18 January 2007

Sometimes you have to put up a fence to protect Democracy

Today David Hale, US ambassador to Jordan, came and spoke to the Americans about politics and policy. Again I was privileged to be asked to sit in.

The Ambassador talked for about 30 minutes about the Important Vision (TM) that Bush has for the Middle East. This vision, seemingly centered on liberal economic policies, also includes stuff about democratization and freedom. Jordan is in an interesting position right now since the King seems intent on pursuing liberal economic policies along side a parliament that is anti-liberal. The Ambassador talked about the ways in which the estimated 4 million dollars in foreign aid to Jordan is spent. Many of the programs seemed like good and benevolent things on the surface. Examples included training for promising women political candidates (from all parties including the Islamic Action Front) to help them run for office. There is a program here to encourage “young would-be entrepreneurs” to develop English skills and business savvy. Of course, the US also builds “health clinics” here and there for good (public) measure.

The Ambassador, while generous with his time, spoke like Tony Snow, or any other government representative who is well-versed with his talking points. His explanations of the politics here were so vague as to be meaningless. To say something like, “The Middle East is at a cross roads and faces great challenges,” still doesn’t actually impart information. As I sat in this talk I kept imagining Dr. Evil say, “Throw me a fricken’ bone here people!” The Ambassador talked about Rice’s visit last week, including to Jordan, where she acknowledged, as did Bush, that “…errors have been made in Iraq, and we’re pursing a course correction.” I should acknowledge, of course, that this man has this job because he is a professional at talking without saying anything, and that there is probably no other way to do this job. Still, I find this crap annoying. I was becoming pretty upset in the talk; I could feel my heart pounding in my throat.

I wasn’t the only one. When the Ambassador was done talking about how generous America is with Jordan, he opened it up for a discussion, and certainly he knew what was coming from a room full of academics. One of the first questions came from a Jordanian woman who has (I think) been a liaison between the Americans and the Jordanian community. She taught at a University in America for one year, and she traveled to Washington D.C. during her time in the States. She told us that visiting the National Mall and seeing war memorial after war memorial made her really sad. She wondered not only how many more war memorials Americans are going to build, and ultimately what it the purpose of war. She was choked up; the question about world violence clearly came from the heart. The Ambassador rightly skirted the large question about Why there is war. He talked about the awful necessity of conflict used to achieve peaceful ends. I still think the killing-people-to-make-them-peaceful argument should be mocked. It reminds me of a quote I saw about a year ago in the L.A. Times: “After leveling city, government tries to rebuild trust.” But, then again, as one of my favorite blog commenters once said, my basement is furnished with both the dustbin of history and the fax machine of dialectical inevitability.

Another question pertained to the individual interactions Americans will have with Jordanians when they visit this country. The academic confided to us that she would go home feeling like she forged connections with people that are sincere and friendly, but that there is such a huge gap between the ways that Americans [can] reach out to Jordanians and the way our government reaches out to Jordanians. In other words, thanks for the lip service, but seriously why is there such a disconnect between the way rational Americans would interact with the Arab world and the way our state actually interacts with the Arab world. I feel this burden perhaps better than most in the room who have only been here for three weeks. If America is supposed to promote Democratic Values (what ever that means) why is there a big-ass wall around our embassy. Do other embassies in Amman have as many tanks parked outside as my embassy? This is addressed by appealing to fear of the unknown. There are bad men out there who want to do unspeakably bad things to Americans, and we have to defend ourselves.

Along those lines, the Ambassador asked us if any of us think that we are safer (or at least as safe) if Iran has nuclear weapons. Putting aside for the moment that the US built the refining facilities that we now regret building during the Cold War in Iran, I didn’t take his question as jest or rhetoric. I can’t help but reflect on the real and measurable moves Bush has made that really do put my life in jeopardy. I am thinking about things ranging from weakening the EPA (and thus exposing me to more toxins) to foreign policy decisions that were clearly motivated by greed and hate. I think there is a false assumption that my own State acts in my interests more than other states possibly could. Given also my personal belief that Israel is the terrorist threat in this region, I’m just curious why the same American conservatives who tend to argue that an armed society is a polite society are arguing for disproportionate weapon distribution. Add to this that I am apparently supposed to believe that war brings about peace. Why would we hasten the arrival of peace?

Another person asked the Ambassador to “help me with some rhetoric here” regarding the things that Americans can honestly say to Arabs who want to know from us why our government does the things it does here. He addressed more of the programs that US funding underwrites. There really are a few good things happening here. But…

Then one of my favorite professors directly addressed the “seeming” double standard the US applies to Israel and, say, Hamas, or Hezbollah. The discussion heated up from here out. The Ambassador said that comparison of Israel and Hamas is not fair because it is a false analogy, though he conceded that Hamas was fairly and democratically elected. He also acknowledged that America’s relationship with Israel is “…not objective.” Favorite Prof talked about what he called Politics with a “big P” and politics with a “little p,” essentially arguing that we say one thing and do quite another with regard to Israel and what we permit. The Ambassador argued that Israel is in a unique position in terms of feeling the full impact of terrorism, and that because their security is not stable they should have the right to be disproportionately armed. Favorite prof countered, correctly, that by the Ambassador’s criteria Iraq should be entitled to nukes at this point. “Israel is different,” countered the Ambassador. Further, he said that Hamas is controlled by Iran, and obviously Hezbollah receives a tremendous amount of funding from the same. “Israel is our partner,” and they are entitled to a different set of rules, or they are entitled to break the existing set of rules. The Ambassador told us that Israel is making real strides to demonstrate their willingness to work with the Palestinians. For example, he told us, they pulled out of Gaza. Well all chortled. Did he really just say that?!? He said, “Well, they did!” Then favorite prof said, “There are daily incursions,” not to mention that the borders are shut down and not under Palestinian control (including the border between Gaza and Egypt). Seeing that this was going no where, another professor asked the Ambassador to define what he meant when he said that the US and Israel are Partners. By this he means that we share Common Values (TM) and we heart democracy. Blah blah blah.

What I’m still wondering after listening to Prince Hassan yesterday, and David Hale today is this: does the Arab World (who ever that includes) truly need to suck it up and get along with Israel? And, if not, is the only alternative to illegal occupation and gross human rights violations unending blood-shed? What nation of people would not fight occupation? One taxi driver in Amman asked me last month: “Would you put up with going to the French embassy to get a visa to visit America?” Probably not, yet the policy makers in the Middle East would have this man go to the Israeli embassy to (possibly) get a visa to visit Palestine, his own land! I’ve never been a fan of dichotomous thinking, and I’m not yet convinced that there are only two options here: make peace, or get killed.

The Ambassador was kind and patient with our emotional questions. No one in the room was content with his talking points, and he took that well. The Americans go home tomorrow, and they will be missed. I have enjoyed benefiting from the speaker series, and I have enjoyed their company.

Tonight I’m going down town with S and J and S’s visiting friend from Dana-stan. I will pick up the first two seasons of Carnivále, also from HBO, to binge on this weekend. I ordered the second season of Deadwood too.


Blogger Miss Carousel said...

your report on this talk and Q&A is *priceless.*

thanks, lady.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

You asked why is "there such a disconnect between the way rational Americans would interact with the Arab world and the way our state actually interacts with the Arab world."

It was a rhetorical question, but it makes me realize that The State is no longer the only implement of foreign relations. Increasingly, individuals and Non-Governmental Organizations are trying to bridge that disconnect between increasingly ineffective states by forging their own foreign relations.

Whether it's scholars on brief educational trips, or individuals studying abroad, we are realizing, even if not yet admitting, that there may be better ways than government-to-government relations for us to understand each other.

8:09 PM  

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