Students at Lewis & Clark College
put high-ranking political figures on the spot this week when former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz
and former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak
spoke at the school's 48th
annual international affairs symposium
Organizers said in their introductions of the two men Monday night that they purposely invited controversial speakers to tackle this year's theme of global disorder.
“Both of their viewpoints are very controversial," said event organizer Sarah Patterson. "We were trying to talk about ways we could solve disorder. Democracy promotion seems to be a treatment for some, while others think of it as a cause of disorder.”
, a retired four-star general and Oregon resident, discussed the political philosophies of realism and neoconservatism. Wolfowitz, a controversial figure for his hawk's role on the Iraq War in the Bush Administration, focused on the concept of promoting democracy, and the means by which that effort is legitimate. (For all the civility of the debate, Wolfowitz also can still infuriate opponents — 10 people could be heard chanting “fuck Paul Wolfowitz” in the middle of the football field as the last guests were leaving.)
Although Wolfowitz justified military action in Iraq, his arguments seemed at times to be at odds with his policy actions. “Indeed, the notion of imposing a democracy is almost a contradiction,” he says. “We acquired the notion that we can't leave until we've established democracy – that's crazy.”
Discussing regime change across continents, the two men questioned whether democracy is an inevitable step of political evolution and whether the world can be perfected through democratic ideals. “Most of these [regime changes] – I have to confess – I didn't think I would see in my lifetime,” says Wolfowitz. He felt particularly proud of democratic success in Indonesia, where he served as ambassador to the country with the world's largest Muslim population.
McPeak argued that “we haven't improved much by kicking in doors,” but that democracy has in some ways become inevitable through globalization and technological innovation. “The biggest threat to China is not us – it's Google,” he says.
During the question and answer session, students asked how the United States can be a symbol of democracy when it has such a doubtful record in regime change. Others asserted that democracy is not what the U.S. defines it as, but rather, what local people define it as. “Policy is – as someone once put it – to select the least crappy of the two alternatives,” responded Wolfowitz.
Student Jesse Schouboe was disappointed that Wolfowitz dodged some questions. “He was much more agreeable than I would have thought, but he would tell stories rather than concisely answer the question," Schouboe said. "I felt like in a lot of the answers I didn't get a conclusion.”
Student Luke Weinstein agreed. “He had some contradictory comments," Weinstein said. "He alluded to the fact that after the conflict in Latin America ended, democracy somehow magically erupted.”