As the top U.S. general and diplomat in Iraq were on Capitol Hill fielding questions from leading presidential candidates, Saint Mary's Republicans and Democrats gathered to articulate their views and answer each other's criticisms regarding U.S. policy in Iraq.
More than 80 students and professors turned out in Delphine on April 8 to hear representatives from the College's two largest political parties debate the merits and shortcomings of the five-year Iraq war.
A panel pairing Democrats Skylar Covich and Kyle Bonderud with Republicans Scott Cullinane and Michael Antonopoulos took questions from the Macken Speech and Debate Team and members of the audience.
The discussion focused on President Bush's decision to send 30,000 additional soldiers to Iraq in the 2007 "troop surge" and Republican and Democratic presidential candidates' positions on how to proceed in Iraq.
"The surge is working - even the reliably liberal Washington Post says progress is undeniable," Antonopoulos said. "We're helping moderate Muslims in Iraq take control of their own government and we need more time to solidify that."
SMC Democrat President Covich disputed the notion that the plight of the Iraqi people has substantially improved since the war began.
"Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died since the beginning of the war and millions have been displaced," Covich noted, adding, "(The U.S.) has done so much wrong in Iraq it cannot be trusted to fix the situation now."
The panelists also had different interpretations of the recent fighting in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, which pitted Iraqi and U.S. soldiers against militia fighters affiliated with Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"This was an example of Iraqis stepping up - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government took it upon itself to fight and Iraqi troops did pretty well," said Cullinane, adding that the training of 200,000 Iraqi security forces shows that "ordinary Iraqis are fed up with violence in their country."
Covich said the Basra fighting showed that the U.S-backed government in Baghdad has only a tenuous hold on the country.
"Prime Minster Maliki was actually the one who asked for the cease-fire - the Iraqi forces did not do well against the Sadrists," he said.
Democrats argued that the economic costs of the Iraq war - citing Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University budget specialist Linda Bilmes' book The $3 Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict - are preventing the U.S. government from tending to other policy priorities ranging from the U.S. health care system to the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.
"We're spending $12 billion dollars a month on this war - we need to ask if we can afford to [continue]," Bonderud said.
Antonopolous said cost is a factor, but the cost of neglecting U.S. commitments to allies in the Middle East could be higher.
"Moderate Muslims will be slaughtered if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq," he said. "If U.S. credibility is bad now, imagine how much worse it would be if that happened."
Campus Republicans and Democrats meet again on April 29 to discuss the health care proposals advocated by presidential candidates Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton.
Office of College Communications
Photos by Gorbachev Lingad '10