Protesters were lined up Thursday night to condemn the Ford School of Public Policy’s guest speaker John Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence, deputy secretary of state and currently a professor at Yale University.
Public Policy Prof. Melvyn Levitsky, who previously served terms as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Bulgaria, led the event, which discussed Negroponte’s work. Following the discussion, a vigil awaited Negroponte outside the Annenberg Auditorium to chastise Negroponte’s alleged crimes.
Negroponte served as an ambassador to Honduras, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines and the United Nations. The discussion was largely about Negroponte’s career and his leadership positions.
During the discussion, Negroponte said the United States often gets too involved in international issues, and said other nations are able to find stability on their own.
“Based on my experience in the foreign policy, I don’t think we’re too good at nation-building,” he said. “I don’t think we do that quite very well. I don’t think we are too good at regime change.”
Negroponte, ambassador to Iraq from May 2004 to 2005, questioned whether the invasion in Iraq happened too soon. He was also very critical of torture as a means of extracting information. He denied that there were covert torture centers while he was in Iraq and referred to Abu Ghraib — the prison in Iraq where members of the U.S. military and the CIA tortured inmates in 2003 and 2004 — as “a great humiliation and embarrassment to the United States.” He added that was not sanctioned by the government.
“If you want your troops to be treated properly under the Geneva Convention you better treat other people likewise,” he said.
Negroponte said his tenure in Honduras —from November 1981 until 1985 — was during a very turbulent period.
“Basically the term I like to use was Honduras was surrounded by trouble,” he said, referencing the conflicts in El Salvador and the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. “If Washington is divided about what to do, it really makes your job that much harder.”
Negroponte also discussed negotiations for the creation of the North America Free Trade Agreement, which began under President George H.W. Bush and were successfully concluded under President Bill Clinton in August 1993.
As the discussion concluded, students at the back of the auditorium invited other attendees to join the vigil to berate his alleged crimes.
According to the protesters, Negroponte arranged funding for militias and “brutal regimes” in Central America, participation in the creation of NAFTA that led thousands of Mexicans to poverty and used of death squads in Iraq.
The vigil was held outside the Annenberg Auditorium while Negroponte and the other guests stood a few feet away at the discussion’s conclusion.
Rackham student Geoff Hughes, who led the vigil, said Negroponte was trying to protect his reputation, reworking his interpretation of history during the discussion.
“If you look at his statements now he is either criminally negligent or he has basically changed his story in a very kind of cynical way,” Hughes said.
The demonstrators formed a circle and held papers with attacks aimed toward Negroponte. The group chanted “Death squads aren’t democracy,” and “War criminals are not welcome on campus.” The chants continued as Negroponte walked up the stairs and the group followed him. Demonstrators read names of dead in Iraq and those who perished in the El Mozote massacre in El Slavador.
“I wanted to shift the focus of the event on the victims and I think we were able to do that to some degree,” Hughes said.
Kevin Young, an academic affiliate who wrote a Viewpoint in The Michigan Daily criticizing the University’s invitation of Negroponte, said people may have been fooled by Thursday’s event if they had come into it without any previous familiarity with the subject.
“The thing that really struck me was just how cordial and friendly and congenial it was,” he said. “We didn’t really hear anything about the on-the-ground consequences of the policies over which John Negroponte presided. All the questions tended to focus on the kind of instrumental rationality behind policy.”
“We feel that in cases where officials have committed verifiable war crime on a large scale, as Mr. Negroponte has done, that they shouldn’t be invited to any respectable academic forum,” he said.
Rackham student Seema Singh was one of the two students who asked questions submitted by the crowd. Singh thought that this was a good opportunity to learn and was happy that Negroponte offered his perspective and experiences.
She added that the event allowed for freedom of opinion. She noted that there were no distinctions made with regard to the type of question, and that those chosen were mostly representative of the rest.
Laura K. Lee, director of communications and outreach at the Public Policy School, said the event was funded by donors, as all public events for the school are.