Politics & Policy

Davos in Jordan, Part Ii

Welcome to Part II, of this Davos-in-Jordan journal. Just to refresh you: The World Economic Forum holds a mini-meeting at the Dead Sea, in the month of May. This is to concentrate on the Middle East, and to “seize the moment”–to take advantage of the healthful disruptions that President Bush has started. (They don’t put it that way, for sure–but “Seize the moment” is the WEF’s Middle Eastern motto.) Part I of these scribbles may be found here.

Where were we? Talking about some semi-miraculous Iraqis, I believe–and the other Middle Easterners who oppose them, or wish them less than well. But I want to start with something light-ish, cultural.

In the first installment, I mentioned the pictures of King Abdullah, which are ubiquitous. You see them wherever you turn: in the major hotels, of course; and in buses, next to the driver; and in shops throughout the country. This is just a little creepy, for a democrat, and makes you think that the country is not quite free. I mean, if the “dear leader” has to be shown everywhere . . .

Frankly, I had a similar objection when I started as an intern in Washington, D.C. I was somewhat appalled to see that the president’s picture was everywhere: in all the governmental offices (usually along with the vice president’s picture). (And in this period, this meant Reagan and Bush 41, although we didn’t know to call him 41 at the time.) Wasn’t this a little North Korean, a little Big Brotherish? To be truthful, I’m still a little bothered by all that photo-displaying.

But–as longtime Impromptus readers may recall–I was really scandalized by the “auto pen,” which signed constituent mail and other things. I was introduced to it in Senator Dole’s office, in which I interned.

(And, you know, when I say Senator Dole, I don’t mean Elizabeth–fine lady that she is.)

‐May I mention something about Queen Rania, King Abdullah’s wife? Am I allowed to say she’s a smokin’ hottie? Well, whether I’m allowed or not, she is–and that must be used to Jordan’s advantage. She has the potential to be the Middle Eastern Princess Di.

‐Robert Zoellick is here, representing the United States, and doing it with brio. He is the deputy secretary of state, having been trade representative in the first term. (He is a fixture in Republican administrations, once regarded as the protégé of James Baker. And he was a key, key player in the Florida post-election fight.) He will give a major speech, but first he meets with a small group of journalists.

Zoellick has the reputation of being very smart, very quick–and he does nothing to diminish that reputation in this session. He has distinctive hair, a comb-over to rival what Mayor Giuliani used to sport. He also has flying, bushy eyebrows, and his initials on his sleeve. (His heart, probably not.) And the second he opens his mouth, I figure him for a fellow Midwesterner. I hear it in the word “Palestinians,” whose “a,” in the first syllable, is straight from the homeland. I later confirm that he is an Illinoisian. And in his speech, he will pronounce “yours” “yers”–pure Midwest. Made me slightly homesick.

The deputy secretary is peripatetic, and he seems to have visited half the world in the last few days. If some people are name-droppers, he is a bit of a place-dropper: “I was in Papua New Guinea on Tuesday, and that reminded me of a conversation I had in Kazakhstan the day before.” All of it is interesting to hear. He says there is no substitute for going places and meeting people, dealing with them face to face, in their native habitats. That is a hallmark of his work, his diplomacy, he says, and it has paid off.

On the subject of Iraq, he tells us that the January election was huge. But the writing of the constitution will be huge, too. Every step is huge, along the democratic way–and the Iraqis are getting there, in a performance that the world ought to admire, even marvel at.

In Iraq, as elsewhere, Secretary Rice is carrying out the important tasks, he says. “I’m just a blue-collar worker”–a nice touch.

I ask him about Sudan, a subject in which I’ve been immersed of late. Zoellick has been there recently (of course). I note that, when I talk to people, they tend to say two things: Of course we can’t send troops–that’s out of the question. And we can’t permit genocide. “How does genocide in Darfur stop,” I ask, “without foreign intervention?”

“It doesn’t,” says Zoellick–a hugely relieving answer, because true. He goes on to talk about the beefing up of the African Union force, which is a pathetic group of soldiers on the ground. It is scheduled to get less pathetic in coming months. (But in genocide, as you know, time is of the essence.) And he says that he hopes Darfur will benefit from new governmental arrangements in the country at large, whereby regions have a certain autonomy, and so on. Zoellick’s answer is nothing for Darfurians to jump up and down about (provided they have the strength to jump up and down), but it’s clear that the deputy secretary knows exactly what the situation is, and what the options are.

Another journalist wants to talk about Lebanon: What is the U.S. doing about Lebanon, “leaving out the withdrawal of Syria”? Zoellick retorts, “That’s a big leaving-out. Geez, you can’t get credit for anything.” Marvelous comment.

He is asked the usual question–a smart question–about democracy: What if the Arab countries have elections, the way America wants, and the people elect Islamic parties? Well, says Zoellick, Islamic parties aren’t necessarily bad for democracy. For instance, “I was just in Malaysia, and . . .” The journalist interrupts to say, “No, the conservative parties.” “I don’t have anything against conservatives,” says Zoellick. “Some people say that I am a conservative.”

Throughout this conference, as before, I find that many people–critics of U.S. policy–confuse, or pretend to confuse, democracy with rank majoritarianism. No serious person, by “democracy,” means the ability of 51 percent of the people to oppress 49 percent. Come on–democracy is not mob rule, and it would be nice if people dropped this argumentative gambit. (Don’t wait up nights . . .)

Nevertheless, anyone who wishes to be reassured about American competence in high places would be delighted to meet Bob Zoellick.

‐He gives his speech in Plenary Hall, and it is a tough crowd. After all, a lot of these people are the very elites–the Old Guard–whose death knell he is sounding. Does a crowd want to hear its own death knell? Do you want your obituary read to you (especially if it’s not a very flattering one)?

Zoellick begins, “We are here in a time and spirit of transformation. For some, the metamorphosis is invigorating–a welcome ‘Arab Spring.’ For others, the changes are alive with possibilities, but also pose uncertainties. A number are confused. After all, how does one prepare for a future of unprecedented freedom? There are doubters, too, and even those whose opposition has hardened into enmity.”

Beautifully put.

He goes through a litany of changes: Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Kuwait (where women have just received the right to vote), Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco. “These are incredible events. This is a vital moment for the broader Middle East.”

He continues, “The pace of change is likely to spark resistance. There will be some who want to maintain the status quo or even drag the region back into a darkness that abhors modernity and tolerance. But as President Bush has said, ‘When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are–the future leaders of your free country.’”

Later on, Zoellick takes up this question of true democracy, or republicanism, if you like: “Countries need to create the framework within which people can build the public and private institutions of a civic democracy. The test of democracy is not just majority rule, but also minority rights and participation. The standard for democracy is not just the capability of the elected government, but also the quality of the free press, rights of assembly, and privacy protections outside the sphere of government.”

Zoellick’s entire speech is brilliant, bursting with truth, and I encourage you to read it all.

He ends with a homily on change:

Change, although exciting, can also be intimidating, even frightening. My country has a tradition of embracing change. The United States was settled by immigrants who risked great change to create a better future. New immigrants, including from the Mideast, continue to enrich America.

Our brief Constitution was drafted to permit adaptability and flexibility. Our economy has encouraged competition to foster dynamism. Our businesses, at least most of them, challenge old habits that add costs and reduce services.

But Americans can be troubled–even fearful–of change. We have our own inflexibilities, our structural rigidities, even our obstinate attitudes. So the differences between America and the broader Middle East, perhaps appearing large at first, may lessen under closer scrutiny. Together, we need to face the challenges of transformation. Together, we need to learn from one another and work with one another.

America will reach out to the countries of the Mideast as a respectful partner–for peace, development, democracy, and hope. We will celebrate your success, because it will be our good fortune, too.

That is the spirit of transformation we want to share with you.

The crowd’s applause? The very definition of tepid. In fact, it is almost not applause at all. The room is eerily quiet. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a speech receive such an awkward response. As far as I’m concerned, it damns the multitude in the auditorium.

Even Dick Cheney, at Davos, got more applause (but not nearly as much as Iran’s Khatami).

‐Couple of more cultural notes: Lots of smoking about, lots of cigarettes. One always finds that, outside the U.S. It’s still surprising, the first day or two.

Also–how many times have you heard me say this? “The pop music outside the U.S.–outside the West–is almost invariably better than ours.” And we can probably take out that “almost.”

Lotta, lotta male kissing about. And not discreet pecks, but serious smooching, complete with loud noises. Also–hand-holding. As with W. and his Saudi down at Crawford. Perfectly normal, y’all.

A quite trivial note: Remember pull tabs, the kind of thing we had on cans of pop–you pulled them out, then threw them on the ground, for people to step on, and for tires to get punctured by? Well, I hadn’t seen them in eons–and Jordan has them.

‐The king has invited us to dinner. The invitation reads as follows: “By order of His Majesty King Abdullah II, and on the occasion of the convening of the World Economic Forum, the Chief of the Royal Protocol has the honour to invite you to the Gala Dinner being held at King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center . . . at 20:00 hours.”

Naturally, I show. It’s just me, the king, the queen, and a thousand other people. The royal couple makes a grand entrance (having first descended by helicopter). Like everyone else, I stand when they come in–rubs up against my democratic sensibilities, but what the hell. “When in Rome . . .” An orchestra plays–Western classical music, not Middle Eastern fare–and, after dinner, fireworks go off. I think Handel’s Royal Fireworks music would be appropriate–but no such luck.

I should mention a video played after dinner, and before the fireworks, because it included a tribute to the late, assassinated Hariri, in Lebanon. As the veteran foreign editor next to me said, “The king has a message for Damascus.”

Do I have a message for you? Only that I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, for Part III.


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