Over the last week, the College’s decision to invite former World Bank President Robert Zoellick ’75 to deliver a graduation speech and receive an honorary degree has become the latest campus controversy this semester. Although selected by a predominantly liberal faculty, some of my fellow students question having an individual they call “one of the major architects and strongest proponents of the Iraq war” speak at graduation.
Boiling down Zoellick’s impressive public service career to the Iraq War is not only a gross mischaracterization; it’s factually wrong. Zoellick was not involved in the execution of the Iraq War, period. Serving as United States Trade Representative from 2001-2005, Zoellick’s responsibilities included treaty negotiations and economic diplomacy. The mere attribution of Iraq policy to Zoellick suggests a reticence among my fellow students to equate anyone involved in the Bush administration with a war they dislike. Zoellick did sign a letter to President Clinton supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 1998, and advocated for United States involvement in Iraq for many of the same reasons as Democrats did in the early 2000s.
Even if I agreed that an individual’s ties to the Iraq War would prohibit them from speaking at Swarthmore (a position I would never take), Zoellick would still not be disqualified. In fact, hearing Zoellick, a foreign policy realist who called for Hussein’s removal from power, talk about the war ten years later would be interesting. This is a reason to invite him rather than a disqualifying measure.
Numerous other arguments have been made for Zoellick being a “problematic” graduation speaker and honorary degree recipient. Some of the weakest arguments deal with Zoellick’s Republican politics. He has held many positions in Republican government going back to positions at the Treasury Department in the Reagan years. In George H.W. Bush’s administration, he served under Secretary of State James Baker and later became White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Later, he served under President George W. Bush as Trade Representative and Deputy Secretary of State before being appointed to head the World Bank. Politico reported last year that Zoellick would likely have been Romney’s choice for Secretary of State.
All of these positions are influential and important no matter which party controls the White House. Zoellick’s stature in politics shows that he is a serious individual whose accomplishments as a Swarthmore alum deserve to be celebrated. Graduating seniors could benefit from listening to his path after Swarthmore to where he is today at their graduation as well.
Zoellick has also been critiqued by Swatties for a 2000 Foreign Affairs piece he wrote entitled “A Republican Foreign Policy.” In reading the piece, I found his discussion of American power and the need to use international institutions to pursue American interests parallel to a number of international relations scholars’ thinking. His free trade advocacy in the article and as president of the World Bank is also not unlike the Obama administration’s support of free trade. Zoellick’s positions are certainly not out of the mainstream on any of these points.
Never intended as a controversial graduation speaker, Zoellick is a phenomenal choice for a speaker and honorary degree recipient on many levels. His experiences in politics have been influential and successful. He has a deep commitment to public service and would probably serve again if called upon. And, he shows that Swarthmore has ideological diversity even among the College’s best-known graduates.
The administration needs to make a solid defense of Zoellick and dispel the tension well before graduation. In the Phoenix article on Zoellick’s selection earlier this month, economics Professor Stephen Golub argued against those critical of Zoellick’s politics by saying, “He’s not an extreme right-winger.” While Golub’s word choice is understandable, saying politics is irrelevant to the selection process would have been a better formulation. The administration should make this point in a strongly worded defense of Zoellick that makes crystal clear support for bringing Zoellick in as a graduation speaker and awarding him an honorary degree.
Students upset over the choice of Zoellick should take time to understand Zoellick’s career before rushing to a judgment. The meeting organized by seniors this Friday should dispel the notion that Zoellick is a “war criminal” as some of my fellow students have claimed and the group’s Facebook event insinuates.
While I understand some opposition will continue through graduation, the meeting is a step in the right direction to avoid student protests of Zoellick at the ceremony. After all, he is a Swarthmore alum and part of our extended campus community. The last thing that should happen at graduation, with friends and family present to celebrate the accomplishments of our senior class, is a misguided demonstration that disrupts the entire event.
We should consider ourselves lucky to have a serious, accomplished, policy-oriented alum speaking at graduation this year. A celebrity guest may be attractive to many schools, but Swarthmore has chosen to showcase an alumnus dedicated to public service. Robert Zoellick ’75 deserves better treatment.
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