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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Great Debates tackles US strategy against Islamic State

Two teams debated about how to defeat monsters Thursday afternoon at the Humanities Institute hosted by Stony Brook Great Debates—the monsters to which they referred being ISIS and extremism as a whole.

Stony Brook Great Debates is a series of parliamentary-style debates regarding important current issues of the world. A debate occurs every semester at Stony Brook. Past Great Debates have included topics such as public infrastructure, Edward Snowden and the Fire Island breach opened by Superstorm Sandy.

Thursday’s debate drew roughly 140 people, including students, faculty and visitors, leaving no seats in Humanities Lecture Hall 1006 empty. Many attendees stood in the back of the room or sat on the steps in the middle aisle. 

The government team won the debate with their argument that the U.S. should make a major military commitment to defeat the Islamic State group, commonly referred to as ISIS or Daesh, the acronym of its Arabic name, in Syria. The government team argued that the U.S. should not repeat past mistakes of uprooting a country’s regime and then leave without helping to rebuild a stable government and establishing essential infrastructures for democracy such as academic institutions. 

“This is the lesson that we have learned: regime change creates a vacuum. And where there are no institutions, there are no democratic institutions, we cannot hope that the country will stabilize and that terrorism will abate,” said Michael Holtzman, a member of the government team and a communications and public affairs strategist who has advised heads of state and senior ministers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Holtzman referred to how the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 but then left the country to recuperate and rebuild itself, resulting in the creation of extremist groups like Al-Qaida, where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the widely believed founder and progenitor of ISIS, originated from.

The opposition team argued that past failed U.S. interventions such as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya should be a reason to not continue the military commitment in Syria.

“How can we use military power to destroy ISIS when we were unable to do much in any country, and then we get up and leave as we have done in Afghanistan creating a vacuum?” professor Jonathan Sanders of the School of Journalism said.

In that sense, the teams agreed that regime change was not the answer.

“More Libyans have died since Gadhafi has died,” said professor Michael Barnhart of the Department of History, speaking for the opposition team. “One monster down, dozens of monster created.”

Sanders also argued that continuing a war without dedicated ground troops would be a waste of time and money. He also said that current U.S. airstrikes are ineffective unless the United States is able to commit to a large amount of ground troops in the region.

Sanders then boldly proposed a U.S. draft but noted that not many young Americans would want to sign up and proved his point by asking the audience members how many would voluntarily sign up for a draft. No one in the audience raised his or her hand. The government team also agreed that the airstrikes were ineffective and also agreed there was a need for a more united front to fight ISIS.

“The current strategic airstrikes have proven useless,”Ahmad A. Malik, a senior majoring in physics and political science, speaking for the government team, said.

Malik said the United States cannot topple the Assad regime, despite Assad’s own humanitarian violations against civilians, at least until ISIS was eliminated. The government team said after ousting ISIS, the United States must stay in the region until it is stable instead of pulling out like in
the past.

However, the rejection of changing the Syrian regime and ineffective airstrikes was where the teams’ agreements ended. While the government team was committed to military intervention and long-term infrastructure building post-war, the opposition team remained largely committed to a nonintervention and containment policy.

Barnhart provided a historical context to the debate by citing the Monroe Doctrine, largely posited by U.S. President John Adams, and failed interventions in Cuba and Vietnam as reasons for a noninterventionist policy. Sanders, Barnhart’s debate partner, agreed, saying that the focus should be on containment, as well as an end to Islamophobia.

“Maybe a nonmilitary containment policy in Daesh, while they remain in Syria would be a wiser thing and let the forces of moderation and internal discourse and war among them take over,” Sanders argued.

He further argued that even if the military eliminated ISIS in Syria, the group would simply relocate to another unstable region like Sirte in Libya.

The government team rejected the opposition team’s policy of nonintervention and containment, citing moral obligation and the increasing danger of ISIS and extremism in the world.

“Listen to what they’re saying in between the lines: Do nothing,” Michael Holtzman said. “They want us to do nothing in the face of this threat that has made itself evident. Tell that to the people of Paris today. Tell that to the people of Nigeria. Tell that to the people of Sri Lanka. Tell that to the people of Indonesia. Tell that to the people of Bangladesh. Tell that to the people of California. Tell that to those people.”

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