U.S. Department of State officials dialogue about Iraq at Goshen College

GOSHEN, IND. – With both anti-war protests and F-16 engines roaring in anticipation of a war in Iraq, timing couldn’t be better to sit down and talk with those who shape U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Goshen College’s Yoder Public Affairs Lecture Series and the League of Women Voters hosted a “Town Meeting on the Middle East,” featuring U.S. Department of State representatives Marc J. Sievers and Thomas Fingar on Feb. 19.

“You have every right to hear from us what Washington is doing, that we don’t have all the answers and that we share some of the same doubts with you,” said Fingar, principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who supervises analytical work on countries and regions as well as transnational issues including trade, refugees, arms transfers and weapons of mass destruction.

Sievers, deputy director to the office of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria affairs in the bureau of Near Eastern affairs, focused his talk on Iraq and U.S. Middle East foreign policy, sharing from his experience of working in the Middle East during the Gulf War and offering his perspective on the current war on terrorism.

“There is a new phenomenon of terrorism that has destruction as its sole purpose. Attacking the U.S. is an end in itself,” said Sievers, who has served in the Foreign Service in Hong Kong, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“Certainly force is an option that no one is eager to use,” Sievers said. “The best opportunity to avoid the use of force is for the U.N. Security Council to provide a united front.” He said that the U.N. resolutions must have “teeth” for Iraqi compliance.

Fingar expanded the scope of the evening conversation to the global context of the U.S. Middle East foreign policy. “We live in a global village. Everything has the potential to affect everything else,” Fingar said. He wove a web of political and economic links between such countries as China, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, North Korea and Iraq – demonstrating the complexity of the current political situation the United States is maneuvering in. He said that American diplomacy has to reach out to all these places.

Neither Sievers nor Fingar would say that war is a certainty. “As close as I am to this, I am not persuaded we are going to war,” Fingar said.

A question and answer time following the lectures provided audience members a chance to respond and question the Department of State representatives.

Referring to a New York Times article that quoted President Bush as dismissing recent worldwide anti-war protests, Doloris Cogan, a member of the League of Women’s Voters and self-proclaimed ‘pragmatist’, asked, “We don’t see Washington listening to the people. We think this is Bush’s war. What can you say that changes that?”

As the crowd applauded the question, both Sievers and Fingar offered a response. “There is clearly a very strong element of the American public that is opposed, and I can’t tell you how this factors into the president’s decision, but it must,” Sievers said.

Fingar encouraged those opposed to war to continue with their efforts. “To do nothing is to concede the inevitability of the undesirable. You’ve got to try,” Fingar said. “Thinking changes. Thinking is influenced. Any administration pays attention to the polls.”

Andrea Milne, a senior from Goshen, Ind., asked, “I am afraid that we are not thinking about what a war is going do to the Iraqi people. The World Heath Organization reported to the U.N. about the possible affects of a war on Iraq … said that it is very likely that up to 50,000 people could die and 500,000 people could be injured or suffer from disease …” she continued with other predicted statistics. “How can the U.S. justify a war with these results?”

After dismissing some of her statistics, Fingar replied, “There is an assumption behind [your question] that the United States would deliberately go after water and food supplies. I cannot imagine that we would. I am not privy to the planning, but I cannot imagine that we would. There is tremendous concern that Saddam will though.”

Audience members disagreed about how well the speakers answered the questions they hoped to have answered.

Paul Horst, a senior peace, justice and conflict studies major from Evanston, Ill., didn’t leave the lecture encouraged or persuaded by the speakers. “Neither speaker made any sort of convincing statement as to why we are seeking war with Iraq. Both spoke vaguely about threats in the world today,” he said.

Goshen resident Stan Miller, registrar at Goshen College, said, “I was reminded once again how very complex the issues really are. [The speakers’] candor was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the simplistic platitudes we so often get from career politicians. But skepticism prevents me from being hopeful that a few people speaking out in Goshen, Ind., will actually have any bearing on policy formation in Washington, D. C. This administration seems hell bent on carrying out its agenda regardless of the sentiments of the populace.”

Sheldon Burkhalter, director of church relations at Goshen College, said, “I was disappointed that imagination for other ways of addressing human frustration and real and understandable grievances appears to be lacking in current policies. In the end, I believe America must become more creative with our tremendous wealth and power if terrorism is to be restrained, and we must think beyond military solutions.”

Goshen College is a national liberal arts college known for leadership in international education, service-learning and peace and justice issues in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program and exceptional educational value, GC serves about 1,000 students in both traditional and nontraditional programs. The college earned citations of excellence among U.S.News & World Report, Yahoo! and Barron’s Best Buys in Higher Education. For more information, visit www.goshen.edu/.

Editors: For information, contact Jodi Hochstedler at (574) 535-7572 or jodih@goshen.edu.