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Stephen Walt: Foreign policy-wise, Trump is much of the same

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Phi Beta Kappa lecturer and foreign policy expert Stephen Walt offered harsh criticism of the American foreign policy establishment last Thursday, Oct. 26. In his talk, titled “Where is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?” Walt argued that foreign policy under president Trump is still commandeered by the pre-existing bipartisan foreign policy establishment; the administration now pursues long-standing, already flawed policies in an erratic and incompetent manner pursued by Trump.

Walt is a professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He authored three books, including The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which created a media storm. The New York Times called it “ruthlessly realistic,” while others accused it of anti-semitism.  

In his talk, Walt argued that the foreign policy establishment — or the ‘blob,’ as he refers to it — is to blame for decades of failure in global affairs. He referenced the US policy of ‘liberal hegemony,’ defining it as a foreign policy that actively tries to promote the basic principles and ideals of liberal democracy. The policy assumes the US is an indispensable nation, and that it should try to use its power to spread democracy, whether peacefully or by force.

Walt outlined changes in international power dynamics over the past thirty years. China’s power has steadily increased, the relationship between the US and Russia is at its worst since the Cold War, and the Middle East is in turmoil largely due to US efforts at regime change.

According to Walt, the election of Donald Trump, whose policies represent a repudiation of the grand strategy pursued since the Cold War, proves that the American people want change. However, the change in his foreign policy is in how Trump himself acts, not in policy.

Walt blames the establishment for the state of US foreign policy. Although Trump ran on the premise that foreign policy in the US is “a complete and total disaster,” he doesn’t follow through on the policies he supported during the election. McMaster replaced Flynn, Trump said in an interview that NATO is no longer obsolete, he ordered a cruise missile strike in Syria After Assad uses chemical weapons, and he announced 5,000 more troops will be deployed to Afghanistan. According to Walt, these are many of the same actions Hillary Clinton would have taken if she was president.

“In a competition between Donald and the establishment, the establishment is winning,” he said.

Apart from criticizing the policies in place, Walt also listed the policies the US should pursue. The US should reduce or eliminate its military role in Eastern Europe, since Russia isn’t an existential threat to either the EU or the US. Trump should take a harder line with China to prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon and let Russia take the lead in Syria. The US shouldn’t have special relationships with any Middle Eastern powers, and should refrain from pursuing nation-building experiments.

Student reactions to these ideas were mixed.

“[Walt] underestimates Russia’s willingness to take risks given the threat it perceives from NATO and its declining global influence,” said Irina Bukharin ’18. “Although Professor Walt’s views most likely differed from the average Swattie’s, it was really encouraging to see so many people come out to hear his views.”

Frank Kenny ’20 was also unsure about one of Walt’s stances.

“I was surprised to hear him argue for a more interventionist approach when it comes to foreign policy dealing with China,” Kenny said.

Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney offered a different analysis of post-Cold War US policy. He questioned Walt’s harsh criticism of the establishment, considering the failure of Trump’s anti-establishment agenda. The Trump administration and all its missteps don’t seem to endear Walt to the establishment, like they do with many Americans.

“Instead, [Walt] seems to be sticking to his guns,” said Tierney. “While I think a lot of people look at the Trump administration and think that the establishment is looking better every day, by comparison to some of the blunders that we’ve seen.”

The failure of US foreign policy over the past thirty years, said Tierney, doesn’t have it’s roots in the establishment, although they have blundered.

“If you look at the bigger story of American foreign policy, it’s actually been fairly successful over the centuries and even since WWII, so I’m not sure that the American establishment is the fundamental problem here … that suspicion has been reinforced by the trump administration because it is explicitly anti-establishment and has made very serious mistakes,” he said.

According to Tierney, the deeper reason for these foreign policy gaffes is that America has no one to challenge its power like it did during the Cold War.

“Countries the with kind of power that the US has had since the end of the Cold War in history have rarely acted in restrained and measured ways,” he said.

Despite having controversial views, Walt filled the room with students engaged in

meaningful deliberation, and encouraged reexamining widely-accepted points of view.

UNICEF and Syria

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The Syrian Civil War and the United States’ involvement in it has been an area of contention since the U.S. first supplied rebels with non-lethal aid in 2011. This aid has since evolved—as the government’s injustices have grown—facilitating more violence. After Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons earlier this month, President Trump decided to strike back, and people’s reactions varied. Yet, regardless of how you view Trump’s actions, or even Trump himself, this act was necessary. Now that military intervention has occurred, further involvement in the form of humanitarian aid—dispensed in part by UNICEF—should take over. This aid has been consistent in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, and it is critical that support continues in light of recent events.

Although Assad denies the use of chemical weapons, BBC confirmed the airstrike released toxic gas that produced over 125 fatalities, and another 541 injuries. In addition, there were already nearly 13.5 million people displaced over the past six years. The impact on children is harrowing. According to UNICEF, children have been forced to fight in the war, forced to enter into early marriage, and forced into child labor. In more than two-thirds of households, children are working in extremely harsh conditions in order to support their families, and now, over 6 million children are depending on humanitarian assistance. It is these conditions and lifestyle that underscore the importance of humanitarian groups such as UNICEF.

The Syrian Civil War began with the arrest of a group of teens and children who simply voiced their opinions by spraying graffiti on a wall. People began gathering and protesting in support of this group, violence ensued, and a revolution was born. Soon after, heads began turning in the international community, but foreign pressure did not seem to stop the bloodshed.

According to CNN, more than 1,000 people were killed in a chemical attack near Damascus in 2013. After the attack, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” and would prompt him to strike back, yet no action was ever taken due to complications in seeking congressional authorization. President Trump also rebuked the use of chemical weapons saying, “it crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines.” Similar comments followed from U.S. leaders, emphasizing the impact these atrocities have on children.

In addition to speaking out, Trump dispatched a military strike on the Syrian government air base that launched the chemical attack. Many have condemned Trump’s visceral reaction for various reasons. Some question the legal grounds of his retaliation, as he acted without consulting Congress. In addition, his strike could have killed innocent civilians, or could have hurt our relations with Russia—who seems to be supporting Assad. Still others scrutinize Trump’s hypocrisy since he has previously implied an “America first” policy.

As valid as these concerns may be, it really doesn’t matter how you view the logistics of Trump’s response. The bottom line is, something needed to be done. Too often we sit unwavering in the face of such inhumanity. This is because we have become desensitized to violence. Disturbing images are constantly flashed on television screens, splattered on the front pages of newspapers, and fill our social media feeds. We consume news of cruelty and violence so often that we have forgotten that those people in the pictures are real people. To them, this is not just another war or explosion—it is the one that destroyed their homes, tore their family apart, uprooted their lives.

So, where do we draw the line and decide to intervene? I’m sure we all wish for a world where that line is superfluous, but unfortunately, we are not living in a utopia. Brutality and lack of concern for one’s actions are not new issues and it is unlikely that they will cease to be problems. Therefore, I find myself agreeing with Trump that the use of chemical weapons should most definitely cross more than a few lines.

Regardless of whether or not you agree, this horrific attack should remind us how important it is for people in need to get the resources, treatment, and support that will help them get back on their feet and move forward with their lives. It should remind us of the necessity of organizations who are working to provide victims of atrocities with valuable assets.

Now that the airstrikes have occurred, whether or not you agree with them is unimportant. We should instead focus our efforts on what we can do to help the people of Syria move forward. In light of recent events, it is especially salient that we must pay more attention to current events. It is fitting that UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) club was recently formed on Swarthmore’s campus.

UNICEF is an organization that ensures basic needs for children in need, and Syria has been one of UNICEF’s largest focuses due to its unrelenting violence. UNICEF is committed to minimizing the impact of this crisis on children by providing Syrian families and children with nutrition, immunization, water, and sanitation, as well as education and child protection. The organization is hopeful for an immediate political solution to end the conflict in Syria, and an end to the violations of rights against children.

The club on campus will be organizing movie screenings, speakers, fundraisers, and more in the hopes of both raising funds that will help provide children with vital resources and garnering support to push decision-makers to protect children’s rights across the world. In the wake of events that ignore human rights, we will take action.

While I believe that American intervention within Syria in the form of airstrikes was critical in order to condemn the use of chemical weapons, I also believe that the most productive course to take now is focusing on humanitarian aid. As UNICEF’s executive director stated, “We must draw from this not only anger, but renewed determination to reach all the innocent children throughout Syria with help and comfort. And draw from it also the hope that all those with the heart and the power to end this war will do so.”


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“I want to talk about pictures because I love photography.”

Removed from the Swarthmore bubble, I am in London going over the work Ahmed, a Syrian immigrant, needs to do for his class. He tells me that he needs to present in English, and the strain is evident in his face.

Ahmed arrived nine months ago from Syria with his father. His mother, younger sister, and brother are still in Syria. In slow, stumbling, and accented English he proceeds to give me his presentation:

“I was hanging out with my friends near a checkpoint. We were exploring and having a lot fun, but suddenly an armed soldier pointed to me and told me to come over. He saw my camera. He told me that he was going to break it, that I wasn’t supposed to be taking pictures [even though I hadn’t].”

This made me ask, “Why is an armed soldier afraid of a schoolboy with a camera?”

Ahmed pulls up two photos. One is laden with flowers white at the bottom, fuchsia at the tip, vibrantly blooming from the ground. Another is a photo of a brown, gnarled, lone leaf in the middle of melting snow.

“Where do you think I took these? Which one is from Damascus and which one is from London?” he asks.

I don’t tell him, but he sees through my assumptions.

“The outside world probably thinks that this [the winter photo] is of Damascus and this [the spring photo] is of London.”

I nod.

“But this photo, the one with spring, is one from Damascus. It was taken minutes before a bombing. And this photo, the one with winter, is from London. This is the first photo I took in London.”

I ask him, “The ugly photo is from London?”

He shakes his head and says, “Not ugly. Just sad.” He then proceeds to answer my initial question.

“So why is the armed solider afraid of a schoolboy with a camera? It is because pictures have the power to change the narrative; it is because pictures have the power to capture a truth, no matter how sad or how beautiful.”

I wish to share this story with those in the U.S. who are the brightest, most driven, yet most removed from the current status of migrants. I hope this reaches Swarthmore (and beyond) so that we do not become desensitized to the exclusion of others and so we will remove ourselves from our bubble when we can to be dismantled in order to rebuild ourselves.

Losing the Syrian refugee crisis

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They say you need to cut your losses and move on. If that’s the case, I have unfortunate news for those of us hoping to bring about some justice for Syrian refugees—we have utterly failed in persuading America. According to a poll conducted by NBC News, 56% of Americans disagree with accepting Syrian refugees and, contrary to popular belief, 35% of Democrats disagree with accepting Syrian refugees. There’s a problem here and it’s one that can’t be solved by appealing to what we as liberals might think.

There are two main views of the Syrian refugee crisis: Republicans call it a national security issue, and Democrats call it a humanitarian crisis. The former group would paint the crisis as one where terrorists and terrorist cells could infiltrate the United States while posing as refugees. They claim that the lack of strategies for proper identification of people coming in constitutes a threat to national security. Many Republicans have also proposed that preference be given to Christian refugees. The latter group relies on morality and American values to make their case. Many will hastily point out that the governors of the thirty-one states that have rejected—symbolically or otherwise—the admittance and resettling of Syrian refugees have no actual power to do so. Nevertheless, that doesn’t tackle the issue of whether or not we should be accepting them.

To better look at this, I must make a bold claim: there are few examples in the history of the United States that suggest Americans, in trying times for national security, support the triumph of decency or rights over security. We, as liberals, can quote Benjamin Franklin and warn that, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither,” but that falls on deaf ears for most Americans. The NBC poll referenced earlier also found that 81 percent of respondents favor extensive security measures, like bag checks, in public areas like malls and parks. For the majority of Americans, their rights may matter on paper and in theory but in reality, their safety matters most. Can you blame them? In the face of terrible bombings, terrorist threats, and horrific instances of gun violence, is someone’s right to free speech or the rights guaranteed to them by the Fourth Amendment going to seem more important than their desire to feel safe? Of course our rights as citizens matter but to many people those rights do not matter without the promise of safety from those threats.

According to Gallup, Pew Research Center, and CBS/New York Times polls, this disapproval of refugees is consistent with American history. Sixty seven percent disapproved of taking in refugees from Axis and Axis-controlled nations during World War II, 55 percent disapproved of Hungarian refugees in 1958, 62 percent disapproved of Indochinese refugees in 1979, and 71 percent disapproved of Cuban refugees in 1980. Am I saying that these people were right in refusing sanctuary to refugees? No. I am Cuban-American and it saddens me that people easily let their fear overpower justice for humanitarian crises. There was and continues to be great suffering in Cuba at the hands of an oppressive socialist regime.

If we look at history, however, we find that this is how Americans think. We desire security, and many believe Syrian refugees pose a security risk. Politicians know better than to go against their constituents and for this reason we will not see an adequate humanitarian response. Reports from Europe indicate asylum seekers’ refusal to assimilate to local values and implicate them in incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and crime—this a public opinion battle that we are losing. Few Americans would say that the human rights of foreign refugees are as important as the right and desire of United States citizens to be safe. This is unfortunate; it’s also history.

In the battle for the view on the refugee crisis, the Left has lost handedly. The Right and its framing of the crisis as a national security issue has won and will continue to win. For us Democrats and liberals, the time to rethink our framing and our arguments is now. We need to appeal to the desires of the Right. While a majority of people continue to align with the views held by the Republican Party on issues of security, Democrats will get nowhere—and do no justice for refugees—by sticking to our hard-line views. We must move somewhat to center, reconcile with those that want security, and hope that new discourse can bring the other side to the center as well. Only then will discussion prevail and justice see the light of day.

Where is the student outrage over the refugee crisis?

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The ongoing refugee crisis is reaching mammoth proportions as we speak. As students from the Central-Eastern European region, which is acutely affected by the issue, the Swarthmore community’s response — one, largely of indifference — worries us. The apparent reactions, rather than of compassion and interest in the issue, are not nearly as keen as we might hope for from a campus as politically charged as ours.

It seems to us as if the campus community has isolated itself from world news by a bubble of indifference. While trustworthy information is freely available, we have hardly encountered formal or even informal discussions on the issue. Despite the New York Times’ repeated front-page reports and general worldwide concern, Swarthmore, seemingly, has not taken note. Accordingly, we have decided to take small first steps in bringing this issue into the campus spotlight.

To begin, let us try to summarize the situation, which started in 2011. At this time, the Arab world was in turmoil, as shown by a series of protests, later named “The Arab Spring.” Many countries, including Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, experienced abrupt changes in their respective governments. This geopolitical instability led to several civil wars, extreme poverty, and famine. As a result, many had to flee their countries. In their search for an exit from this dangerous life, they turned their gaze towards Europe.

These refugees were supported by large networks of smugglers, who, in exchange for generous amounts of money promised that Europe would grant them asylum upon arrival. Despite spending all their lives’ worth on such assistance, paid in advance, people found themselves without help. Moreover, upon reaching Europe, they were improperly ‘greeted’ by European governments, which were caught unprepared for what was about to turn into one of the largest mass migrations experienced by the Old Continent.

This short summary demonstrates the complexity of the situation. Who and what is right is anything but clear-cut. That is precisely why the whole campus would benefit from dialogue about this topic, which we aim to initiate by giving more background information.

The complexity of the situation stems from multiple roots, and the conflict can be interpreted from religious, political, and even historical points of view.

First, the lack of information on said refugees’ background is troubling. Four million people have fled Syria over the past year (about one-fifth of the country’s population), and their journeys are intertwined with those of economic migrants from other parts of the world. Due to the large scale of their movement, it is virtually impossible to tell refugees and migrants apart when they enter the Schengen Zone*.

Another crucial problem is the lack of a central, united response from European governments. In absence of this, each government acting independently has had a different reaction; while Germany welcomed the refugees, Hungary has shown a rather xenophobic reaction. Possible inspiration for Trump’s proposed foreign policy, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban has ordered the construction of a 100 million dollar barbed wire fence on the country’s Serbian border, to keep refugees out. This investment, unsurprisingly, has proven futile, as thousands of refugees find a way around it daily. Despite several calls for a unified reaction from Germany and Sweden (who, facing an aging population, welcomed the immigrants), Central Authorities refused to cooperate and collaborate.

Naturally, the question comes to mind: Why would a continent as developed and prosperous as Europe reject these persons? The answer is multifarious, but with strong xenophobic and racist roots. Despite fair assumptions that these largely developed nations would know better, bigotry is apparently widespread. For reference, it is useful to examine the historical precedent that formulates European thought, especially in severely homogenous countries that are incomparable to nations such as the USA. In its turbulent past, outsiders (such as the Ottoman Empire) have tried to conquer large parts of the continent, which now serves as the impetus for strong negative feelings towards foreigners. Naturally, Romania and Hungary (our home countries) have been reluctant to accept the refugee quotas as suggested by the European Union. Even among much of the population of our nations, there is widespread discontent towards refugees: anti-migrant slogans have flooded both national media and social media platforms, calling for a “unified, Christian Europe”, as Viktor Orban wrote in a German newspaper.

As students of an inclusionary campus where we feel safe and free to speak our minds, this exclusionary political agenda has left us enraged, dispirited and rather helpless, as we read about the events back home. Despite thousands of deaths (2,500 people over the past summer, according to UNHCR) our continent is unable to find a joint policy to overcome this most ardent threat to its stability.

Moreover, the lack of reaction from the United States, whose role in the destabilization of the Middle East cannot be overlooked, is disturbing. President Obama has declared on Thursday that the US will be able to accommodate approximately 10,000 refugees (the number of people entering Europe in approximately three days) in the next fiscal year. While this signal of international management raised our hopes momentarily, such efforts amount to nothing if other countries remain reluctant to help.

Although Europe’s past is tainted by colonialism and bloody internal strife that has caused long-lasting worldwide suffering, it is still our home. In keeping, we would like to see a more concerned, involved, and attentive reaction from our peers. The two of us, along with other members of the student body and the administration, have decided to pioneer a campaign aimed at informing the campus community on this engaging issue. We hope to achieve this through a Collection that will be held at the Friends’ Meeting House today, Thursday, September 17 at 7:30 PM. Additionally, we plan to host a panel of experts who understand the intricacies of the crisis and are willing to share with us their knowledge, thoughts and opinions. Further, to keep you updated on this event and the situation at large, we have started a Facebook page titled “Informed Swatties: The Refugee Crisis.”

*This region, considered one of Europe’s greatest achievements after the Second World War, is a passport-free area comprising of 26 European countries. For example, between Hungary and Germany there are no passport checks, just like there are no border controls between Maine and Texas. As a result, once an outsider enters for instance Hungary or Italy, they can travel without any restrictions between the countries of the Schengen Zone.

A New War, The Same War

in Columns/Opinions/The Civil Libertarian by

We grew up under two wars, and they’ve left their mark. An American presence in the Middle East has been a fixture of my life to the point that I have just come to assume that it’s what we do. We bomb, we send troops, we overthrow governments. All in the name of democracy. All in the name of peace.

First it was about justice. I was seven when the towers fell, and when we went to war I didn’t know who we were fighting, or where. We had to get payback, we had to punish those who had killed Americans. I was still a bit fuzzy as to what it meant to be an American, but I got the picture. We were defending America, showing that we would not be brought low. Whoever we were, it was important that we be that.

Then somehow it became important that everyone else be more like that as well. Now, it was about democracy. There were people to be liberated, lives to be improved everywhere, and all of it could be accomplished with some bombs and some boots on the ground. The Middle East could be democratic, free, and self-governed, and to top it all off a little more American. All it would cost them was blood.

And it goes on and on. A problem springs up, and we have the answer, and somehow that answer is always the same. I’m not sure who’s safer, I’m not sure who’s better off. I don’t know what we’re fighting anymore, and I surely don’t know what we’re fighting for. The only thing I know, the only thing that’s become predictable, is what our response will be. Our solution is never a surprise.

I wasn’t cognizant in 1994, nor was I really in 1999. I don’t think anyone knows what would have been a success in Rwanda, nor whether we can count Kosovo as a victory. But I’m not sure Syria is a part of that, I’m not sure that it’s the same issue. Because to me it just seems the latest entry in our dozen-year crusade.

So I was disappointed when President Obama announced that he would seek the approval of Congress to go to war in Syria. When we could be winding down our live experiments in the Middle East, the President, and now the Speaker of the House, wants to make them formal. I don’t disapprove of the President’s following constitutional procedure, I disapprove of him wanting to prolong a war we’re already fighting.

I don’t believe that this is a limited conflict, no matter what boundaries are put on the military operations in Syria, because the conflict is not confined to Syria. It’s the same fight that we fought in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. We’ve been fighting this war for so long without calling it a war, I don’t think that calling it one now will change anything.

What would be a change would be ending it. End the fight. Leave, go home, and try to move on. Let’s get out of the war business, and get over our god complex. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, we can’t stop all strife, and we can’t bomb our way to peace.

This isn’t a radical idea, it doesn’t ask us to do anything radical at all. All we have to do is stop. Stop attacking, stop prolonging our war. We’re winding down our presence, in terms of troops, as it is. But we should also stop adding new countries to the list. Stop starting new bombing campaigns, stop ordering new drone strikes, and bring this war to an end.

There will always be another target, there will always be another evil for us to purge. We brought down the Taliban, and then there was Saddam Hussein. We helped oust Gaddafi, and now there’s Assad. We can play this game all day.It will never end.

We are not going to bring peace by the sword, we cannot make a region stable by targeted airstrike. More than a decade in, we still have no conditions for victory, no long-term goals, no end in sight. This is a war that can go on for as long as we want it to.

But it can also end. We don’t need to keep going, nothing compels us to launch a new attack. We can rise above the path we’ve created for ourselves, move beyond constant war. Instead of making war a permanent state of our being, we can back off, we can end it. We can recognize our shortcomings, our mistakes, or ignorance of local politics and history, accept our limitations and put this war behind us. We should not forget it, but we need not prolong it.

It will take courage for us, as a nation, to accept that there are things we cannot do. It will take courage to realize that there are situations beyond our control. Our influence does not know no limit, our might is not almighty. Whatever our intentions, there are things that we cannot do.

The world has seen enough of American might. Starting another war brings us no closer to the end, it just continues what we’ve already been doing for so long. It’s time to stop.

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