Last night (Tuesday, September 12)I took part in a debate sponsored by The Donald & Paula Smith Family Foundation on the following issue: Responding to Anti-Americanism in the Arab World: Have We Been Effective Since 9/11? The debate took place in Manhattan, at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York on Fifth Avenue. I was suppposed to represent the libertarian/non-interventionist position. David Frum, from the American Enterprise Institute was invited to present the neoconservative view, while Craig Charney, President of Charney Research which studies Arab attitudes towards the United States provided a more centrist perspective. We had a good audience of about 200 people and there were some provocative question. The debate was heated but civilized and extended into a dinner. Here are some of my opening remarks which give you an idea about my line:
I remember landing in New York City for the first time about thirty years ago, and then driving into Manhattan and gazing at the majestic beauty of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers. For me they were symbols of New York and what it represented: The energy and excitement of its people, commerce and culture.
In 1977, when I got to New York, there was a lot of excitement in the city. On Broadway, the hit, A Chorus Line was playing. There was Studio 54 and the launching of a new television show, Saturday Night Live. John Travolta was doing the disco on Saturday Night Fever and everyone was wearing polyester suits. And there was… Woody Allen.
For me – personally, and for many members of my generation – Americans and non-Americans -- the movie producer and actor Woody Allen and his artistic energy and sense of humor was and continues to personify that New York that I love and its great spirit.
So I was not surprised a few weeks after 9/11 to read in the New Yorker an interview with an Iranian woman by the name of Ava who was in love with America and who told the writer Joe Klein how devastated she felt watching the images from New York on 9/11:
"Do you want to know what I was really worried about? Woody Allen. I didn't want him to die. I wanted to know that he was all right. I love his films."
Now… since 9/11 America has lost Ava from Tehran -- she lost that loving feeling towards the United States -- as well as the hearts and minds of most Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Turks and many, many others in the Middle East and around the world.
My guess is that Ava remains a fan of Woody Allen. Who knows? Perhaps Osama bin Ladin --- hiding in a cave in Pakistan -- is watching Annie Hall on his plasma television screen and enjoying that unique New York Jewish humor…
But it’s not about Woody Allen. It’s not about the Way We Were in 1977 or in 1991. It’s not about – to quote President Bush -- Who We Are. It’s About the Policy, Stupid! In this case, it’s about U.S. Policy in the Middle East.
Many Americans – reflecting the sense of American Exceptionalism – assume that if they punish other nations, invade other people, and bomb other countries, well, that’s something special. After all, we Americans are good people. Our intentions are benign. Our values are unique. It really hurts us when we have to do all that “collateral damage” here and there. But, hey, unlike the Romans, the French, the Brits, the Germans, we mean well.
In the real world nations use their diplomatic and military power – their policies --- to advance their interests. And sometimes nations go to war. They punish other nations, invade other people and bomb other countries. And guess what? Those other nations tend to get angry.
These are some of the high costs of war, which explains why most nations go to war but only as a last resort. And this International Relations 101 applies also to the United States.
Frum rejected the notion that U.S. policies are responsible for Arab and Middle Eastern attitudes (Turkey is today one of the most anti-American countries) and argued that these sentiments reflect the deep-rooted anti-Western disposition of contemporary Moslem societies and would not change even if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, etc. Charney argued that it's both policies and political culture and that America needs a more effective PR tools to spread its positive message. I was surprised a bit that Frum insisted that he doesn't share the neoconservative/Bush agenda of "transforming" the Middle East, Freedom is on the March, etc. and that his only focus is on the need to advance U.S. national interests in the Middle East. Are we to expect more splits among the neoconservatives?
In any case, I had a lot of fun and would like to thank Donald Paula Smith for their generosity as well as all those who help organize the event.