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Dissecting the war on terror

Robert Jervis, professor of international affairs at Columbia University, addressed the topic of “Terrorism, Preventive War and the Bush Doctrine” on Thursday afternoon in the New Library Auditorium.

Marianna Sullivan, professor of political science, was responsible for having Jervis speak at the College. “He is a very distinguished political scientist who has gathered numerous awards and written extensively in the field,” she said.

“He is a prestigious international scholar who has been indirectly shaping U.S. foreign policy for decades and is well connected to those involved in making foreign policy decisions,” Brian Potter, assistant professor of political science, said.

Students sat in aisles and along the back wall during the lecture because of limited seating. Both Potter and Sullivan said that the program was of great interest to students at the College, and several students participated in the question part of the program.

“Dr. Jervis was invited not only because of his expertise, but also because his talk relates directly to a course in American Foreign Policy being taught this term,” she said. “Students in this course are reading his latest book, ‘American Foreign Policy in a New Era.’ It is exciting for them to have an opportunity to interact with him.”

Jervis described most modern explanations of terrorism as “weak,” saying that most people writing about the subject have “underlying political agendas.”

“For an administration that prides itself on getting out the message, there is a deep uncertainty of the enemy,” Jervis said.

He explained that, comparatively, terrorism isn’t much of a threat. “Terrorism is designed to scare people,” he said. “It can’t do much damage.”

Jervis said that the Bush Doctrine is hard to explain because it is not fully understood to begin with. “Bush has claimed that the war in Iraq is the front line for the war on terrorism,” Jervis said.

“Terrorism should not be the central issue that drives American policy,” he said. “I think that’s terribly foolish.”

“We are creating terrorists faster than we are killing them,” he said. “We are spreading anti-Americanism around the world.”

Jervis described the basic rule of international politics with a quote from Bill Clinton about his public scandal. “Clinton’s memoir said, ‘I did it because I could,’ and I think that is the profound truth and a major reason for the invasion,” he said.

Jervis also explained the significant difference he sees in preemptive war and preventative war. “It is a difference in time,” he said.

“Preemptive war starts with expectations that a war will start in the next couple days, weeks or months,” he explained. “Preventative war starts because there is an idea that a war will present itself in a certain period of years.”

Preemptive and preventative wars also differ in degree of certainty, he said. Preemptive war is a “given” while preventative is “much less certain.” “Eventually it will cost us,” Jervis said. “We will be paying for the Iraq invasion for the next 20 years.”

Potter said that Jervis successfully “pointed out that the Bush administration doesn’t have an understanding in addressing foreign policy problems, not because they are intellectually incapable, but because powers are complex and have long-term situations.”

Jervis said that predicting what will happen in the future is extremely hard. “We will have to see a return of a much messier, improvised policy,” he said.

During the question and answer session, Jervis said, “I think democracy is the best form of government, not only for the U.S., but for all countries.” He said that it will obviously be presented in different forms, but he sees all countries eventually becoming democracies. “I am an optimist,” he said.

With regards to the Iraq w ar, he said, “I don’t think the situation is better for us or them by staying there … I’m not convinced staying there much longer is doing any good, and I would start withdrawing forces after the next election.”

Jervis said that the Bush administration “does not have a plan – they are clueless.”

“It is a faith-based foreign policy and the costs are high,” he said.

Jervis said that he thinks it will be remarkable to see what the future will bring. He said, “A Chinese curse says it best: ‘May you live in interesting times.'”


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