A host of campus political groups gathered in the Low Library rotunda on Monday night to discuss President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, but they ended up debating if and where the U.S. even has the right to have a presence in the region.
Moderators from Turath, an Arab student group, posed questions for discussion for panelists from the Columbia University College Republicans, CU Democrats, CU Libertarians, Columbia International Socialist Organization and the political and Jewish affairs magazine The Current.
While the moderators asked panelists specific questions about extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, democracy, religious freedom, rights for women, and markets and development, panelists often debated more general American foreign policy concerns about intervention.
“With all these talks of other’s countries’ borders, ethnic relations, diplomatic relations, military, why is this is any of our business in the first place?” CU Libertarian Jordan Goodspeed, GS, said. “I have a map of the United States, and I don’t see Palestine or Israel anywhere on it.”
“I don’t usually like imposing Western values on these countries, because some are not ready for this liberal democracy that we have,” CUCR executive director Tyler Trumbach, CC ’13, said. “But I do believe that these countries will eventually reach this state.”
Students talked about how America should respond to democratic movements that turn violent, such as Hamas, and discussed their citizenship rights.
“People have a right to challenge their situation,” editor in chief of the Current David Fine, CC ’13, said, “but they don’t have the right to lob missiles into civilian populations. They don’t have a right to target and eliminate civilians.”
Representatives of CU ISO countered that people have the right to respond to political conditions by whatever means they require.
“I think that occupied people have the right to fight back,” CU ISO member Akua Ofori, GSAS, said. “This isn’t a moralistic argument about violence or non-violence. I think people are going to fight back however they need to survive.”
The CU Democrats instead spoke about the need for the United States to remain flexible while working with foreign governments of different types of regimes.
“Yes, the United States would like to see democracies rather than monarchies,” CU Democrat Quitzé Valenzuela-Stookey, CC ’15, said. “That doesn’t mean that we have the luxury of working only with democracies,” he added. “We can’t just decide not to work with them, or we can’t just decide to change their form of government.”
A discussion of women’s rights led to similar tension regarding America’s right to influence foreign policymaker’s rights agendas.
“We need to pressure Saudi Arabia to grant more rights to women. We need to pressure these nations into it. I think that’s the best way we can do this,” Trumbach said.
The CU Socialists maintained that it is not for the U.S. to consider women’s rights abroad.
“I think this question doesn’t belong to the U.S., and it doesn’t belong to me,” Thaer Alsheikh Theeb, SEAS ‘15, said. “It belongs to the women of Egypt. The women who have taken to the streets in great numbers.”
When the moderators asked the ISO about America’s energy policy, the panelists discussed the legitimacy of American concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
“The oil industry is what’s driving the intervention into the East right now,” Ofori said. “That’s what’s driving the intervention into Iran right now.”
“I think you look at the International Atomic Energy Agency, I’m sure you’re going to say that they’re ruled by elitist interests or whatever, but they have seen enrichment beyond the need for nuclear power,” Fine responded.
The event also included a question-and-answer section following the debate. One student asked the College Republicans to clarify a statement they had made earlier in the debate: “All extremists are Islamists.”
Trumbach responded that they had been taken out of context and clarified that they meant, “All Muslim extremists are by definition Islamists.”
Members of CUCR said after the event that they felt the audience had taken a position decidedly against their own. “The questions that other groups received were clearly anti-Republican,” Trumbach said. “The questions that we received were tailored to make us look moderate.”
Students reacted in varied ways to the debate, ranging from saying that the event was a success to regret that the event deviated from its initial goal.
“I thought it was fairly productive. I like that they were able to respond to different points,” CU Republican Jamie Boothe, CC ’15, said. “Overall, I think it was a well-done event.”
“It was a little broad in the sense that it was trying to cover a wide array of issues,” Narayan Subramanian, CC ’13, said. “This is great in a superficial sense, but in terms of actually delving into the issues and having a full-fledged debate, it was a little tough.”
Megan Kallstrom contributed reporting.