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Duke students debate foreign policy

As most people have their eyes turned to the presidential race this fall, some students will be doing more than simply watching the campaign season debates-they will be participating in one.

Peter Feaver's 16-member class, "Special Topics in American Foreign Politics," will host two debates-one involving the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations and another involving students-to discuss the foreign policy issues of this year's campaign.

"We've been wanting to do a campaign foreign policy proxy debate for some time now," said Feaver, an associate professor of political science. "We've finally figured out how to do it with the Committee on Foreign Relations."

The Oct. 10 VIP debate, at 2 p.m., will pit Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Bruce Jentleson, foreign policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore, against Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Dov Zakheim, CEO of the SPC International Corporation. Reed and Jentleson will present the Democrats' argument, and their opponents will provide the Republican side. Dana Preist, defense and Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post, will moderate.

At 7 p.m., the students will give it a go, with half of Feaver's class representing Democratic arguments and the other half portraying Republican points.

"It will be a serious debate about sophisticated issues," said Jentleson, who is also director of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. "The tone will be one of serious political dialogue, not a political food fight."

Over the summer, Feaver worked to make a deal with the CFR to bring a debate to campus. In the end, they agreed that CFR would offer a VIP debate on the condition that Duke would set up a student debate.

Feaver jumped at the offer, but found that students could not commit significant time to this endeavor unless they received class credit.

So, he created the class.

"The purpose is to promote more student awareness in foreign politics.... I'm trying to teach students about how foreign policy issues play out in the campaign," Feaver said. "By debating candidates' positions, we learn a lot about the foreign relations problems we face."

The class has a heavy real-world aspect to it, and students agree that they will benefit from this. "In this class you're learning about present-day, real-world stuff... it's not just theory, it's application too," senior Matt Corley said.

In preparation for the show-down, the students must heavily research foreign policy issues-including those regarding the Middle East, Russia and China. "I feel like I'm learning a lot...," said graduate student Eric Sapp , a student in the class. "Preparing for the debate forces you to look at the issues from a national perspective."

But Feaver said the looming competition creates an interesting and sometimes uneasy classroom dynamic: Students hesitate to speak up in class because they do not want to share too much information with their future opponents. And Corley admitted that students are focusing their efforts on a successful debate.

"We're a bunch of competitive people who all want to do well in the debate," he said. "But it's not hurting the class any. We'll play dumb sometimes just to ask and find out more about the other side."

Irina Faskionoz, the CFR's debate coordinator, said the committee is bringing this program to four other schools-Georgia State, Georgetown, Michigan State, and Columbia universities. "We're organizing this Campaign 2000 initiative as part of an effort to get a dialogue [of foreign policy issues] going on campuses," Faskionoz said.

The class will have the opportunity to travel to New York City to meet with CFR experts. During a day of briefings on specific issues, Feaver hopes the students will get "a defined level of feedback that they wouldn't get just from readings."

After the debate takes place, the last part of the course will shift its focus. The students will be required to write an advisory memo discussing what the debates revealed as the best policies to focus on in the race.

"One of the themes is the policy versus politics," Feaver said. "Sometimes positions make for good politics, but don't make for good policy and vice versa."


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