted without a full debate over Iraq. That was the moment for a searching national discussion, no matter what the outcome. And since the Democrats rolled over, of course Bush was right to proceed -- they gave him carte blanche.

The Democrats should have provided the geopolitical analysis that the Republicans were avoiding. In countries like Turkey that have reluctantly agreed to let U.S. forces use their territory as a staging ground, for example, there's a sharp disconnect between these government decisions and what the mass of people think and feel. And we don't need that -- a situation where moderate governments are overthrown by a rising tide of Islamic radicalism.

I have a long view of history -- my orientation is archaeological because I'm always thinking in terms of ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Persia and Egypt. People are much too complacent in the West -- though their comfort level has been shaken (as I predicted long ago in Salon) by the stock market drop. Most professional people in the West do not understand the power of Islamic fundamentalism. Westerners dismissed Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini -- "Oh, how medieval; our modern culture will triumph over that!" But guess what: Ever since Khomeini, Islamic fundamentalism has been spreading and spreading right to our front door.

It's similar to early Christianity. Christianity began as a religion of the poor and dispossessed -- farmers, fishermen, Bedouin shepherds. There's a great lure to that kind of simplicity and rigor -- the discipline, the call to action. There's a kind of rapturous idealism to it. No one thought in the first century after Christ that this slave religion would triumph over the urbane sophisticates of the ancient Roman world. Taking the long view, I think Islamic radicalism is the true threat, not Saddam Hussein's arsenal. At the worst, Saddam's biological or chemical weapons could take out a neighborhood or send a drifting poison cloud through a city. But what I'm talking about is a movement so massive it could bring down the West -- the entire civilization of the West. No one thought that imperial Egypt or Rome would fall -- but they did.

So do you agree with Oriana Fallaci's characterization of the war on terrorism as a clash of civilizations?

Before 9/11, I would never have believed it, but I do now. For years I was saying that the study of world religions in higher education will lead us toward mutual understanding and world peace and so on and so forth. Well, the attack on the World Trade Center opened my eyes. After a decade of government neglect of this issue, we now face an entire generation of ruthless young Islamic men who have been radicalized. The solution is not to bomb Baghdad but to win over the Muslim center, which has been alarmingly passive. We need a cultural war -- one certainly enforced by targeted military strikes and espionage directed at terror cells and leaders, like the Predator attack on that jeep in Yemen. Boom! Perfect -- out of nowhere comes a missile that takes them out. Fantastic! We need small, mobile units of special forces deployed everywhere, stealth operatives -- kidnapping terrorists and debriefing and neutralizing them. Undercover activity is the way to go. But this kind of conventional war that Bush has planned for Iraq won't get to the root of the problem. All Bush is doing is shifting moderate Muslims in sympathy toward the radical extreme.

There may be an apparent immediate victory in Iraq, but we'll be winning the battle and losing the war. The real war is for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. We don't want a world where Americans can't travel abroad without fearing for their lives -- or even within our borders, where a small cell of fanatics can blow up a railway station or bridge or tunnel.

You mentioned that you don't think much of Rumsfeld -- how about the other members of the Bush foreign policy and national security team. What do you think about Condi Rice, for instance?

I've been a longtime admirer of Condoleezza Rice, because I like her articulateness and style -- her toughness and rigor. However, she might be a great national security advisor, but I'm not sure she has the touch and finesse that are needed for international relations. I like how she huddles with Bush to watch football and hash out strategy. She's got a military mind. I love her steeliness, but there's something a little harsh in her view of the world. She lacks the human touch. There's something a little off-putting about someone who has no evident romantic relationships, who sees life as basically a chessboard. One of the great moments in American politics would be if Cheney is out as V.P. the next time around, and Bush puts Rice -- a black woman -- on the ticket. That would put Hillary in her place! [laughs]

What do you think of Colin Powell's role these days?

It's not very clear, is it? It goes back and forth. He's caught in the middle, so that his public image has become blurred. His language is usually so bland and vacuous that he's drowned out by Rumsfeld. By the time Powell made his presentation of hard evidence to the U.N. Security Council this week, he had a credibility problem. His words no longer had the weight they once had. The administration should have been publishing reconnaissance photos six months ago. After all this buildup, I was hoping to see something more formidable than amateurish peekaboo games by Saddam's underlings.

It doesn't seem that Rice or any other member of the Bush inner team has spent any real time in the Mideast.

No, they have no visceral feeling for the people of that complex region. The Middle East has been a seething crucible for thousands of years. All the border lines there are provisional -- they're always being drawn and redrawn. So this is madness -- even trying to sustain Iraq as a national entity after destroying Saddam's tyranny. Iraq is just a self-serving idea that the British had at the end of the Ottoman empire. It's a cauldron of warring tribesmen. Clinton never understood this either -- about the Mideast or the Balkans. He just wanted everyone to get along. What naiveté! The fierce animosities, the blood memory in those parts of the world. I understand it from my family background in Italy. We have long memories: Things that happened decades or centuries ago are as vivid as today -- it's tribal memory. That's what the Bush administration is missing about Iraq. They think that destroying Saddam will create a nation of happy Iraqis.

Another thing is that Saddam thinks of himself as the heir of Babylon and Assyria. Most Americans don't understand the pride that he and his people have in that history. They want to revive it. It's exactly the way Americans take pride in our roots and our founding fathers and want to spread American values around the world. It looks illogical to the Arab world when we say, "Well, of course we have thousands of nuclear weapons, but you can't have any." They don't see why the U.S. thinks it can decide which sovereign nations should have nuclear weapons and which cannot.

What do you think of the ambitious scenario put forth by many intellectual hawks in and around the Bush administration, who predict that by destroying Saddam, the U.S. can reorder the entire Middle East chessboard, making it a haven for Western-style democracy?

It's a utopian fantasy that will have a high price in bloodshed. We already have one democracy over there, Israel -- and it's being shattered by wave after wave of atrocities. War on Iraq may destabilize pro-American regimes there. Who knows how long the Saudi regime can survive the aftereffects of a war?

Of course some of these hawks would say, "Who cares if the Saudi regime falls -- they're corrupt and their society breeds terrorism and they're not trustworthy allies."

Yes, but who's going to take over Arabia -- the strongest alternative is the radical Muslims. What if Egypt goes? The dream of the radical Islamic movement is to topple all of the secular, pro-West governments in the Middle East. Americans may say, "Oh, that can never happen." Well, yes it can -- because of the discipline and rigor of these radical, self-contained belief systems.

How will war with Iraq affect the volatile Israel-Palestine powder keg?

For years in my Salon column, I questioned the automatic way the American government gave billions of dollars a year to Israel without putting pressure on Israeli policy toward the displaced Palestinians. The American major media were cowardly in avoiding the issue. The best time to have created a Palestinian state was 20 years ago. But at this point the situation is probably too inflamed. So the American media's inertness "enabled" the Israeli government, allowing it to stay addicted to our profligate funding. Hence compromises were not made when peaceful relations between Israel and the Palestinians were possible. The suicide bombings of the past two years have disillusioned me with the Palestinian cause. Now I believe we have an ethical obligation to support Israel.

If our incursion into Iraq succeeds, it will clearly strengthen Israel. But if it doesn't, and there's a domino effect of destabilized Mideastern governments, then Israel is in mortal danger. It's so foolish to add more negative energy to that explosive chemical mix in the Mideast. Why give Islamic militants one more major grievance against us? This one will be even more massive than the U.S. leaving military bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War, which added fuel to bin Laden's crusade to radicalize young Muslims.

What do you think of the antiwar movement that is taking shape in the U.S.?

Well, I had great hopes for it but am discouraged. I turned on C-SPAN with great excitement to watch the big march in Washington last month. But talk about shooting yourself in the foot! Several speakers were good, but most of them tried to drag all sorts of extraneous issues into it -- calling Bush a "moron," accusing America of imperialistic ambitions, "No blood for oil" -- all these clichés. When fringe, paleo-leftist voices take over the platform, it drives away the moderate, mainstream people in this country who have nagging doubts about this war. I just don't believe the polls claiming overwhelming public support for the war. I'm skeptical about the way the pollsters are asking the questions. I don't know anyone who's wholeheartedly for this war.

Whatever support the administration would have going into the war might prove fleeting if there are significant casualties, or the occupation proves costly and messy, don't you think?

Yes, but I don't want it ever to get to that point. You know, we've been bombing Iraq for years, because of the conditions imposed on Saddam after the last Gulf War -- the no-fly zones and so on. In effect, we've been in a state of war for over a decade there. It's not like we've been ignoring Saddam and merrily letting him do whatever he wants.

If we do go to war, I pray it's a brief incursion. But this idea of occupying Iraq! When we need those billions here. Our medical care system is staggering, inner-city education is still a mess, the elderly are in straitened circumstances, and Social Security is in jeopardy, and we're going to spend all this money not only in bombing Iraq but then building it again from the rubble and governing it? This is madness!

Why aren't more public figures speaking out about the war, both pro and con, outside of the usual circles? I mean, on the antiwar side, of course, we have some high-profile Hollywood liberals like Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon ...

Yes, that's one of the problems. Of course actors have a right and even obligation to speak out. But so many of them -- not Sarandon, whom I respect -- come across as witless or knee-jerk. They question Bush's intelligence, or they sneer and snort. They don't sound fully mature; they don't sound like they've fully considered the complexity of the positions that any president and his administration have to take. The infestation of the issue by posturing celebrities and the usual suspects on the fruitcake far left make people think, "I don't want to be one of them."

And then there are the intellectuals like Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky who've made a career abroad out of anti-Americanism. Sontag's made no secret of her lifelong adulation of all things European. My take is different: My immigrant family escaped poverty in Italy, and so I look at America in a very positive, celebratory way. So I'm reluctant to become part of this easy chorus of anti-Americanism.

I also don't want to do anything to undermine national morale, if we are indeed going to war. It's wrong to be divisive when families have parents or children in danger on the front lines. I don't want to add to their grief.

Do you think war is a certainty at this point?

I'm still hoping against hope that somehow backstage pressure on Saddam from Arab regimes will finally force him to accept exile in some plush pleasure spot. It's so late in the day now. The media should have been focusing six months ago on who the Iraqi people are, on the history and dynamics of the region.

If I could, I would assign everyone to watch "Gone With the Wind" -- which is dismissed these days as an apologia for slavery. But that movie beautifully demonstrates the horrors of war. Everyone is so wildly enthused for war at the start, but Ashley Wilkes says, "At the end of a war, no one remembers what they're fighting for." It shows the destruction of a civilization, the slaughter of a whole generation of young men, and people reduced to squalid, animal-like subsistence conditions. And that's what's missing right now, as we prepare to march off to Baghdad -- a recognition of the horrors and tragic waste of war.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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Academia Camille Paglia George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East