Foreign affairs debate by UF’s Office of Public Policy Events draws 150 people

foreign affairs debate

The first in a series of debates hosted by the UF Office of Public Policy Events (Photo by UF/Matt Pendleton).

The U.S. war in Afghanistan, the conflict between Israel and Hamas, China’s expanding influence in the world, and the state of civil discourse on college campuses were among the issues discussed Tuesday during a debate by UF’s Office of Public Policy Events.  

The debate, attended by about 150 UF students, faculty, and staff, was the first in a series by the Office, which aims to advance democratic principles and civil discourse by bringing the campus community together to discuss contemporary public policy issues.

Moderated by third-year political science major Lucca Carlson, the debate between Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education Director William Inboden and Bob Graham Center for Public Service Director Matt Jacobs emphasized the nuance and complexity of geopolitical events and conflicts around the world.

Inboden, a history professor and national security strategist, has served in multiple government positions (including time on the National Security Council staff at the White House). He focuses his research on American foreign policy, the presidency, and history. Jacobs, an associate professor of U.S. and international history, focuses his research on U.S. and Middle East relations.

“If we can’t demonstrate civil discourse on a college campus, which is supposed to be an environment in which there are a lot of ideas shared and critiqued and analyzed, we can’t expect our students to practice it once they get off campus,” Jacobs said. “For me, it’s really critical that we model that behavior, that we provide opportunities to engage in civil discourse in the classroom and outside of the classroom, and that provides a better foundation for society going forward.”

On some subjects, Jacobs and Inboden agreed: the total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan diminishes America’s intelligence capabilities, and civil discourse is a foundational and necessary part of the value of a college education. Regarding the current conflict between Hamas and Israel, both acknowledged that Israel has a responsibility to respond to the horrific attack, and that the people of Israel and Gaza both deserve compassion (while Inboden added that Hamas should be defeated for its assault).

Jacobs and Inboden also diverged in significant ways. On Afghanistan, Jacobs said the war could be deemed a success only by the very narrow measures of disrupting al-Qaeda and eventually killing its leadership. He emphasized the secrecy of former President George W. Bush’s administration around private security contracts and the ultimate failure over 20 years to secure the country’s stability and democracy. 

Inboden, who agreed with portions of Jacobs’ argument, noted the role Afghanistan and the Taliban played in providing a safe haven for terrorists and the importance of destroying terrorist networks that might have otherwise deployed another attack on American soil.

“Every day and every night, in Washington and New York, for months afterward, we weren’t asking ourselves or wondering if we were going to get hit again; we were asking ourselves and wondering when we were going to get hit again…,” Inboden said, recalling being in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001, and noting how the smoke smoldered from the Pentagon for weeks. “It was bipartisan. We knew we can’t just play defense anymore. We can’t just wait to get hit again. We have to go on offense.” 

The debate closed with a question about the U.S.’s biggest foreign policy challenge, with both speakers noting China as a predominant concern.

Inboden said, “China is the biggest challenge, and I’ll put the challenge this way: How can the United States prevent China from achieving its goal of being the dominant hegemon in the international system and rewriting the rules according to Beijing's preferences? How can we stop them from doing that while avoiding a hot war? That’s a very difficult question.”

Jacobs agreed that China presents the greatest challenge from another state, but also stressed the need for creative diplomacy to address significant issues that extend beyond individual states (such as climate change and global health concerns).

Watch the video of the debate here.

Brittany Wise October 27, 2023