Op-Ed: Defending Zoellick: Let’s Be Clear

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

At last week’s Senior Speak-Off, the annual contest to choose a student Commencement speaker, one Swarthmore student took the initiative to inform students of an ostensibly egregious ethical decision recently made by Swarthmore College: to grant former Bush administration official and World Bank President Robert Zoellick ’75 an honorary degree at this June’s graduation. Calling Zoellick an “architect of the Iraq War,” and a “war criminal” who did not share “Swarthmore values,” the student joined others in calling for seniors to take action against Zoellick’s graduation appearance in the name of the Iraq War dead. This week, a Facebook event, which also refers to Zoellick as “one of the major architects and strongest proponents of the Iraq war,” was created to discuss how students might do so.

The outcry would be appropriate, even courageous, were it not for one troubling detail: Robert Zoellick had nothing to do with the Iraq War. As George W. Bush’s Trade Representative, Zoellick spent the years in which the Iraq invasion was conceived and executed negotiating the Central American Free Trade Agreement and haggling with European trade partners over the details of genetically modified crop standards. These are hardly the pastimes of an international criminal.  When Zoellick migrated to the State Department in 2005, his work focused on laudable efforts to responsibly engage a rising China and marshal international support to confront the Darfur genocide. Tellingly, Bob Woodward’s three-volume account of the Bush Administration’s handling of the Afghan and Iraq Wars mentions Zoellick not one time.

In holding him responsible for the Iraq War, Zoellick’s campus critics point to his signature on a 1998 letter to Bill Clinton calling for a policy against Saddam Hussein that displayed, in the short term, “a willingness to undertake military action,” and ultimately removed Saddam Hussein from power. While it is easy in retrospect to attribute importance to the letter, as it bears the signature of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con duo who actually orchestrated the invasion, Zoellick’s signature hardly renders him responsible for the Iraq War as executed in 2003, with its reckless disregard for multilateral support, post-invasion planning, or preservation of civilian life.

Nor is implicating Zoellick because of his privileged position as an advisor to the George W. Bush 2000 Presidential Campaign fair— especially given the infamously isolationist position Bush took in that year. Holding Zoellick responsible for the particulars of the war, any individual who ever advocated intervention in Iraq, or anyone whom ever served in the Bush Administration, eschews the constructive, nuanced engagement with historical fact that is essential to meaningful political protest.

Like many Swarthmore students, we strongly believe in the importance of such protest. Growing up twenty minutes from the West Point Military Academy, one of the co-authors participated in numerous Commencement protests at which Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney spoke in support of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the suggested Zoellick protest, those had a clear, concise political purpose: to demonstrate to those who had crafted the Iraq War, and to the young men who were being asked to carry it out,  that a significant portion of the general public saw through the moral and strategic errors of the War. Decisive political protest has clear targets and aims.

So if any of the actual architects of the war –Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Deputy Wolfowitz– were being honored at our graduation, we would be happy to protest. These men are responsible for the loss of nearly 4,500 American and perhaps as many as 1 million Iraqi civilian lives, as well as America’s legitimate claim to global leadership.Robert Zoellick is not.

Many who have advocated demonstration will surely shrug their shoulders: as an architect of CAFTA, lifelong advocate of free trade, and former head of the World Bank, Zoellick has surely not earned the sympathy of Swarthmore’s anti-neoliberal activists. But these are not the criticisms that have been leveled by Zoellick’s campus detractors, and with good reason. Some acts so malign our common humanity that institutions like Swarthmore College have a responsibility to condemn them. Purposefully misleading the American public into war is one. Running the World Bank hardly qualifies. While many Swarthmore students may disagree with neoliberal economic governance, Swarthmore is an ethical and intellectual community, not a political one. Zoellick’s campus critics have skirted this fact by tarnishing him with responsibility for the undeniably unjust invasion of Iraq, instead of engaging with what is actually a complex and nuanced record.

We can think of nothing less in line with “Swarthmore values” than this.

Op-Ed submitted by Sam Sussman ‘13 and Lorand Laskai ‘13, the co-editors of Left of Liberal, an annual political publication


  1. I’ll expose myself as the subject of this article so for the purpose of defending myself (with qualifiers). I’m not going to reply with a full op-ed because I don’t want to take up more space than necessary at this point. The conversation on Friday will hopefully bring many more voices into the conversation.

    I, and many others, are opposed to Zoellick’s honorary degree for a number of reasons. His tenure at the World Bank and as U.S. Trade Representative are among them. So is his time in the private sector, when he worked at Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae–two institutions that would later become infamous for their role in the 2008 financial collapse. So is his role in helping build an ideological foundation for the Iraq War. His whole career has been built on one morally dubious enterprise after another.

    I thought the speak-off would be a good space to bring awareness to the fact that Zoellick was receiving an honorary degree and captive audience from Swarthmore. Because the time limit was only three minutes, I decided to discuss Iraq, the most widely-known and despised issue that he is connected linked to. This was an intentional decision to provoke conversation.

    The link between Zoellick and the war is sound. To call him an “architect” was a rhetorical choice that I regret, but you two are also overstating your case to say that “he had nothing to do with” the war. In an earlier draft of my speech, I laid out the premises on which I linked him to the war–the Project for a New American Century letter, and his role as foreign policy adviser–but this version came out to 5 minutes. I prefaced my speech by stating that I would be happy to discuss the rationale on which I linked him to the war, which I have been doing sense.

    In any case, the discussion is sparked, which was the goal. I hope that we can talk not just about Iraq, but about Zoellick’s career-long project of “opening markets” through free trade agreements in Latin America and around the world. For that matter, let’s talk about Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae. These are not academic issues. They are literally matters of life and death for people all around the world.

    Again, this is all for me until after Friday’s meeting. I’ve received feedback that diving too deep into the precise politics of the lead-up to the War is alienating to folks who don’t have an academic background in Political Science, and I don’t want to further perpetuate that discourse before we’ve even had the chance to sit in the same room together.

    • Ahh typos!

      “Issue that he is *connected* to”
      “Which I have been doing *since*.”

      And bad sentence construction:

      “*The conversation on Friday will hopefully include many more voices.*”

      kthx that’s all.

      • I think you’re a coward for not using your full name. I’d like to put in my “people never to hire” database.

    • Seriously. Naming a bank and the financial crisis and vaguely alluding to some role they had in the financial crisis seriously has to be a cliche by now at Swat. Goldman only became “infamous” because they traded in MBS, just like every other market making bank… Except…, well, Goldman didn’t need or want a government money. But yeah they caused the crisis somehow, I guess.

      Working at a bank that traded in markets that collapse doesn’t make one dubious – this is the same “bad by association” BS the republicans used in the 2008 campaign against Obama.

    • Will,
      I am a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Can you contact me for a story I am doing for Monday’s paper on the decision by Robert Zoellick to step down as commencement speaker.
      Thank you,

      • Will, please remember that you DO NOT represent the Swarthmore community. You cannot speak with any authority on behalf of Swarthmore’s current students or its alumni.

        • I second Alumnus’ comment, Will. Several members of the Swarthmore community are deeply ashamed of what you have done.

          • What is it that Will has done? He spoke his mind. He held an open meeting in order to allow others to hear his opinion and (shocker!) make arguments against it. He wrote this comment on the DG. That’s pretty much it. Robert Zoellick made the decision not to come to Swarthmore. Will did not personally drive him away.

    • Please publish your full name sir. I am looking to possibly hire people from the college. But, requirements include objectivity and openness to other’s ideas. Both of which, you appear to fail. You remind me of the people who used to spit on and rant at soldiers returning from Vietnam, who had to be there doing a required task.

      No room for different opinions and viewpoints make for people who are incapable or unwilling to think outside the box. Inflexibility equates to a halt in learning – which by definition should be being flexible to differing ideas. The fact that your view is more important than others at the college makes you appear to be indifferent and a bully.

      Your statements epitomize why college graduates are not being hired by anyone except educational institutions and the government.

  2. “I, and many others, are opposed to Zoellick’s honorary degree for a number of reasons. His tenure at the World Bank and as U.S. Trade Representative are among them. So is his time in the private sector, when he worked at Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae–two institutions that would later become infamous for their role in the 2008 financial collapse.”

    Many of your classmates will go onto careers in these institutions in the future, perhaps even next year. Do you think Swarthmore should ostracize them, too? I hope not.

    This isn’t just a debate over Mr. Zoellick’s record; it is also, and I think more importantly, a debate over how politics should define the Swarthmore community. You may think Robert Zoellick is reprehensible because his politics do not agree with your own (they do not agree with my politics either for the record). But these are your views. And many Swarthmore students do not agree with them. Free trade and the World Bank may not be evil in their eyes. I don’t think either one of us has the right to impose our definition of Swarthmore upon them at Commencement.

    • I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but you asked if we should ostracize students going on to work in these financial institutions… I don’t think we should ostracize them, and I understand that it is a privilege to be able to decide against potentially lucrative careers for ethical reasons, but honestly, I do believe Swatties are entitled to condemn certain career choices considering their political and social ramifications. To not do so I think would be dishonest to our education in critical thinking. Swarthmore certainly upholds certain values – why wouldn’t the institution denounce businesses and fields that undercut those values?

      • No.

        What is dishonest to a Swarthmore education in critical thinking Is to presuppose that there is agreement on what those political and social ramifications are and necessarily an underlying intellectual arrogance that makes possible the supposition.

    • Agreed completely. This is the part of the argument that bothers me. I haven’t seen Will’s earlier argument that links Zoellick to the Iraq War to which he refers, but even with his support of free trade, his work with Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae, and his (apparently disputed) influence over the decision to invade Iraq, these are not such grievous offenses as to warrant a boycott given his limited participation.

      You say: “In any case, the discussion is sparked, which was the goal. I hope that we can talk not just about Iraq, but about Zoellick’s career-long project of “opening markets” through free trade agreements in Latin America and around the world. For that matter, let’s talk about Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae. These are not academic issues. They are literally matters of life and death for people all around the world.”

      Sure they are. But we’re not going to come to any universal consensus on whether free trade is a good thing or not for example. I for one support free trade, but that’s not really relevant to this argument. The point is that you are implying since you don’t support free trade or the Iraq War (which I don’t either, but many people still do), we should not have Zoellick speak or be honored.

      It’s one thing to say that someone like Hitler shouldn’t speak or be honored – that’s a fair point. But someone like Zoellick – who you believe has implemented policies you strongly disagree with and you believe have caused damage to millions of people, but many people disagree with – does not nearly meet that same standard.

    • (My first reply to this was deleted, let me try again.)

      You ask if we should ostracize Swatties going into careers at places like Goldman Sachs, Fannie Mae, etc. I don’t think we should ostracize anyone, and I also recognize the privilege in declining potentially lucrative careers for ethical reasons. That being said, I do think Swatties should be able to critique and condemn certain career paths for their political and social ramifications. To not do so I think would be dishonest to our education in critical thinking. Swarthmore as an institution clearly upholds certain values – why should it not denounce institutions who undercut them?

      • “Swarthmore as an institution clearly upholds certain values – why should it not denounce institutions who undercut them”

        -What exactly are those “certain values”? And are you sure the “certain values” you are thinking about are indeed the values of the school as an institution and not your personal interpretations of some general principals the school upholds? I dare say there are competing views on how to put “certain values” the school hold into

        Each one of us must make our own life decisions before or after we leave this place given the unique constraints, values, and knowledge we face or possess. To judge an individual’s career choice and criticize him/her from your own perspective without considering his/her values and judgements is hardly applying “critical thinking”.

        Education in critical thinking at Swarthmore doesn’t tell you how to pick your careers but makes it possible for you to try make the world a better place no matter what career you choose.

  3. To suggest that the World Bank, Goldman Sachs or Fannie Mae are ‘morally dubious enterprises’ is either rash hyperbole or indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of what these institutions do.

    There are a bunch of good reasons to not Zoellick, but broad (and inaccurate) generalizations about his character will undermine the (real) concerns you raise

  4. Will, if you knew there was such ambiguity/controversy in Zoellick’s ostensible support for the Iraq War, don’t you think Swat students should have known this before you asked them to vote for a commencement speaker who promised to hold him responsible this conduct?

    In short, you used claims that were exaggerated at best and simply false at worst to convince our community to take political action. Sound familiar?

    By the way, Zoellick didn’t “build the ideological groundwork” for the War. The call for Saddam’s deposition in the 1998 letter Zoellick signed was made as early as 1991, when then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (along with other Bush I Administration officials) advised invading Iraq after the First Gulf War.

    Facts are important– whether we’re talking about invading Iraq or criticizing Swarthmore alums.

    • I am disappointed that Bob Zoellick was so quick to decline the honorary award he was offered by his alma mater, which after all was a major honor for a career that encompassed a broad range of activities in both the private and public sectors. If nothing else, his speech at commencement may have inspired other Swarthmore alumni to consider the different ways one can pursue a career in both the public and private sectors and have a real impact in the world, which seems to be one of the things so many of us value about Swarthmore, the fact that we encourage our students to go out in the world and make a difference. It is hard to argue that the President of the World Bank, at the very least, has not had an impact in the world.
      While I think much of the criticism being levelled at him is unfair and not based on fact, I am disheartened that Mr. Zoellick seemed unwilling to put up with a bit of controversy emanating from a small group of students. The arguments that were underway seemed to be fomenting some productive debate, all of which is now silenced because the object of the debate has left the stage.
      I suppose the students who opposed his receipt of the degree will feel good about this result, but I think the rest of the campus has lost the opportunity to hear what could have been a compelling commencement speech.

  5. Hear-here! This man may not be who we prefer to hear speak but personal opinions about politics aside he is a Swattie, and a successful one at that. If he still operated in the capacity of president of the World Bank I might even agree with a protest. But he is not. If a protest occurs now it would not be a protest against neo-cons, or free trade, etc, it would be a protest of a man’s right to speak based on only on a personal distaste for him.

    Discuss it all you want but when he does inevitably come to speak at graduation please either shut up and listen to him for 10 minutes, or shut up and walk out. A vocal protest is unseemly, unwarranted, and further will only bring petty drama to what should be for all of us a happy and stress-free occasion.

  6. I would call GS too good/effective at what it does for the good of the public and the World Bank as inefficient and ineffective rather than “morally dubious”, and neither is the fault of Robert Zoellick.

    There are a lot of problems with the World Bank. They were there long before Zoellick got there and will still be there long after Zoellick leaves due to the static and bureaucratic nature of international organizations, funding conditions attached by national governments, and the world’s (slowly changing) belief in the infallibility of the economics profession. Blaming Zoellick for the fallibility of the WB without considering these other factors is silly.

    (See: Weaver, C. 2008. Hypocrisy Trap: The World Bank and the Poverty of Reform. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Chapter 3.)

    Also, free trade and liberal economic policies are not inherently evil. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, China, and other BRICS countries will not be where they are today without their integration into the world economy. The answer is not free trade has negative side effects so let’s shut it down but rather allow free trade but address the distributional problems that arise as a result. Yes, it was problematic for the World Bank and other IOs to encourage full liberalization without the countries being ready, but the fact remains that poor countries that can’t attract foreign capital and technology or come up with domestic versions of the same wouldn’t grow and will stay poor.

    Does anyone really think Zoellick and everyone at the World Bank made it their life’s goal to keep poor countries poor so multi-nationals can make as much money as they can? Or that they know for a fact that switching off liberal policies would definitely make LDCs better off but just wouldn’t do it out of spite or greed? I don’t think that is what is happening. If things are as black and white as that, I think the vast majority of people will always make the right choices.

  7. Mentioning the Plan for a New American Century is bordering on conspiratorial. There is not one politician who is not a member of numerous conferences, meetings, and think tanks each year who propose a long term outlook for their political movement….take it easy there Alex Jones. Also you’re operating on a line of thought in where you pretend to know things that you do not. How many things have you put your name on over the years? I would love to see that list and explore if any of those groups have shaky track records or supported inexcusable action from mine or others’ point of view. I just feel not as an attack on you, but as an exercise in self-reflection looking in the mirror is something we should all consider. It would be hard to make a case for your speaking at this ceremony one day, but I would never oppose based on your political beliefs, because what you refer to as murder or oppression someone can easily claim of your own actions some day.

    • Ah, but is he being asked to give the commencement speech at your graduation.

      It’s entirely reasonable for students to oppose a selected speaker as this is their day. The speaker SHOULD reflect the values and interests of the student body. I’ve always found it silly when people cry “free speech” in cases like this. This has zero to do with free speech, it’s like asking someone you don’t like to speak at your wedding.

      Does this sentiment reflect the will of the student body is the only relevant question.

      • “Does this sentiment reflect the will of the student body is the only relevant question.”

        I think at this point it’s clear that the VAST majority, was pro-Zoellick speaking at Commencement. Or at least, they are anti-anti-Zoellick…

  8. Ugh. “Swarthmore is an ethical and intellectual community, not a political one.” Can we stop with this line?? This is BS. Swarthmore is not outside politics. Purporting to be politically neutral is a political stance, but one that allows us to disavow the consequences.

    Oldie but goodie from Desmond Tutu – “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

    • Robert Zoellick isn’t really the oppressor, unless you consider the whole capitalist system the oppressor, in which case you’re probably not interested in hearing a lot of people speak who are successful (also, Swarthmore is part of the capitalist system, so you’re attending/supporting that system… you get the point).

      • Oh, right. I forgot “the oppressor” exists. Damn. Welp, better go find t/s(he)y.

        (There is no one oppressor. There’s oppression and it’s more complicated than that.)

  9. Will (or another person involved with this whole shebang), if you could explicitly explain your rationale, that really would help me understand why you think our commencement ceremony is the appropriate time for a petty & divisive move like the public shaming of an esteemed alumnus. Your reply to this op-ed solely relies on guilt by association. In short, WHAT EXACTLY HAS HE DONE THAT IS SO MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE? I would appreciate it if you could answer here b/c I, and probably other students, cannot make it to the meeting on Friday.

    As of now, I would much rather be captive audience to a short speech from a wildly successful alum than a bunch of entitled private school kids trying to hijack everyone’s commencement so they can have one more moment basking in the sweet sunlight of moral righteousness. Especially when that sunlight is a load of conspiratorial bullshit. Why publicly shame someone in front of a bunch of people who largely share the same attitudes as you regarding the illegitimacy of the Iraq war and flaws in the U.S./international financial system? What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? You aren’t telling anyone anything new. Discussions about Zoellick were happening before the speak-off. It seems all you did was sensationalize these discussions.

    • i’ve been following all of this and no one has said anything about publicly shaming zoellick at commencement.

    • Totally confused here. You’re saying the majority of the audience shares the same attitude about the flawed international financial system, that people are having these discussions, and yet you’re calling him an esteemed alumnus, wildly successful. At what exactly? Perpetuating, furthering this extremely flawed, exploitative economic system? Maybe his goal is to point out this hypocrisy.

      Obviously, your big QUESTION is too large to be answered on one comment thread, and I imagine you actually do know the answer to it, since it’s literally answered by Globalization 101 (http://www.globalization101.org/why-is-the-world-bank-controversial/) and are just not sympathetic to it.

      Lastly, I find your comment about “a bunch of entitled private school kids trying to hijack everyone’s commencement so they can have one more moment basking in the sweet sunlight of moral righteousness” incredibly condescending and and straight up snobbish. What you deem to be conspiratorial bullshit is far more telling about you and your privilege.

      • I’m not sure if you’re actually confused or if you’re being rhetorical. I define his success in terms of professional advancement. Considering we are graduating from college at commencement and many of us will enter the professional world, his choice as a speaker makes a lot of sense.

        Your link doesn’t answer my question at all b/c it never once mentions Robert Zoellick. Here is a sympathetic summary of some of the specific things he did as World Bank president:


        I wish Swat had picked another speaker more aligned with my values and interests. But if the only argument against him is that he is a profit-seeking capitalist…. c’mon.

  10. I am amazed and disappointed at the lengths to which Swatties will go to kid ourselves about the political ramifications of our beliefs/actions. As long as we can intellectualize it away, we cannot be culpable for evils the result from bland acceptance of dominant ideologies.

    Many people on this thread are referring to Zoellick’s professional success as somehow separate from policies that he has engineered and/or pushed forward. They cannot be separated. To celebrate his successful career is to celebrate his actions. We could have a whole separate debate about the evils of the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, free trade, etc. but I notice that no one is asking “Where are the people who are affected by these policies?” when they talk about being “tolerant” of other people’s opinions. It is pretty easy to be “tolerant” of policies that perpetuate Western domination when those policies don’t throw you into poverty, displace you, poison your water, etc. This is worth having many discussions about, but before you run to the defense of Zoellick, try learning from the voices of people who are silenced – e.g. people affected by free trade policies (and often completely screwed over by the World Bank) in the Global South. To have a truly “balanced” understanding of the situation, you should actually try to learn from all parties involved, not just those we hear from in our poli sci courses.

    It’s also important to remember that, while many people defending Zoellick are arguing that it’s no big deal, that at worst his speech will be boring, at best it will inspire Swatties to “succeed,” you all have classmates who have been directly affected by his policies. So before crying “hyperbole!” at people who are troubled by Zoellick’s invitation, take a step back and remember that these policies have incredibly real consequences for people, including your classmates who are apparently supposed to be impressed by his “success.”

    • Except that’s not the purpose (traditionally speaking) of a commencement speech. The commencement ceremony is not a venue for assessing policy impacts of World Bank projects and free trade policies. Zoellick wouldn’t be here to advocate for the World Bank or neo-liberal trade policies (at least I hope not). He is not honored for his political views. The fact is Zoellick has been a very successful individual by many people’s standards (maybe not yours) and he conceivably has got some things to teach a graduating class from his alma mater, some of whom might be considering careers in international development themselves.

      • My point is that his “success” has come from pushing forward policies that systematically oppress people. They cannot be separated, whether or not he actually talks about it at the speech. “Success” is not some valueless state that one achieves independently of their behavior, decisions, and ideology. The reason that this discussion is so important is because it calls the notion of Zoellick’s “success” into question. Does power, money, and prestige make someone “successful,” regardless of how they have used that power? Is that a “success” worth celebrating, even if that power has been used to damaging ends?

        The issue is not whether or not his success aligns with my political views. If he was a democrat and was responsible for the same actions, I would feel the exact same way. The issue is that he has actively caused immense amounts of harm in the world. Obviously that has to do with his political views and ideology, but that alone does not raise my objections to him speaking. It is his actions that arise out of the ideology that we all must acknowledge as harmful. To ignore that would be a huge disservice to the people who actually see the effects of his policies in their daily lives.

        As for people considering a career in international development, I hope this very debate elicits some critical thinking from them, and that they approach those careers differently than Zoellick has approached his. Unfortunately, “international development” comes with it’s own set of damaging ideologies. That’s a whole other debate worth having 🙂

        • Why can’t there be multiple definitions of success? I’m sure Swarthmore has honored many individuals who were considered by some as successful without money, power , position, or prestige. But this year the college has chosen someone else who is successful by those standards. I don’t see how that is wrong or inherently problematic.

          The fact that World Bank policies are “policies that systematically oppress people” is your opinion (mine is that they are often ineffective in promoting sustainable growth for numerous reasons that both have and have not to do with liberal economic thinking)). It is an opinion based on numerous assumptions. If one makes different assumptions one can make the opposite argument.

  11. The reason I think a lot of people are concerned about some sort of demonstration at graduation has to do with Will’s speech at the Senior Speak Off, where he asked people to vote for him if they were interested in having someone call out Zoellick.

  12. Swatties are a more neoliberal bunch than even my cynical @$$ could have imagined. Don’t pull any of that “he deserves a right to speak” crap, either. You’ve all (save for Will, Swat Alum and a few others) put a lot of time into defending a really bad guy, end of story. Hope you’re all proud that you rushed to the defense of one of the most powerful men on the planet. God knows he’s the last person who needs our solidarity.

    • And hold up a second: if no one disrupts graduation, who are we actually offending if he DOESN’T speak, or even if the student commencement speaker verbally jabs him on stage for being the grand asshole that he is? Are there legions of Swatties dying to have him tell some stupid anecdote about the time he snuck up onto the bell tower one night?

  13. If a speaker comes and preaches to the community about their position on certain political and ideological viewpoints, then they are worthless and shouldn’t speak. If they come and tell you about how they accomplished change or how they succeeded, then they have done their job as commencement speakers.

    Let me tell you about one of my graduation speakers. John Braxton ’70 spent 10 minutes telling everyone how America is an evil empire of capitalism. In a lot of ways, he was right. But guess what? Braxton hasn’t done shit for the world. Hasn’t solved one problem for better or worse. It showed in his speech. As far as I can tell, the guy complains for a living. Further and most importantly, he failed to do his job as commencement speaker by word vomiting his worldly view.

    Zoellick, on the other hand, has successfully implemented some sort of change. Whether you agree with the changes or not is moot. Good or evil, everyone is capable of learning from people that have accomplished things on very grand scales.

    Now, there is always a chance that Zoellick pulls a Braxton and commences into a diatribe of Obama’s tenure in office. However, a person with a resume like Zoellick’s tend to know the time and place for such commentary. I expect he will know Swarthmore’s graduation is not one of those times.

  14. To me, the hyperbolic and apparently erroneous description of Zoellick as an “architect” of the Iraq war is indicative of the desire of a certain section of campus to make protest regardless of the actual views and actions of the commencement speaker. Zoellick’s actions as a trade representative and the president of the World Bank are, understandably, not enough to elicit legitimate outrage from the campus community. Thus, we are left with Will’s flimsy ex-post rationalization of the unfair characterization he offered at the speak-off. In the end, this man cannot be considered “evil” or a criminal; he simply disagrees with much of the student body, including myself, on many issues. After almost four years at Swarthmore, the senior class should show a little maturity and be willing to respect someone we don’t agree with. And it’s not like Zoellick is going to give a speech on the virtue of free trade, he’s just going to talk about typical commencement bullshit – and I hardly think his views will influence such a speech nor detract from its value to the ceremony.

    In summary: calm down and grow up.

    • Congratulations, you have used the same tactic that most white middle class people use to silence others. “Stop overreacting” is the oldest trick in the book to delegitimize dissent from marginalized people.

      People aren’t objecting to this dude because they are immaturely trying to pick a fight, it’s because he actually affects the world in ways that people who are not white and middle class bare the brunt of. Just because you don’t understand why this is troubling to some people doesn’t mean it is immature, it means you are refusing to acknowledge a reality that much of the world understands only too well. It’s easy for us, as people with racial (and class, and gender…) privilege to ignore oppression because our privilege protects us from experiencing it and recognizing it. Meanwhile, others have no choice but to see it because they live with it every day. To many on this thread this is an intellectual/philosophical debate, but to others, this has real-world ramifications.

      I often respect people I disagree with, but I don’t often respect people who willingly perpetuate oppression, particularly to their own gain and professional “achievement.” There is a difference between disagreement and recognizing injustice.

      • And yet I’d like to meet a single non white and/or middle – upper class person with an actual understanding of “oppression” in any meaningful way who’s taken up your cause. No one needs another privileged person without an identity playing “social activism” so they can feel proud of themselves. Just really done with this school right now.

        • This is confusing. Are you saying that non white middle and upper class people a) don’t understand oppression in scare quotes and b) have taken up this cause? How would you know this? How did you arrive at these specific identities?

          Also privileged people don’t have identities? What? Statements like this naturalize privileged identities (hint: they exist) and make it seem like the only people who have identities are oppressed. It also just doesn’t make all that much sense that there are people without identities.


        • Very true- if there’s anything that tiresome about this debate (among all others at Swarthmore) its the incessant self-rightgeousness of so many of the students here. Labeling Zoellick as an “oppressor” and claiming that no one here can truly understand the heinousness of his actions may provide a nice “divine conflict” frame for the debate and help you feel morally superior, but it does nothing to further respectful and productive discussion.

        • You have a fair point about there being a lot of white folks visibly calling out Zoellick right now. That sounds like a really great opportunity for you to seek out people of color, folks from the Global South, etc. to hear what they have to say, instead of standing at a safe distance bashing people who are trying (successfully or not) to be allies.

          If you are dissatisfied with who is part of this debate, seek out those other voices!

        • This was also a dynamic during the Greek Life debate. Lots of folks were making reference to homophobic and trans*phobic behavior at the frats, but without specific details of that experience.

          Then, somebody was brave enough to publish, in the DG, a personal story of hate speech and harassment at a frat…and they were subjected to a huge amount of aggression and insensitivity for doing so, including being accused of outright lying.

          No wonder people aren’t jumping up to sharing their actual experiences of oppression in this forum, when they know that their experiences will be dissected and discredited by procrastinating Swatties with nothing better to do than spread ignorance.

          • I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that the majority of the response to both published accounts wasn’t supportive.

  15. I am all for calling out Zoellick (not necessarily in the ways people think a ‘calling out’ or ‘protest’ would look like), but for factually accurate reasons. I’m disappointed because I find that there is a lot to be criticized about him, and I would like that voice to be heard at commencement as well. In fact, ever since his nomination was announced I have been thinking myself how this discontent could be expressed (which would not take the form of ruining graduation…don’t worry kids. I was thinking more in the lines of writing a more rigorous op-ed and asking people to wear something in solidarity and think about his ACTUAL and FACTUAL work, but that’s just a thought… I am open for suggestions.) Unfortunately, this call for action using the Iraq war is an extrapolation and I think is ultimately counterproductive–you’ve made something legitimate lose face. I expected more rigor from swatties calling people to action.

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  17. So i’m taking a google search on Zoellick to see what people have to say about him and wow, there are tons of links to show that he is “not well liked” in with his foreign affairs policies/ideas. (http://nationalinterest.org/blog/jacob-heilbrunn/the-war-against-robert-zoellick-7315)–calling him an old school republican like hw bush.

    so, i’m not a smart person, I’m not well-read, I don’t understand economics or political science, but I believe, “the same thinking that created the problem can’t solve the problem.” He was world bank president for a while, was a Goldman consultant, blah blah, this this, i mean, any point that is brought up will be met with the plauge of duality….pick and choosing of points that fit the bill for “pro” or “con” Zoellick.

    But how bout this? He is influential in US-German relations. Germany is infamous…..in 1946 Robert Brady Book “Business as a System of Power”…it was written that german capitalism sought for the quantification of labor and reducing people into material beings as cogs of the big wheel of a global capitalist system. He is also a member of CFR, and has been to Bilderberger Meetings, Trilateral Commision meetings, etc………he lives his life everyday around those with the most power and influence on the world.

    If you ever wondered who was truly in the “1%”, it is Zoellick. He may be good or bad, but the fact remains that he associates with the world’s most powerful people……and since 2007, it doesn’t seem like the world has been overall on the positive. I mean, maybe you can argue some economic stance that his tenure as president was good, but I’ll stick to knowing that he is “in” with the most powerful people in the world.

    What is Zoellick doing with these people while they toast to high quality wine, cheese, and crackers….maybe it is along the lines of, “we have a lot of money and power, we are true players in the world, democracy is a useful word to have so that we can make it seem like ‘serf-like humans’ have a say while at the end of the day, it is us”

    Or is it actually, “we want to see everyone happy, and make everyone healthy mentally, socially, and economically.”

    Who knows…..

  18. Its about time someone started putting these honorary awards to prominent alums under the spot light. I mean just a few years ago Colonel Quaritch was honored and that dude basically promoted xenocide.

  19. Zoellick is one of the most successful Swarthmore alumni in recent history. He led the most important institution in the world devoted to reducing international poverty.

    There is broad bipartisan and international support for the work of the World Bank. Sure, some people with rather extreme ideological tastes dislike the institution, but to paint it as a villain whose leaders deserved to be shunned by the College is simply ludicrous. Would we protest Jim Kim? Do you really think Jim Kim will be doing his job THAT much better than Zoellick? I say all of this as a liberal democrat myself.

    It is embarrassing to see a supposedly “tolerant” group of Swarthmore students act in such hostility to the invitation of a speaker whose accomplishments are obvious and laudable to socially conscious people with non-radical ideologies.

    Unlike the vast majority of recipients of Swarthmore honorary degrees, Zoellick actually had the power to substantially reduce global poverty. Whether he could have done a better job is of course something to debate. But he should be honored for leading the effort regardless.

    • The problem with what you mention is that a good portion of the Swarthmore population somehow believe that the World Bank is devoted to ensuring the poverty of developing nations, not to the elimination of it.

      So either the World Bank is an institution full of systematic liars and decades of development economics theory is also a huge lie, or Swarthmore College is full of overly cynical 18-22 year olds. You decide which one it is.

  20. Does anyone realize that a really rich guy from Goldman Sachs was just nominated to be Ambassador to Canada by…let’s see…who could it be…

    Who was running FANNIE MAE? Do you really know?

    Swarthmore College is really a very silly place.

  21. Jesus Christ Swarthmore, this is absurd. Whether Zoellick’s political views are aligned with yours (and there’s plenty to disagree with), opposing his presence at graduation on those grounds is intellectual closure of the worst kind. It’s no better than Bible thumpers in the deep Sourth protesting the President having a Muslim middle name. And no, “he cashed paychecks from Goldman and Fannie and has some affiliation with an interventionist think tank” isn’t grounds for keeping him out of commencement.

    Graduation isn’t the time to get on a soap box and rail against someone’s politics (especially when it’s highly doubtful that those opposing his presence have much of a nuanced view on any of the issues they purport to raise). I have a sneaking suspicion the same folks who don’t want Zoellick speaking would have been more than happy to welcome, say, Ahmadinejad or Castro to campus for “intellectual diversity” reasons.

    Swarthmore is definitely a political, overwhelmingly liberal institution. And that’s fine. I personally lean that way too. But there’s a difference between having political convictions and wearing intellectual blinders. Listening to people you’re not inclined to agree with is good not just in itself, but also because it challenges your own views and trains you to defend them. Opposition to hearing what those like Zoellick has to say is ideological dogmatism that shouldn’t have any place in open intellectual communities.

  22. I hear ya, Alex.

    In the midst of all of this ideological and, dare I say, nit-picking, discussion of Zoellick’s work history and involvement in politics, I think that we’re forgetting some of the major lessons a Swarthmore education is supposed to teach us: respect, open-mindedness, and tolerance. While Zoellick may not share the same liberal politics as the majority of Swarthmore students and alumni, that doesn’t mean that he is someone that won’t make a valuable contribution to the commencement this year. Furthermore, it might benefit those who have had such arbitrary negative reactions to his appointment as a commencement speaker to hear a bit from someone who may hold different political values than they do. It seems problematic to me that a school that prides itself on acceptance and tolerance for everyone is doing exactly the opposite of what they teach when faced with someone who doesn’t fit with their schema of what a Swarthmore alumn is supposed to be.

  23. Dear Swarthmore students: By chasing away Robert Zoellick, you have missed an opportunity for enlightenment, which is why you are there, isn’t it?

  24. I and other US expats constantly confront the stereotype of the arrogant, ignorant American. Swarthmore students’ cavalier treatment of a statesman held in high regard around the world, particularly in poor countries, is mindblowing. Next time, guys, make it easier for us by doing your homework.

  25. The point has already been made well by Alex Imas, but I can’t help but reiterate:

    The Op-Ed above misses the real point and asks the wrong question. The question is not whether Zoellick was involved with the Iraq war. The real question is: what kind of institution does Swarthmore want to be?

    Does Swarthmore want to be the kind of place that is hostile to those who have political ideologies that differ from the majority? Or does Swarthmore want to be the kind of place that, even when strongly disagreeing with a point of view, is open to learning from an influential proponent of that view?

    One might object to this view by invoking the extreme: “but you wouldn’t allow a convicted terrorist or a war criminal to receive an honorary degree, because that is condoning their actions, right?!”

    This argument fails because the allegations that Zoellick falls into the category of “war criminal,” or that he has intentionally dedicated his life to oppression etc. are so extremist that they should not be taken seriously. Even the least generous reading of his life must admit his good-faith efforts toward serving the interests of mankind (whether or not you agree with whether he succeeded or was right in his views).

    The deans and/or faculty chose him precisely for those good faith efforts, and due to his status as an influential alumnus, and President Chopp rightly defends this choice.

    It seems clear that Zoellick is being protested for a simple reason: he does not share the political ideology of some on campus. And we all know how facts get distorted when political dogma drives debate. Imagine the eye-rolling that would commence at Swarthmore if, years from now, a high level Obama official were protested by students at his/her conservative alma mater for “aiding socialism and undermining core American values, helping to usher in the Great Recession, and admitting defeat in the War on Terror.”

    These same protesting Swatties would laugh and say to themselves: “Boy, those people are really entrenched in their views — they could stand to listen to that official and learn a bit about what this official has to say, no matter how extreme their views are!”

    Intellectual closed-mindedness of the sort demonstrated here is what drives intolerance, oppression, and lack of true understanding.

    From the mouth of an extremely liberal Swarthmore alum who both strongly disagrees with Zoellick and has dedicated his life to public service:

    Swarthmore students, you are young and have yet much to learn about the world! Exercise some humility.

    • “Or does Swarthmore want to be the kind of place that, even when strongly disagreeing with a point of view, is open to learning from an influential proponent of that view?”

      Commencement is a celebration, it is not intended to be a learning experience by hearing from those antithetical to the student body.

      Why on earth would anyone want to listen to someone with whom they “strongly disagree” at their graduation?

      • You’re assuming that the student body’s ideology is homogenous. There are always and have always been people who you disagree with speaking at graduation, and there are always people who will disagree with whoever is speaking. You can’t please everyone.

      • Here’s the definition of commencement:

        (via http://www.thefreedictionary.com/commencement)

        commencement [kəˈmɛnsmənt]
        1. the beginning; start
        2. (Social Science / Education)
        a. US and Canadian a ceremony for the presentation of awards at secondary schools
        b. US a ceremony for the conferment of academic degrees
        Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 19

        As you can see, the primary definition is “the beginning”. Perhaps you could have used Zoellick’s speech as your first opportunity to listen to someone with a different political ideology than you after four years at super liberal Swarthmore. Just a thought!

        -Huzilla ’12

  26. Re: the “Quaker values” argument — why don’t Swatties do their research? Lyndon Johnson, Democrat, President of the US, rec’d an honorary degree from Swarthmore in 1964. Check out what the US was doing in Vietnam in 1964.

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