As tensions mount in Syria’s civil strife, the Philodemic Society convened to discuss a timely question pertinent to ongoing policy discussions in the White House, Resolved: The U.S. should depose Bashar al-Assad. As the current global hegemon with tremendous military and economic might, does the U.S. have the responsibility or even the right to intervene in the affairs of other countries? Is this a duty that we should assume for the sake of bettering the lives of the millions of Syrians displaced by the conflict? If we do take action, how can we guarantee that we won’t make conditions worse? The keynoters and floor speakers tackle all of these tough questions, and more.
Mr. Samuel Dulik (SFS ’13) of California opened the debate with a strong push for multilateral action, insisting that affirming the U.S. should depose Assad does not imply that we must act unilaterally. In fact, affirming the resolution is not an endorsement for any specific policy action — one may believe that the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone, implement drone strikes, impose a freeze on Assad’s bank accounts, or any number of tools in its policy toolbox to depose Assad. Mr. Dulik emphasized that what unites the affirmation is a desire for “a Syria where people can enjoy basic human rights and be free of bloodshed” and a belief that “Assad is an impediment to those goals.” Thus, we must take advantage of our unique position in geopolitics and play an active role in precipitating regime change in Syria.
Ms. Colleen Wood (SFS ’14) of Minnesota recognized the eloquence of Mr. Dulik’s pleas for change, but charged that the outcome of any deposition would fall short of his ideals. “What is our plan after we depose Assad?” Ms. Wood demanded, citing the U.S.’s unsuccessful reconstruction attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan as convincing reasons we will fare no better in Syria. She underscored the need to avoid entrenching a precedence for getting involved in a country without concern for the welfare of the people afterward. “Assad is not a silver bullet for Syria,” Ms. Wood said. “Deposition won’t solve the civil war.”
Returning to the affirmation, Mr. Nicholas Walker (SFS ’16) of New York provided an answer to Ms. Wood’s demands: the Arab League has a reconstruction plan for Syria that they can implement as soon as Assad is out of power. He passionately appealed to the audience to stand with the people: the peaceful protesters in Syria who were met with ruthless violence, the women who have been battered on the streets for advocating for their liberty, the citizens who have been knifed, tortured, beaten, and raped for asking for a better life. Mr. Walker concluded with his Five Points for U.S. action: 1) cultivating regional stability through bringing democracy to Syria; 2) imposing international arms control; 3) protecting regional allies; 4) upholding moral obligation to defend the UN Human Rights Charter; and 5) contributing to the containment of international terrorism.
Ms. Madeleine Ringwald (COL ’16) of New York entered the debate with a policymaking framework: faced with many worthy possible actions, a responsible and pragmatic policymaker would know how to prioritize them. She emphasized that as a country, the U.S. is first and foremost responsible to its own citizens. Currently, Americans in this country are in the streets without shelter, food, or healthcare; under these troubling conditions, it’s irresponsible to spend billions of dollars we do not have in a new international campaign that will bring uncertain results. The opposition forces are far from united and there’s no way to predict the next leader, nor to foresee how the U.S.’s geopolitical position in the Middle East will be affected in the post-Assad future. Ms. Ringwald underscored that our dim history of deposing leaders and propping up new ones should serve as a cautionary tale to negate this proposition.
Mr. Quinn (SFS ’15) challenged the Society to embrace the affirmation’s call to action despite the uncertainty and unpredictability. “We don’t live in a world with predictable outcomes,” he emphasized. Mr. Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) maintained that the U.S.’s truly pressing problems are within our borders: chronic starvation, economic uncertainty, lack of healthcare, etc. He called for the cessation of irresponsible spending, especially since our history of intervening in various countries has ended with decades or more of chaos. Vice President Christensen (COL ’15) reminded the Society that things beyond our borders can have profound effects at home. Thus, we must be able to balance between domestic obligations and international ones, especially with respect to human rights. Danny Graff (SFS ’16) argued that even if Syria’s conditions were dire enough to justify action, deposing Assad alone will not solve the problem. We don’t have a solution to the problem, as admirable as our goals are. Mr. Graff noted that the revolution in Egypt opened the Suez Canal to Iran, which actually led to greater instability. We cannot guarantee that our intervention in Syria won’t have similarly counterproductive consequences.
Riley Mellen (SFS ’15) took on the challenge of the night by proposing a specific plan for the affirmation: a post-Assad, pan-Middle East Marshall Plan. Drawing similarities between post-WWII conditions and today’s situation, Mr. Mellen said that giving money and resources to the Assad’s successor government would create a more stable Middle East. Mr. Petallides (SFS ’13) chuckled that the Marshall Plan sounds wonderful but the U.S. does not have the money to spend on “fair-weather fans at best.” He cautioned against intervention because the consequences are so unclear; a no-fly zone, for example, could result in an escalation of on-the-ground massacres as Assad grows even more desperate. President Prindiville (SFS ’14) framed the debate as a moral question: “Our aim should not be stability, but rather promoting human rights.” He urged that the Society stand for something higher and send a resounding message to the international community that governments should not massacre their own people. Ms. Melendez (COL ’13) pointed out that Assad was a brilliant orator who could really “talk the talk of democracy,” but he obviously failed to follow through with his commitments. Foreign intervention to prop up a leader may heighten civilian suspicion of that contender, especially if she or he emphasizes Western liberal values. Mr. Desnick (COL ’13) disagreed that rising Syrian leaders would be hated solely because they were given the stamp of America, instead reiterating the need to try.
In her closing, Ms. Ringwald reiterated the need for the U.S. to set an example as one of the richest country in the world to provide healthcare, food, and basic needs to its people. She proclaimed that the idea intervention in Syria would increase U.S. stature is a fiction; we see our noble intentions, but others will judge us by the failure of our actions. While Ms. Ringwald appreciated the affirmation’s humanitarian and social justice values, she highlighted historical examples of botched U.S. interventions to show how the U.S. has repeatedly implemented rash policies that prevent us from being citizens of the world. We need to start learning from our lessons.
Mr. Walker said that the point of the debate is to affirm that Assad must go — the specific policy tool is irrelevant, so discussions of possible consequences are not only irrelevant, but also meaningless because none of us are truly policy experts. He used a panoply of tools, from Swiss Army knives to wrenches and butter knives to hammers, as metaphors to underscore the diversity of methods the U.S. could use to take action against Assad. “We have an obligation to use our eloquence in defense of Syrians’ liberty,” Mr. Walker concluded with a play on words on the Society’s motto.
Ms. Wood stressed the impossibility of resolving every human rights problem around the world. “Lofty ideas have been thrown around,” she said, “but are you literally willing to intervene in every place where human rights abuses are occurring?” Worse, the affirmation has no solid plan of action that might bring about a successful outcome. Without presenting any research into the root causes of the Syrian conflict and devoting even fewer words into elaborating on what policy actions might actually work, the affirmation is unprepared to affirm. Harkening the grim legacy of the Iraq War, Ms. Wood remarked, “I’m just a little afraid that we’ll have the equivalent of another image of [President] Bush with a gigantic “Misson Accomplished!” sign that we will come to cringe at later.”
Finally, Mr. Dulik criticized the negation for twisting the contours of American history to fit their narrow arguments. When America fails on the international stage, it’s because we have abandoned our principles. He emphasized that we would not lose sight of our human commitments to the dignity of the people when taking action in Syria. “This won’t be an Iraq 2.0 because we’ve learned from our mistakes,” Mr. Dulik said. “This won’t be cowboy diplomacy, but an exercise in smart power.” He ended by harkening to the values of our Society: “Philodemica means love of mankind, love of everything. Tonight, just do what’s right! Take a stand for people who can’t help themselves.”
The Society voted 28-2-45 to negate.
The Society inducted Ms. Ringwald and Mr. Walker as its newest members. Congratulations!
Ms. Wood and Mr. Dulik: 5
Ms. Ringwald: 3
Mr. Donovan: 2
Mr. Spagnuolo: 1
Mr. Dulik: 9
Mr. Spagnuolo: 6
Ms. Wood: 5
Mr. Petallides: 3
Ms. Ringwald: 3
Chloe J. Krawczyk