by Helen Griffiths, Colorado College junior
At the last Democratic Dialogue Event, around fifty Colorado College students and USAFA cadets gathered to discuss US involvement in the Middle East. Each table was assigned a different country. Participants then worked together to propose a potential military and diplomatic response to the problem.
One table, assigned Turkey, discussed whether the US should publicly denounce President Erdogan’s assault on Turkey’s democracy, free speech, and the rule of law. The conversation evolved into a debate over whether the US should close Incirlik, the Turkish air force base that has been so important to U.S. and NATO military operations in the Iraq-Syria theater. A CC student asserted that America’s reliance on Incirlik has without question increased U.S. reluctance to take issue with Erdogan’s most destructive policies, conferring on him great leverage. Indeed, despite urgent US requests, Erdogan only granted American planes the right to fly from Incirlik a year into the war against the Islamic State. The cadets provided crucial insight into the strategic importance of bases. They advocated for this important forward operating presence in regions around the role. As that discussion wrapped up, political science students debated whether the US should condemn Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish minority groups, and if it should take steps to impede Turkey from undermining the stability of the Kurdish-majority north of Iraq. The cadets and students took different approaches, deploying the arguments from articles that they had read in their separate classes, and displaying a preferences for a human rights, or strategic balance approach.
The cadets assigned to Iraq explained some of what they had learned of military strategies when discussing whether Iraq has an effective strategy for fighting ISIS. The conversation addressed whether there was an exit strategy for the US in Iraq and whether the US should become more involved in promoting stability in Iraq, especially between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish elements. The sharpest debate emerged around the question of whether Iraq should have been included in the President’s executive order banning visas from select Muslim-majority countries. Though the emotional appeals on behalf of refugees and on behalf of the ban provoked some disagreement, both CC students and USAFA cadets agreed that Iraqi armed forces are fighting side-by-side with American forces against ISIS, and many interpreters aiding US forces have been specifically targeted by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The cadets discussed the importance of understanding the cultures ‘on the ground’ and advocated for the role that local allies play in supporting the military in host countries. The students agreed, asserting that those who risked their lives to help the US should now be freely allowed to enter the country.
CC students and cadets discussing Iran immediately dove into the potential consequences if the US unilaterally broke the multiparty agreement with Iran. A CC student argued that the Iran Nuclear Deal was an example of global powers working together to reduce risk, while a cadet advanced that the deal showed a degree of US weakness and needless conciliation. The stance that cadets and students took depended on how they perceived Iran. One cadet argued that the greatest risk facing the US was a nuclear armed Iran. Another cadet saw Iran as more of a regional spoiler struggling for influence with Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. He argued that it did not pose a direct threat to America. A CC student explained that from her experience in Iran, they were a people as eager for peace and stability as many US citizens.
At the table assigned to Israel, Israel’s settlement policy was the first subject of discussion. One student argued the actions of the Netanyahu government had eliminated the prospect of a two-state solution. The cadets and students discussed how the settlement policy was affecting Israel’s ability to project influence around the world. They considered the isolation of Palestine at the UN and other bodies, with a student declaring that it was not right for these bodies to exclude Palestine and not accept it as a member. The CC students were relatively critical of the fact that Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign assistance, which at $2.9 billion per year, is more than twice as much as any other country. Questions revolved around whether this is an appropriate use of our aid, and if the US benefits from this relationship. The discussion addressed whether our support for Israel undermined our relations with other states. There was broad consensus that US foreign policy towards Israel needed to change, with some students arguing for justice for Palestine and some cadets pushing for a more US-centered approach in our relations with Israel.
I spent the majority of my time at the table discussing Syria where three interesting arguments emerged. At first, the cadets and students discussed whether the US should intervene with military force in Syria. A CC student made a strong argument for the humanitarian imperative for intervention. Another CC student countered by suggesting that the cadets, as part of the potential “boots on the ground” solution, might be opposed to this direct engagement. In class at CC, we discuss the potential or necessity of conflict in abstract and often theoretical terms. We consult Morgenthau for the cases of “just” war and use history books as anecdotes to show that similar arguments have been employed to a disastrous effect in the past. The student’s question sought to understand if the cadets spoke about war in a more direct way, considering their own lives and their own careers. She posited that as civilians, war will always feel further away than it might for those who will be directly engaged. However, the cadets immediately replied that it was not a matter of their individual self-interest. They did not consider how conflict might directly impact them. As part of the military, the cadet considered himself to be serving the country and his fellow men and women. He would never view conflict through the lens of his own potential sacrifice or gains. Another cadet agreed and expanded on this argument. “If you think about it, we are actually training for conflict. We spend every day preparing for the eventuality of war and if there were no war, then we would have been training for nothing.” The CC students fell silent.
I had never considered the world that each institution is preparing its students for and what kind of adopted worldview we might eventually perpetuate ourselves. At CC, we are pushed to consider diversity, equity and the pursuit of a more just world. I imagine that many of us will end up in the non-profit realm. Cadets are being prepared for a world of conflict and see the military as a useful and essential tool that America should employ abroad. A world without conflict would be as if we graduated to find that the local NGO was no longer hiring and that all our developed skills no longer served any purpose. The cadet expressed almost an eagerness for war, as the culmination of his personal and profession commitments. Though we are a similar age, the fact that we attend such different institutions, which prepare us for drastically different worlds, impacts our ability to completely relate.
The discussion later turned to the question of refugees. We considered the quote of a 26-year-old civil activist, Majed, when he said, “The disappointment caused by the West's inaction created a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, who told those who had lost their loved ones that they were their only hope.” Three CC students agreed with Majed, concerned about some of the language used in the United States about Muslims and refugees, suggesting that this exacerbates the resentment and distrust of people in the Middle East. The cadets generally agreed, though one cadet proposed the economic problem of accepting refugees. He said, “There are a lot of areas that we need to invest more in, whether it’s rebuilding roads or working on infrastructure or helping the working class get back on their feet.” My CC friend responded with concern about how this argument might be used to keep refugees out. She employed the image of the Statue of Liberty in tears and the necessity of empathy for the pain that the refugees experience.
What struck me were not the different opinions, but the very different ways that the arguments were phrased. The cadet, when discussing the potential economic effects of immigration on the working class, could have structured his argument in terms of the necessity for empathy with the parts of America that have suffered from the relocation of jobs overseas, and the hardship that they face as their plight is too often ignored by a certain group of Americans. The CC student, when making an emotional appeal on behalf of families fleeing warfare, could have discussed the positive economic implications of immigration, as they bring innovation and take on necessary jobs. Though the most convincing argument would have been to frame it in a way that might have appealed to the worldview of the other, we often cannot help but make an argument using the terms and values that appeal to us. It was interesting to watch an open and civil debate, as the argument over refugees reflected a broader understanding of the world and what values are more important than others.
Finally, the cadets and students debated whether the US should worry about Russia creating a proxy state in Syria with permanent access to Mediterranean ports. A cadet began by arguing that the increasing anti-Russian sentiment within the US was destructive, as it crafted an enemy out of a state that was merely concerned with its stability and safety. A CC student reacted by arguing that by interfering in our national elections, Russia displayed outright aggression that was not coherent with a state merely concerned with its direct sphere of influence and region. “What proof is there that Russia interfered in our elections?” came the cadet response. A CC explained that if the Russians spread “fake news” and bots in certain Facebook groups, then this could have influenced people to vote against Hillary Clinton. As the conversation continued, we eventually began to talk about the role of social media in the election. The new role of social media, as it influences our opinions and informs our beliefs, was a point upon which the cadets and students agreed.
The cadets discussed all the photos they saw after the inauguration where the number of people in the crowd might have seemed up for debate. Few CC students had seen any of these photos. Eventually, a cadet and student compared what they saw when they logged into Facebook. The CC student’s was covered in articles about the North Dakota pipeline protests, which the cadet had read little about. “Everyone knows about this, it’s the biggest story,” admonished the student. I began to think about how many times I had actually seen the protest covered in national news. I felt that because I had seen the protests reappear over and over again on my feed that this was surely an issue that was capturing the attention of all. It was interesting to see how, even if we are striving for a lack of partisanship or seeking out “real news” that the place we go to socialize has become political as well. “Facebook is a bit of an echo chamber,” the cadet concluded after considering his own feed through the eyes of the CC student.
The discussion was a crucial opportunity to discuss the role of the US overseas. As we explored the potential military and diplomatic responses to crises facing Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria, we debated a multitude of issues, from conceptions of service to the motivating factors that propelled voters to elect Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Though there were debates and disagreements throughout, the cadets benefited from the engaged activism of students and students gained a more profound insight into the technical role of the military abroad. For two such different institutions to thrive in the same city, there is a strong necessity for events like this where those with potentially contrasting ideological and political views can share their thoughts and listen to the opinions of others.