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Iraq Off Agenda on U.S. Campuses

Daniel Graeber
More than six years after the beginning of the U.S invasion of Iraq, debate over the conflict is growing ever more muted on American university campuses.
29.09.2009  |  Washington D.C

While, during the years of President George W. Bush, concerns regarding the justification for the invasion, the presence of weapons of mass destruction and the viability of the military strategy dominated much of the conversation among students and faculty, today Iraq no longer commands such importance.

"The most remarkable shift in the Iraq debate is that most students don't talk about Iraq [any longer]," said Eric Schewe, a Middle East studies graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Instead American students and faculty are increasingly concerned about domestic issues such as the reform of the country’s health care sector and the war in Afghanistan.

Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, says that war fatigue has pushed the Iraq debate to the sidelines.

Walt adds that with a bilateral agreement in hand outlining the terms of a U.S troop withdrawal people’s attention has moved elsewhere.

"People, six years later, are simply not engaged in a debate about our presence there,” he said.

University students in America do have a long history of anti-war activism and did protest in large numbers at the beginning of the Iraq conflict. But according to observers the lack of compulsorily military service has led to growing student apathy.

"This is not like Vietnam," said Walt, referring to the culture of engagement and dissent that gripped U.S. campuses in the 1960s and 1970s as America's youth faced the very real possibility of being drafted into the military to fight in South East Asia.

In difficult economic times, students are today more concerned about finding employment than in arguing the merits of a distant and long-running war in Iraq.

On the academic front, meanwhile, the debate has also narrowed.

Right-wing academics and so called neo-conservatives were able to push an aggressive case for an Iraq invasion prior to 2003, stimulating a fierce academic argument with those opposed to pre-emptive war. Six years on, however, those voices have gone noticeably quiet.

Professors say that the failure of the Iraqi war, and its huge cost in terms of human capital and U.S. taxpayer money, has dealt a fateful blow to those advocating an aggressive, pro-intervention U.S foreign policy.

Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq and author of the Informed Comment blog, says the power of the U.S military has been reduced by the protracted conflict in Iraq, limiting U.S. influence in a variety of ways – a reality that supporters of the war have had to accept.

"Were threats to U.S. or international interests to emerge elsewhere," said Cole, "the United States would be largely unable to exert further military influence."

The result is a transformed academic discussion on university campuses.

The argument that an Iraq invasion would be an effective means of stemming transnational terrorism and spreading democracy across the region has given way to a debate focused more on the implications of continued U.S engagement on broader American foreign policy issues, notably the threat from Iran and unfinished business in Afghanistan.

Here, conservative voices are now concentrating on a more moderate set of priorities, arguing that a U.S withdrawal would be fateful to the country’s wider interests – but significantly, avoiding the claims of Middle East transformation trumpeted so loudly in support of the initial invasion.

"I do think the U.S. has constrained itself by its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least towards Iran," said Mark Clark, president of the conservative Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. "On the other hand, a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq will embolden Iran and encourage Arab regimes to make their accommodations with Iran rather than to limit it."

In truth though, even here Iraq is fading from the academic attention span.

Afghanistan has now replaced Iraq as the key issue dominating American foreign policy, and Iraqi specialists themselves are switching their attention to remain relevant to the debate.

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