At the meeting held at Iraq’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City, the students and Al-Douri discussed Iraq’s position on the pending war and the current political state of Iraq.
"I was very surprised when the ambassador agreed to my request for a meeting," says Bill Hunter, director of the office of international students and scholars and past NGO representative to the United Nations, who arranged the meeting. "I believe the session was permitted because Iraq is trying to 'humanize' itself to the American people, hoping to garner additional support for its cause."
`No walk in the park’
Al-Douri provided the students with a historical framework regarding Iraq and then opened the meeting up to a candid question and answer session. Having spent 30 years as a professor, Al-Douri appeared very comfortable dealing with the students’ inquiries.
The students, comprised of journalism, international relations, engineering, science and business majors, asked the ambassador very pointed questions on a variety of subjects ranging from Iraq’s human rights record to the need for democracy in Iraq.
"This was no walk in the park for Al-Douri," Hunter says. "The students asked some very tough questions. They were respectful, but also critical of his nation's policies, its cat and mouse game with the inspectors and the United Nations."
"Overall, Al-Douri's answers were very diplomatic--no answer was outside the party line," says Nur-e Rahman '04, a journalism major. "I was generally happy with the way he received us, but at times I felt as though he was taking the opportunity to spread his party's political agenda."
Some of Al-Douri's comments surprised the students. "At one point, he said, 'To you, (the Palestinian suicide bombers) are terrorists, but to us, they are heroes,' which shocked me," says Dan Ostermueller '06, a cognitive science major. "But it was really interesting to hear the Iraqi perspective, since all we hear are the American views."
Patrick Schmid '03, a computer science major from Germany, was taken aback by Al-Douri's denial that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction. "And his denial that they ever did anything to their own people made him seem weak and seriously hampered his credibility," Schmid says. "But he was a good diplomat, stating the position of his country."
Close to the source
Hunter says the meeting was a great example of how the university views its educational mission.
"At Lehigh, our approach is to provide students with hands-on opportunities to learn so they are not forming conclusions based solely on what they read in a text book or hear from the media," Hunter says. "As it relates to helping students make informed decisions about the current situation in the world, there isn’t a better way than to have them meet directly with world leaders. For students who are training for careers in journalism or international relations, this is a once in a lifetime chance."
Last month, Hunter led a student group to meet with representatives of the U.S. Department of Defense at the Pentagon and to tour the Washington studios of the Arabic news network, Al-Jazeera. In recent weeks Lehigh has provided students with a range of opportunities to understand global events and the current Iraqi situation, including lectures by author Salman Rushdie and the producer/director of the Al-Jazeera network, Imad Musa.
Rahman, who also attended the Pentagon/Al-Jazeera trip, as well as both the Rushdie and Musa lectures, says she left the meeting with Al-Douri somewhat discouraged. "I walked in hoping he would give us some ground to support the hope that maybe Iraq is not as bad as the media makes it seem at times, and I walked away with a sense of hopelessness in terms of the way the ambassador portrayed a lack of desire to change or compromise."
Hunter says his views on the situation have not changed since meeting with Al-Douri. "I believe the U.S. has Saddam caged and there is no harm in allowing for additional inspections, which I hope will in turn re-ally us with Germany, France, and Russia. The world is now about who you partner with, not who you bully."
Hunter and the students certainly didn't partner with Al-Douri, but they were exposed to the views he represents. "Part of my role at Lehigh is to localize international issues and current events. This time, we got as close as we could to the source," Hunter says.