Millennial Must-Reads are student-contributed posts by members of the "Millennial" generation - America's 18-29 year-olds - on current events and politics and public service. Viewpoints expressed are exclusively attributed to undergraduate authors and not endorsed by Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Authored by John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Committee student Amna Hashmi.
As the third blockbuster event in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum’s first week in the Fall term, “Attacking Syria: Yes or No? How do you vote?” proved to be the quintessential exchange of ideas and views so intrinsic to the Institute of Politics’s programming. Members from the various Harvard communities, including students and faculty from the College and graduate schools, as well as engaged citizens from the surrounding Boston area, squeezed onto every floor of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, potentially breaking some fire codes along the way, to raptly listen to a superstar panel of international relations and foreign policy experts.
Moderator Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, opened the discussion with a simple binary question for each panelist, “Attacking Syria: Yes or No?”
R. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, favored limited air strikes to degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capacity and to intimidate him, noting that engineering a ceasefire would be necessary to prevent the further destabilisation of surrounding countries.
Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor at the Kennedy School, echoed a ‘yes’ vote, arguing that the United States should not be involved in regime change and that the revolutions within Arab countries are inherently the Middle East’s issue.
However, Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and Marisa L. Porges, International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, were not as completely convinced. In particular, Ferguson believed that the United States should have intervened earlier with the intention of regime change. Although Ferguson ultimately voted yes, he expressed that the “too late and too dithering” air strikes would do little except, “salvage some credibility for a President that drew a red line and turned it into a pink-dotted line.”
Porges stood as the solely strong ‘no,’ within the group, concerned that the mission would not complete its objective and would provoke al-Assad to stand against unilateral American action, inciting more anti-Americanism in the region.
Interspersed in the Forum were clips from President Obama’s addresses regarding Syria, one from the Rose Garden and one from the night before, serving as a springboard for further discussion regarding the probability of Congress greenlighting the Syrian attacks, the panelists’ faith in the Russian government to adequately eliminate the threat of chemical weapons, and the consequences of President Obama intervening without approval.
During a fiery question-and-answer session, Forum attendees scrambled to the microphones, curious how the crisis fit into a historical context. One attendee, self-identified as a former C.I.A. member of a track-two dialogue team on the Iran-Iraq war warned of inaction, and a Lebanese audience member who had lived through his country’s civil war questioned the definition of “limited” in terms of air strikes.
A Forum first, at the end of the night, the audience itself had the chance to weigh in on the issue and vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ In contrast to the 30 percent who approved of the President’s proposition in a CBS poll, 45 percent of Forum attendees voted ‘yes.’
As one of the few arenas of structured discussion for a contentious and extremely relevant issue, the JFK Jr. Forum has started off the year right, and while no magical Syrian strategy was crafted by the panelists, I came out onto JFK Street with a more nuanced and informed perspective, a true gift in a time of polarized news sources.
Originally from Baltimore, MD, Amna Hashmi is a sophomore at Harvard College. Amna serves as a news reporter for the Harvard Crimson, as secretary for the Harvard Undergrduate Global Health Forum, and as a member of the Institute of Politic's JFK Jr. Forum. Interested in global health technology and journalism, she hopes to pursue a field that intersects international relations, medicine and computer science.