Get Thee to Swarthmore

A former Bush administration official who supported the start of the Iraq War shouldn't shy away from speaking at his alma mater.

By + More
World Bank President Robert Zoellick delivers remarks on the changing world economy, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011, at George Washington University in Washington.

Poor Robert Zoellick's thin skin is showing this graduation season. 

How sad to lack the courage of one's convictions when young people are stepping out into the sun and discourse of democracy. The noise of one college's dissent caused this prominent Bush administration alum to run and hide away from his invitation for a day in May. 

And we're not even talking about students taking to the streets like the old days. Rather, it was a protest in the ether.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Zoellick, present in the room and at the scene of starting the Iraq War, is wounded from a wave of criticism from a peace-loving liberal arts college in greater Philadelphia. Swarthmore College, have you heard of it? It so happens he graduated from this liberal piece of paradise in the 1970s, just when Bruce Springsteen made landfall there and sang in the amphitheatre. I'm sure he was studying at the time, since he seems to have a talent for missing good things under those trees. 

The Washington powerhouse, until recently head of the World Bank, had agreed to accept an honorary degree at the Swarthmore College graduation, always a sylvan affair set in the woods in the Greek amphitheatre, surrounded by a fragrant forest in spring. Then he withdrew in anger after some students started a campaign on Facebook asserting he was an architect of the Iraq war. In fairness, that may be overstating it, but Zoellick supported the invasion. He was a good team player.  

I am not saying he is a war criminal, as his harshest critics are. But he is implicated in the tragic violence that will never be washed from the nation's hands. That's the price he pays for being one of the president's men.  

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the U.S. Withdraw from Iraq Too Soon?]

Swarthmore College is a co-ed Quaker-founded institution, from which I graduated in the 1980s. The president, Rebecca Chopp, is a lively soul; I know and admire her. Inviting Zoellick in the first place to be honored is a questionable call for the college's character and history. I am surprised she hasn't conceded that point.  

Even if Zoellick had the entire gathering of 350 seniors and their families, the faculty and other honorees arrayed against him in a chorus of skepticism, he should go and be more of a sport. Speaking his piece, defending his stance is something he might remember from the intensity of honors seminars. He could reach out to the other side of spectrum and accept responsibility; personal face-to-face explanations are how healing and reconciliation begin in any divided community or country. 

Here was such a singular opportunity that Zoellick, said to have a short fuse, blew. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: 10 Years Later, Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

I wonder if he ever knew the "backstory" of the beautiful green and gray campus we share in common. The Quakers, a.k.a. Friends, practically invented civil disobedience and laid tracks of the Underground Railroad with their safe houses on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. When the Civil War broke out, however, they bowed out. As pacifists, they refused to support arms and violence even for the righteous Union cause. So that is why a group of Baltimore and Philadelphia Friends founded Swarthmore College in 1864.

That's a century and a half ago, and we haven't caught up with those worthy souls yet. They might say to Zoellick: "Get thee to Swarthmore!"  

  • Read Mary Kate Cary: 5 Women Who Should Join Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore at Augusta National
  • Read Brian Walsh: Democrats Bedevil Obama Gun Control Efforts
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad