Great Debate

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Ronce Almond
Ronce Almond ’03, argues in favor of the use of preemptive self-defense

In an April 7 Oxford-style debate — in which observers determine the winners by exiting at the conclusion through one of two doors to cast their votes — students Mayur Patel ’04 and Ronce Almond ’03 challenged Professors Scott Silliman, an expert in national security law, and Michael Byers, an authority on international law.

The students played the role of the United States, arguing that preemptive self-defense is a legitimate rationale for the war in Iraq and, by extension, other conflicts in some circumstances. The professors, playing the role of advocates for Great Britain, countered that United Nations Security Council resolutions are a far more stable and defensible justification for war.

Patel and Almond hammered on the point that the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly failed to act in situations where state-sanctioned aggression has led to mass deaths around the globe. Their examples included killings in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and multiple Cold War conflicts. In Iraq, they said, the United States had to step in.

“The Security Council has failed to act in the past and will fail to act in the future,” Almond said. As a result, he argued, the United States must rely on preemptive self-defense in order to adequately meet the threats of today.

The students also painted the regime of Saddam Hussein as a danger to its neighbors and the world, citing its previous aggression, use of weapons of mass destruction in the past and failure to fully account for the destruction of those weapons. “Saddam Hussein has left us no choice but war,” Patel said.

The professors argued that the current war indeed is justified, but through previously approved United Nations Security Council resolutions rather than a right to preemptive self-defense. Byers referred to a Security Council resolution passed in 1990 that called for the use of all means necessary to restore peace and security in Iraq and Kuwait. That resolution still is in effect, he said, due to Iraq’s subsequent failure to properly accommodate weapons inspectors and follow orders to disarm allows the use of force now, just as it did during the first Gulf War.

Byers dismissed the argument that Iraq has been poised to attack the United States through terrorism or other means and in that way has made itself a legitimate target of military action. “There is no immediate threat here under customary international law,” he said.

Silliman noted that the invocation of preemptive self-defense sets a dangerous international precedent. “It can be used by any country against any other country,” he said.

It also could undo half a century of work that has gone into making the United Nations the body that decides when the use of force is acceptable. “It has been the final arbiter for the use of force for the last 50 years,” he said.

With the United Nations out of the picture, Silliman said, the world in some ways becomes “a shootout at the OK Corral,” when countries come to intractable disagreements. And as the world’s lone superpower, the United States damages its reputation by acting unilaterally under this doctrine.

“We fuel the resentment, the hatred and the perception of arrogance that clearly exists not only in the Arab world, but also in other countries,” he said.

In his rebuttal, Patel argued that evil, in this case represented by the Iraqi regime, must be confronted head-on. The United States, he said, cannot rely on the Security Council in this instance, especially with France promising a veto of any measure to authorize an invasion of Iraq.

He also said countries would not be emboldened to begin wars by the example set by the United States because of the high cost of warfare in lives and money. In fact, he argued, following such a doctrine would keep countries such as Syria and Iran from supporting terrorism or attacking other nations for fear of reprisals from the United States or other countries.

“If you act responsibly, you have nothing to fear,” Patel said. “It took a gross warmonger like Saddam to invoke this.”

In his rebuttal, Byers said that the fear of paying a war’s cost in treasure and blood is a poor substitute for international discussion and cooperation. “It’s a dangerous way to run a society,” he said. “It’s anarchy.”

He also said that the United States is a great country that will remain great by working with other nations instead of striking out on its own. “It needs to behave as if it is a member of a community,” he said.

At the debate’s conclusion, most students exited through the door indicating a victory for Byers and Silliman. The professors didn’t harp on that, though, and proved gracious victors. “You had the much harder side to argue,” Byers told Patel.

The debate, which filled a lecture hall, was sponsored by the International Law Society.