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Hitchens, Wilkerson debate Middle East policy

  • Debaters ready
    Debaters ready  The debate between journalist and author Christopher Hitchens (L)and Lawrence Wilkerson (R), Pamela Harriman Professor of Government and former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, was moderated by Government Professor Clay Clemens (C)  Photo by Suzanne Seurattan
  • Christopher Hitchens
    Christopher Hitchens  While the debate centered on U.S. policy in the Middle East, many of the audience's questions addressed Hitchens'(L) well publicized views on religion.  Photo by Suzanne Seurattan
  • Lawrence Wilkerson
    Lawrence Wilkerson  A retired Army Colonel, Wilkerson discussed the impact troop levels have on foreign policy decisions.  Photo by Suzanne Seurattan
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The possibility of regime change in Iran and the balance of power in the Middle East were just two of the topics discussed in a debate on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East between journalist Christopher Hitchens and Government Professor Lawrence Wilkerson at William & Mary on Monday.

The event, sponsored by the W&M Student Assembly through a bill passed at the end of last year, consisted of 45 minutes of general debate followed by a 45-minute question and answer session.

“The career paths of our two panelists could not have been more different, nor could they have come to the same conclusions in all aspects of U.S. policy,” debate moderator and William & Mary Government Professor Clay Clemens said to a packed auditorium in the Sadler Center.

Hitchens, an author and journalist who in 2008 was voted the fifth top public intellectual in a Foreign Policy poll, is most known for his controversial pieces in several publications including The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. His outspoken support of libertarianism and atheism has also been the topic of debate on many talk shows over his career.

Wilkerson, the Harriman Professor for Government and Public Policy at William & Mary, served as the former chief-of-staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson is also well-known for his critical stance on the policies of the previous presidential administration.

During the debate, Wilkerson repeatedly stressed the importance of timing and strategy or the absence thereof in the country’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He stressed the important role that the U.S. has now that Iraq is no longer a balancing force in the region.

“Who became the balancer? We did,” Wilkerson said. “But I ask you, how much longer do you think, the American taxpayers and the normal citizen will tolerate the presence required in Afghanistan, and Iraq and for that matter, in order to balance Iran?”

Furthermore, Wilkerson, a former military colonel, stated the military’s inability to take on additional roles due to overextension and a high suicide rate as a key factor as to why the military was not a strategic option in the Iranian theatre.

“If you are going to change the regime over time like water running down a granite wall, that’s one thing. If you’re going to change the regime through that method with a little bit of pressure from sanctions, that’s another,” he said. “So what methodology, what strategy are we going to use? The military doesn’t really offer a solution here.”

Hitchens, on the other hand, stressed the importance of timing on the fragile situation in the Middle East, simultaneously criticizing the view that solving the Palestinian/Israeli debate would solve all of the Middle East’s problems.

“But the question is this: Are we going to let them decide?” he said. “Who’s going to pick the time and place for when conflict occurs?”

He went on to argue his views on the conflict in Afghanistan, and the importance of not following the same example as Pakistan in our method of nation-building.

“If the objective in Afghanistan would be to extricate the al-Qaeda forces, and to emancipate the Afghanistan forces, it would be a noble thing to be doing. We would do it with a lot of money and a lot of soldiers backing them up,” he said. “What we cannot do is a strategy that helps to create a second Pakistan.”

Clemens noted as divergent as their opinions could be, they had more in common than you might expect.

“Among some respects they have some marked similarities between them,” Clemens added. “Neither has flinched in taking on various establishments and in their push and pull for reckoning, both have been willing to burn bridges.”