Brandon McMahan & Linda Smith, Staff Writer & News Editor
Lawrence Wilkerson, visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, delivered an aggressive address last Thursday on relations between the U.S. and the Middle East in the 21st century, focusing on the situation in Iran.
Wilkerson, a U.S. Army veteran and the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005, centered on what he called the “regime-change policy” of the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic situation. Wilkerson was in town for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on that day. He strongly warned against taking a militant stance toward Iran, asserting that if “the bombs dropped on Tehran,” we could “expect to see … our European friends turning their backs on us.”
Wilkerson urged people to stand up and make their voices heard.
“Tell [your congressmen] that they don’t want war, that they want diplomacy to work and that they want a genuine diplomatic effort, not simply the oppressive sanctions in place today,” Wilkerson said, spending a significant amount of talk execrating the policies of the George W. Bush administration and deploring the corruption of Washington in general.
He outlined what a genuine diplomatic effort might look like: The U.S. would allow Iran to enrich uranium up to five percent and would ensure that it has a fair price-seller of enriched uranium for medical treatments; Iran would surrender any missile-making material in its possession, reveal how it hid the operation and comply with regular inspections. Wilkerson suggested suspending the current sanctions to allow Tehran to show international good will, but advocated a swift re-application of the sanctions if any conditions are not met.
Wilkerson, who according to history department chair Dr. Charles Sullivan wanted a “vigorous exchange,” received a reaction as mixed as his audience, 65 percent of which—by Sullivan’s estimation—were individuals unaffiliated with the UD community. His strongstatements were met with “That’s right!” from some, frustration and disappointment from others, and a variety of other reactions between those extremes.
“I was happy to see [the event] attracted a lot of people not typically associated with UD,” junior politics major James Petros said. “[However], I felt he was too inflammatory and political and wished he had been more academic,” said junior history major James Petros, noting how little time Wilkerson spent discussing actual policy.
Senior philosophy and economics double-major David Hernandez shared Petros’ disappointment.
“I thought … he was going to give a historical account of what has happened between Iran and the U.S. for the past century,” Hernandez said. “Instead, I got what seemed like a political rally from the late ’60s. The answer to the question, ‘Why we need not be enemies?’ was never even addressed.”
Several other students described the talk as a “political sermon.”
Sophomore Will Chavey echoed Hernandez.
“Overall I thought the lecture was very stimulating, but not as much academic as political. I’m happy that we had such a high-profile speaker at UD, but I think all of us there were a little bit taken aback at the type of atmosphere such a high profile speaker can create … It made for an interesting event, to say the least,” Chavey said.
Junior classics major Chris Burns thought that Wilkerson raised some “good points”–such as Wilkerson’s disapproval of America “policing the world”—but did not agree with all of the “personal views” that Wilkerson presented.
Some students, such as history major Mandy Marshall were confused by Wilkerson’s references, and left having learned little.
Senior Kelley Grant said the talk revealed her ignorance, an ignorance she now hopes to remedy.
Sullivan, who sponsored the talk, found that although the students that attended “comported themselves beautifully,” they didn’t participate in the “vigorous exchange” Wilkerson wanted. Noting that Wilkerson is “conservative” and “an observantly religious man,” Sullivan encouraged all to “not mistake [Wilkerson’s] point of departure.”
“If nothing else, his appearance on campus might encourage some discussion about what true ‘conservatism’ is,” Sullivan said. “In my opinion, one of the more salient points he made on Thursday evening is a point that I happened to have made with students before and a point that other American conservatives have long been making: What often passes in America today as ‘conservatism’ has more in common with Robespierre’s Jacobinism than with the great tradition that began with Burke.”
Wilkerson concluded with a call to action for this generation of students.
“We need young, bright minds going into national, but also state and local government positions,” Wilkerson said. “It’s time they get their government back.”
Louis Hannegan contributed reporting to this article.