Last Thursday, the College chapter of the national Alexander Hamilton Society hosted a debate between Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and three College students: Mike Druker ’17, Burhan Aldroubi ’15 and Jesper Bodd ’15. The debate “Should the U.S. Act Alone in the Middle East?” was a conversation about whether the U.S. should act unilaterally or multilaterally when inserting itself into conflicts in the Middle East. The debate was moderated by Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson and involved the collaboration of various faculty members including Professor of Political Science James McAllister.
Rubin is a former Pentagon official with an extensive background in research on Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq and general Arab politics and diplomacy, according to his biography on the AEI website. He was also stationed in Iraq while working for the Department of Defense.
Each team had about 15 minutes for an opening statement, and then the two teams had seven minutes apiece for rebuttal statements. After the rebuttal, the floor was opened up to the audience for about 25 minutes, followed by closing statements from both teams.
Rubin began the conversation by inviting both audience members and the three student competitors to engage in the discussion. In his opening statement, Rubin emphasized that there was no “magic formula” to U.S. action in the Middle East; the most important and crucial part of any U.S. strategy must be to secure national security, and often, that involves working unilaterally. “The more multilateral you are, the more complex the situation can be,” Rubin said.
Rubin elaborated on the importance of establishing a universal definition of terrorism, offering his definition as “a deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain.” “The problem with terrorism is that it is always bad, unless it happens to be for a cause in which we agree,” he said. The U.S., as the largest humanitarian organization in the world with resources other nations and organizations like the U.N. do not possess, should help “advance the notion of universal law” relating to terrorism. Rubin concluded that the U.S. will always have an influential opinion in foreign diplomatic relations. “There’s no other United States, and what the U.S. chooses to do or not do matters,” he said.
The floor then went to the three College students, who took turns reading their opening statements. First was Druker, who explained why the U.S. needs to shift toward a new foreign policy model with multiple examples: The American empire is in decline, China is rapidly growing as an economic rival to the U.S. and the country is saddled with an aging population with welfare programs that are increasingly underfunded. “Foreign policy will be the place to cut spending,” Druker said. He argued in favor of a shift toward multilateralism, which he believed would foster greater legitimacy in the eyes of other nations and affirm the U.S.’s respect for these states. “Other world powers will act more favorably towards the U.S,” Druker concluded.
The floor shifted to Aldroubi, who focused his analysis on the Syrian conflict and the possible consequences if the U.S. decided to intervene. Aldroubi, an international student from Damascus, explained that the power vacuum left in Syria and countries like Afghanistan may to sponsor the radicalization of indigenous groups like the Taliban. A U.S. intervention would exacerbate this radicalization, lessening the Syrian government’s popular legitimacy. He ended his opening statement with an explanation of the “tremendous” blowback from any U.S. unilateral action, advocating ultimately for multilateralism.
Bodd rounded out the student debaters as the strongest advocate for multilateralism, introducing nuclear weapons into the conversation. Bodd referenced the U.S.’s declining credibility after the botched occupation of Iraq in 2003 after Sept. 11, and like Ducker, referred to the rising power of nations such as Russia and China as a testament to the fact that the U.S. soon may not have the international power to invade countries and build nations. “Credibility does not rely on American laying down red lines; it relies on them being a credible actor with the willingness and capacity to act appropriately,” Bodd said.
Rubin pushed back against points made by the students, including the suggestion from Druker that the U.S. should pivot its gaze toward Asia instead of the Middle East, especially since China’s prosperous future is not inevitable. “It creates a sense in the Middle East nations that are about to abandon it … This ultimately undercuts the U.S. more,” he said. He focused on a defense of unilateralism while acknowledging its limitations, emphasizing it was not the only thing that has antagonized countries such as Russia and China.
After the student rebuttal, the floor then moved to the audience members, who asked questions directed at Rubin and the three students. The questions were mostly directed toward Rubin.
The debate resumed with closing arguments. Rubin argued unilateral actions could also provide a clear, controlled opportunity at liberty, freedom and democracy, the cornerstones of America. “That’s one set of controls that is always lost when it comes to the United Nations,” Rubin said. The three students closed the debate continuing to advocate for multilateralism, criticizing the U.S.’s often “pick and choose” mentality when dealing with different crises. “If the U.S. would act and align it interests with freedom, it needs to do it at all times,” Bodd said. The students also outlined various U.S. failures with unilateral action. “The difference between what we’re advocating and what Dr. Rubin is advocating is that the U.S. in the past has been involved in more than just the two interests of spreading democracy and attempting to benefit economic interests. This has resulted in the growth of radical organizations and terrorist organizations,” Druker said. Ultimately, the students reiterated that the U.S. would achieve more success and conflicts would be diminished if multilateralism was used.