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Berkeleyan

Berdahl speaks out on U.S. foreign policy
‘We stand isolated from our allies,’ chancellor says. He views ‘radical departure’ from established policy with a citizen’s concern.

| 19 March 2003

On Monday, March 17, shortly before President Bush delivered his televised ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Chancellor Robert Berdahl spoke with the Berkeleyan about his personal feelings — as a historian and a citizen — about the imminent hostilities.

Berdahl was at pains to distinguish his own personal opinions from those of the university he represents in an official capacity. “I have my own personal points of view about all of this,” he said while visiting family in Minnesota, “but the difficulty that I always face is that whenever I speak, it is interpreted as if I am speaking on behalf of the university.”

He acknowledged that he has in fact spoken his mind in recent weeks on aspects of the current political situation — for example, in the most recent installment of his online radio program, “Bear in Mind,” when he asserted that the national media is “refusing to meet its obligation to educate the public” in the current crisis. In that program he expressed his concern that the Bush administration, in considering a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, is promulgating a “radical change” in foreign policy.

“I feel as though this is an unprecedented departure in American foreign policy: to launch an offensive attack on a sovereign nation that does not, even by the estimates of the administration, pose an immediate threat,” Berdahl told the Berkeleyan. “Nor has it attacked us directly. It really crosses a psychological threshhold that we have never crossed before in our foreign policy. And it’s an important threshhold insofar as it’s always easier to cross it again once it has been crossed.”

Offering a closer look into his thinking, Berdahl — an expert in German history who taught at the universities of Texas, Illinois, and Oregon before coming to Berkeley in 1997 — continued: “We now stand isolated from virtually all of our historic allies, with the exception of Britain. We are opposed in this action by the established, stable, historic democracies of France, Germany, and Canada, and some of the other western European states. In addition, we’re opposed by other major powers, Russia and China in particular.

“This has been an historic turning point in American foreign policy, one that has left NATO in tatters and the United Nations seriously damaged — all the international institutions that have been built up since the Second World War. It’s a radical departure, and I can’t help being concerned about it as an American citizen.”

Discourse is ‘our role, our job’
Berdahl reiterated his often-articulated stance that universities, and Berkeley in particular, have a unique role to play as places where differing ideas and factions “come together, intersect, and interact.”

“Just because the discourse internationally has apparently ended, and is being replaced with arms, does not mean that it should stop taking place here,” he said. “That’s our role; that’s our job. I hope people will be respectful of what the university is — a place where differing points of view do meet, and where they try to engage in rational debate over their differences.”

All appropriate viewpoints
Asked what he thought might transpire on campus should war begin this week, as many — even prior to the president’s ominous address later that evening — believed it might, Berdahl said, “Obviously, there will be demonstrations, probably on both sides of this issue. There will be those who support the war who will want to make their views known, and there will also be those who oppose the war who will want to make their points of view known. Both of these are appropriate.”

Berkeley, a questioner noted, is a place where differences of opinion in the past have escalated beyond debate. “Certainly this is a very tense moment,” the chancellor observed. “The country is about to go to war — a war about which public opinion in the country, if I’m to judge by the polls, is virtually evenly divided. And my guess is that there are very strong feelings by people within the university on both sides of this issue.

“But,” he continued, “I hope that there is no effort to resist violence by taking acts of violence. I think that that would not persuade people — that it would in fact turn people the other way. So I worry a lot about any kind of violence, about hate crimes, or the expression of anything that is directed against people rather than policies. We’re talking here about policies and policy differences, and I hope that the debate is about that.”

Asked what limits he thought the campus might place on personal expression, Berdahl responded decisively. “We’re not going to tolerate anything that’s a violation of the Code of Conduct. That means we will not tolerate people entering and disrupting classrooms against the will of the instructor and the class.

“But we hope it doesn’t come to that,” he added. “We hope that these will be peaceful demonstrations; that there will not be efforts at anything that smacks of violence. There may be acts of civil disobedience. That happens, and we’re very hopeful that people who engage in civil disobedience do so simply to make a point, and not in order to create a confrontation or disturbance that results in violence. If we’re going to be demonstrating on behalf of peace, the emphasis ought to be on peace — and on peaceful ways of expressing our points of view.”

‘Remember what we’re fighting for’
Berdahl was asked about recent, vague warnings by the federal government that universities are likely ‘soft targets’ for those who might take U.S. aggression against Iraq as a pretext for terrorist actions.

“We are obviously going to be vigilant,” the chancellor replied. “As an institution that is open and free and accessible to the general public, we are ‘soft’ in terms of our ability to wall ourselves off from any kind of security threat. We will take more precautions if they seem necessary, but we cannot close the campus down — and we cannot, it seems to me, forestall any action that somebody is determined to make, or might be able to make in an open and free society.

“The concern that I think all of us have is that going to war is likely to provoke more efforts at terrorist attacks within the United States. And as we have seen, the response to 9/11 has been a substantial curtailment of civil liberties within the United States, and I hope that whatever happens, we don’t see further curtailment of civil liberties.

“We’ve got to remember what we’re fighting for, which is the kind of constitutional government that we’ve established over 200 years in this country,” the chancellor said in conclusion.