Last Tuesday, Sept. 10, St. Olaf’s Political Awareness Committee PAC invited former FBI Agent Coleen Rowley to discuss the possibility of American military action in Syria. This action would serve as a response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its citizens.
PAC Coordinator Rachel Palermo ’15 introduced Rowley to a crowd of politically aware Oles in Buntrock Commons’ Black Ballroom.
“We’ve changed a lot of things with PAC this year,” Palermo said. “The most significant change is that we re-instated PAC weekly dinners, which offer students the opportunity to engage in a conversation about a particular political issue, with guest speakers leading the discussion.”
PAC will continue to hold Tuesday dinner discussions and also announced some new events such as the “Women in Leadership” Panel on Oct. 17 and the Government Internships Fair on Nov. 6.
“We always make it our priority to change topics based on current events,” Palermo said of the nonpartisan PAC. “Once the news of chemical weapons usage in Syria hit the media, it was clear that it was PAC’s responsibility to offer a forum for students to learn more about this issue.”
Coleen Rowley worked as an FBI agent for 24 years and ran for U.S. Congress against Rep. John Kline, R- Minn., for Minnesota’s second district in 2006. She was also named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2002 for testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about problems faced by the intelligence community. Needless to say, due to Rowley’s decorated history and expertise, PAC was eager to invite her to campus.
Rowley, clad in a “What Would Paul Wellstone Do?” t-shirt and carrying a sign bearing the inscription, “Tell Obama No More War,” started her talk by comparing this potential action against Syria to other anti-terrorist action of the past, including the Iraq war and the 2011 military intervention in Libya.
Because this discussion took place prior to Obama’s promise to attempt diplomacy with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. bombing of Syria was still a distinct possibility, and Rowley helped the St. Olaf community weigh the pros and cons of such action.
Citing the U.S.’s quest for “full-spectrum dominance” and its desire to conquer Iran as primary motives for attack, Rowley condemned the use of violence and aggression as a means of international problem solving.
Not pulling any punches, she stated that military action in Syria would be “horribly disastrous” due to its potential for massacres of innocent populations and destruction of infrastructure.
“War is not humanitarian,” Rowley said. “It is unethical, illegal and counterproductive.” Further, Rowley pointed out the irony of starting a war in order to create peace, which she said perfectly described this situation.
A crowd of atendees continued to fill the Black Ballroom as Rowley went on to describe the dubious nature of propaganda used during wartime.
“Propaganda gets people to do wrong things, bad things,” Rowley said. She cited John Kerry’s footage of dead Syrian children following the government’s attacks as an example. Because there have been “atrocities on both sides,” she claimed this footage was misleading and tried to appeal to one’s emotions using questionable methods.
Rowley also disagreed with the common American assertion that “using force is the main way to achieve human rights in the world.” Instead, she asserted that diplomacy is the best way to bolster international human rights.
While she acknowledged people’s concerns about sitting back and watching chemical weapon use rather than acting to stop it, she professed to find such action problematic and listed some alternative options.
Rowley first suggested that the U.S. negotiate with Assad and arrange a Syrian democratic election, to which he has since agreed. She also talked about Russia and the U.S. pushing negotiations in Geneva, although she stated that working with the rebel groups would be challenging because they are not united for one cause.
Rowley noted the political shift in the Senate as it weighed the possibility of an attack. She said that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a vocal critic of the Iraq war, was one of the first U.S. senators to come out in support of military action in Syria. Also, she noted that Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has come out in opposition to such action because it “will lead to war with Iran.”
Rowley questioned why these rigid political lines have become blurred. To finish her talk, Rowley told her audience to read a lot.
“That’s the best way to get information,” Rowley said. In order to be completely informed about a complicated issue like Syria, she said, students cannot read just one source but instead have to weigh every perspective.
This past Saturday, Sept. 14, it was announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached a deal with Syria that involves destroying Syrian chemical arms. It is hard to say how this deal will affect the overall political landscape in the Middle East, though PAC and the St. Olaf community continue to search for answers.
Photo by Siri Keller