David Ignatius may be best known for writing the spy thriller-turned-film “Body of Lies,” but instead of shallow Hollywood glitz attendants at this year’s Ben Bradlee lecture got an in-depth glimpse of the Washington Post journalist’s adroit analysis of pressing political issues.
The Ben Bradlee lecture, now in its sixth year, is meant to “focus on individuals who have made outstanding contributions to journalism with a focus democracy and its implications for democracy,” said head of the Center for the Study of Democracy Michael Cain. The lecture takes the form of a question and answer from multiple parties chosen by Cain, this year including fellow Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, Professor of Political Science Matt Fehrs, and Editor-in-Chief of The Point News Lara Southgate.
Cain first thanked donors for their contributions to the Center of the Study of Democracy’s endowment, and then introduced Ignatius by praising his “hard-hitting column” and his ability to “[weave] personal narrative with geo-political strategy.”
After Cain’s short introduction, Sally Quinn began her line of questioning by outlining three main topics of discussion: Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iraq-Iran, and Israel-Palestine. Before proceeding to this line, however, Ignatius pointed out one of the major issues plaguing the U.S.’s relationships with all these countries: namely the negative sentiments many people in these countries have towards Americans and American involvement. Ignatius stated, however, that even as these countries dislike us they admire many of our freedoms, and that it is the press and, “All of the Ben Bradlees in American press [that are our] greatest weapon in making our way through a world that generally doesn’t like us.”
Moving on to Quinn’s lines of questioning, Ignatius talked about his winter with the 117th infantry, which according to him, “got smashed” by casualties. He further went into portraying the situation as he saw it in Afghanistan, a place where the government was and is so corrupt that the people turn to the Taliban because they are tired of paying bribes. It is this corruption that led Ignatius to say, “[the] hard part of this war isn’t really the military part…it’s the political”, and that the problem in Afghanistan (and especially Kandahar), “is not the enemies, is not the Taliban…it’s our friends.”
Ignatius further touched on the Taliban-side of the equation, elucidating the major (if not always clear) distinction between Al-Queda and Taliban, the former being originally outsiders who came in to fight against the Russian occupation. He also said that there’s “no way we are going to put [Afghanistan] back together unless we make the Taliban and its supporters feel as if they are taking part in a new, more stable Afghan government.” He added, however, that we could not stand to lose some of the cultural in-roads we have made in Afghanistan, mainly in relation to women’s rights.
When asked on the opium issue, Ignatius said that the fertile land in Afghanistan could easily be used to grow other food that could be used to feed starving Afghanis, ad praised the Marine Corp’s current program, in which they pay a cash equivalent to farmers and given the seeds for other crops.
Ignatius also touched on the United States’ “co-dependant relationship” with the unpopular President Hamid Karzai, who has spoken vehemently against American influence. Ignatius said that, as a result of popular anti-American sentiments, Karzai’s defiance, “gives him a sense of dignity.” He added that Karzai’s ultimate test will be if he is able to run the country effectively once U.S. troops leave.
Shifting to the Iran-Iraq controversies, Ignatius talked about how the “latest chapter” in Iraq was fairly good, and how the Iraqi elections had succeeded despite a $100 million covert campaign by the Iranian government to sabotage the leading party. He added that the Iraqi government, “makes a lot of mistakes,” but still has a working army and security force to at least keep the peace.
When focusing on Iran, Ignatius addressed on the issue of nuclear power, and said that despite the Iranian government’s assertions that their goal is nuclear energy, “they want a bomb!” However, he pointed to the facts that Iran’s current work has been mired with mechanical problems and political strife, and quoted Napoleon when he said, “never interrupt your adversary when they are making a mistake.” He also said that it would be around 1-2 years until Iran could actually begin enriching Uranium on a reliable scale. He also speculated on the possibility that by then the international community could find a way to express the dangerous nature of nuclear enrichment to the Iranian government, instead of going down the very undesirable path towards eventual war.
On the issue of Palestine, Ignatius noted that, “pessimism pays” and that, “we all know what [a Palestinian state] would look like…we just have to make it happen.” He also pointed out that President Obama seems more serious about reaching an agreement between Israel and Palestine.
Turning to journalistic matters (and at the prodding of a question regarding American media’s informative potential by Fehrs), Ignatius said that, “Americans are not curious enough about the world.” He also pointed out that although foreign news is one of the least-read parts of his own Washington Post, the Post’s foreign offices remain open despite current downsizing domestically. He also expressed his admiration for how people in the military were, “learning tremendous things about the world” during their tours of duty, and highly recommended that employers hire returning vets for this reason.
Yet at the same time, Ignatius also chided members of the modern news media of “poisoning our political system” by turning political debate into “shouting matches.” He spoke strongly on how the American political system was becoming dysfunctional as a result of this partisan bickering, and said the, “people want to see action on things they care about.”
After being asked by Southgate how to transfer from college to professional journalism, he said, “You just do it; you just write.” He added that everyone today can publish via blogs and the Internet, and that newspapers are looking for people “[who are] taking some risks” with their work.
Ignatius also talked about his time as a novelist, and how his first novel (“Agents of Innocence”), came from his time in Beirut and the stories he heard from those affected by the deaths caused by the Beirut embassy bombing. As a result, he said that it was ultimately a true story, and that all his novels since then, although works of fiction have a great deal of truth to them.
Student and faculty reaction to Ignatius’ talk was generally positive. First-year Michael Hullett said, “I really liked actually hearing the stories about his time in Afghanistan.” Senior Katie Schultz, who hadn’t heard of Ignatius before attending the lecture, said he “makes me want to learn more about world affairs, and he brings a refreshing view.” Senior Garrett Fehner said, “Thought that it was a good discussion of a diverse list of policy issues.” Fehner also said that, “I would’ve liked more of a lecture format, but this way we got to learn more of the character of Ignatius.”
Cain agreed with that sentiment, and said that the lecture “shed some different perspectives on things that he does. And I got to see that he was [more] a writer that just happened to be a columnist.” Having spent time outside the lecture with Ignatius, Cain also remarked, “he’s a warm guy…it’s nice to see the faces behind [the news].”