Over 100 students, faculty and community members gathered last Thursday evening in Donald Bren Hall to witness Professors Mark Petracca and William Schonfeld debate whether Congress should declare war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The School of Social Sciences Dean’s Ambassador Council hosted the debate, marking the eighth time the annual hot topics debate has been put on. The purpose of the series is to examine both sides of controversial issues in a respectful and academic environment, and to model debate techniques for students.
“I encourage you to pay attention to the way the professors structure their arguments,” said political science professor Louis DeSipio, who moderated the debate. “They are not necessarily articulating their own positions, but instead they’re trying to convince you of the position that they’re taking, so watch the way they structure their arguments as well as what they say.”
Petracca, who argued that the U.S. should declare war on ISIS, began his affirmative speech by discussing the grave threat ISIS poses to the United States.
“We’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation,” said Petracca citing the words of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jim Inhofe who discussed the threat ISIS poses to the U.S. homeland and its allies. “We must assume that these well-informed senior members of the United States Senate are not engaging in mere hyperbole.”
Although Petracca emphasized that the United States is already at war with ISIS, he presented four advantages of a formal declaration of war by Congress under Article I of the Constitution, rather than the mere authorization of arms from the President, which is the current justification.
First, he said, America wins every war it declares. Second, Congress is in a better position than the Executive branch to hear the demands of the American people, and can test arguments required for full-scale military mobilization before committing to them. Third, a declaration of war creates a state of war under international law. Fourth, a declaration of war evokes a shared sense of national purpose.
“It should not be as easy to make war as American presidents have made it over the last 70 years, often with explicit congressional acquiescence,” said Petracca. “A declaration of war will require Americans, all of us, for the first time in four generations, to work together to prevail against this grave threat to our freedoms.”
Schonfeld also believed that ISIS is an enemy of the United States, but he argued a declaration of war is not a wise solution because of the detrimental effects such a declaration would cause on the fragile linkages in the Middle East.
Schonfeld argued that ISIS would never have existed in the first place if it wasn’t for American military efforts in Iraq that overthrew former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as the Sunni disenfranchisement by American occupation forces that followed was the basis of ISIS. Moreover, he discussed that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was Iran’s biggest enemy, made the current regime in Iran more powerful.
“ISIS, another force that strongly opposes Iran, is developing in the area,” said Schonfeld. “Should we again come to the aid of the Iranians? Should the U.S. be joining forces with Hezbollah, Assad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or should we do what we can to just let our enemies kill each other?”
Schonfeld also argued that although ISIS may be U.S.’s enemy, it is not a great threat to America.
“Most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home,” Schonfeld said. “This is especially true of the Islamic State precisely because of its ideology…while its leadership is ill on the United States, the application of Shariah and the caliphate and expansion to the contiguous lands are its paramount goals, not attacking the United States.”
Petracca countered Schonfeld’s assertion that ISIS is not a significant threat in his rebuttal by comparing Schonfeld’s belief to that of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain, famous for his policy of appeasement, incorrectly assumed that the Nazis were not committed to an international conquest and merely wanted to unite the regional German-speaking people.
“How long do we wait?” asked Petracca. “Do we wait until ISIS launches another 9/11, would that be an indication that maybe its time for the nation to get behind a declaration of war?
Do we wait until a suitcase nuclear bomb is taken across the Canadian border and put in the downtown area of Chicago and exploded?”
During his final negative rebuttal, Schonfeld distinguished ISIS from the Nazis. He argued that Nazi Germany was a nation-state, but ISIS is not and nor is it seeking to become a state. He discussed the importance of examining the context and discovering America’s true interest.
“We must look at what the context is and figure out what is our interest, and our interest is that none of these forces thrive,” said Schonfeld. “None of us can rank degrees of order, but we might be able to rank degrees of evilness, and if we did that, I’d put the Iranians highest.
Consequently, if that’s true, then the idea of declaring war is going to accomplish absolutely nothing.”
Although quite passionate in their assigned positions, the professors embraced each other as true colleagues at the conclusion of the debate. There was no winner, given the educational purpose of the debate, but the professors enjoyed joking with each other.
“I want to take a moment to express my utmost appreciation and affection for Professor Schonfeld, who has been doing these debates with me twice a year for the last eight years. He promises me he is going to continue to until he finally gets one right,” joked Petracca.
Following the debate, the Dean’s Ambassadors Council encouraged students, faculty and community members to gather outside the hall to enjoy refreshments and to socialize.
“The aim of the Dean Ambassador’s Council is to bridge the gap between students, faculty and staff on campus,” said Julie Singh, who will serve as the council’s executive chair next year.