Yesterday, Low Library played host to an impassioned, rollicking debate on our two most fight-provoking intellectually stimulating topics: Obama and the Middle East. International correspondent Brit Byrd ventured into the scene to report.

An artistic rendition of Monday's debate

Last night’s Obama Middle East Debate, hosted by Turath, the Arab Students Organization, certainly presented a variety of views and opinions, but audience members seeking a more cohesive discourse on the wide array of foreign policy issues presented were left wanting.

Unrestrained by any public records or policies to defend, the most vocal participants were the CU Libertarians, the CU International Socialist Organization (ISO), and The Current. The CUCR and CU Dems, meanwhile, were mostly stuck to more pragmatic policy explanations, even exchanging implicit agreement on some issues. Thus the most apparent trend in the debate was the divide between the more grounded tone of the “establishment” parties and the outspoken ideology of the others.

This model fit the narrative of the ISO, who immediately criticized President Obama and the two-party system as being controlled by an elite who disregard the self-determination of the masses. The Current opened with a pointed critique of what they perceived as costly decision-making hesitations by President Obama, particularly in Egypt and Israel, but it was often difficult to discern any overarching platform. Indeed, at the onset, their contingent dutifully noted that their expressed opinions were not necessarily representative of their publication as a whole.

The Libertarians, for their part, seemed more interested in mocking the debate than participating in it. Making good use of facial histrionics during some of the other parties’ responses, they often responded with one-phrase answers, accompanied by an air of faux-incredulity. To their credit, their belief that the United States shouldn’t be involved in most of the issues discussed did lend itself to forming the most consistent platform in the debate. At one point, they responded “Why is it our business?” followed by a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware declaration: “free trade.” One imagines that to just print that phrase on a sign and send it in would have garnered the same effect.

The CU Dems at times became bogged down in validating President Obama’s record, at the expense of a more general contribution to the discourse. However, on one major point the Dems did break from the President. When it came to the issue of assassinating US citizens accused of terrorism, they maintained that in principle, the US should bring the accused to trial. They noted, however, that President Obama had had legal grounds to execute the highlighted assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last year. The CUCR said that al-Awlaki constituted an enemy combatant in wartime, not a criminal with the right to due process.

Perhaps the most notable moment for the CUCR was the audience Q&A session, when during the first question three different audience members quoted an earlier statement that “all extremists are Islamists, but it doesn’t necessarily go the other way around.” It became clear that this was probably just a slip of the tongue, but as soon as the quote was brought into the limelight, the other groups were quick to condemn it. The resulting series of exchanges between some participants, the moderators, and some muffled audience feedback was one of the few times that the well-groomed Republicans had a hair put out of place.

Such pouncing on a simple phrase was indicative of the effect of the debate’s rigid moderation, which sometimes seemed more interested in adhering to strict rules than promoting a real discourse. With an awkward thud on the microphone, the moderators frequently attempted to cut off the participants, and the consequent rushing often produced sound bytes that became more contentious than the true sentiments behind them.

From the beginning of the debate it was clear that all of the participants were more interested in addressing each other’s more general remarks than some of the specific questions. At times, the questions directed at specific parties appeared slightly arbitrary, meaning that certain participants were asked questions they were relatively ambivalent about, and which were more appropriate for other parties.

The debate’s most exciting moment was toward the end, when The Current expressed regret that more attention was not brought to Iran. The ISO, in response, proclaimed with a scoff that it was rather “self-evident” that the US was not “attacking” Iran because of its nuclear program. When few seemed to agree, the ISO suggested that the audience merely go to Wikipedia to check facts concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Current rebutted that they instead consult the International Atomic Energy Agency, which resulted in some laughter amongst the mostly full Low Library Rotunda, and the debate’s only real break in decorum.

When the moderators restored order, they too noted that it was a shame that more topics weren’t broached upon. Unfortunately, this was the closest the debate came to a conclusion, a far cry from the moderator’s introductory goal of “creating a cohesive set of transparency.”

Really shiny room via Wikimedia Commons