Politics & Policy

Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part III

And now for the third installment — the third part of these notes from “Davos in the Desert,” which is to say, the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. We are in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt — and for Parts I and II, go here and here.

Where were we? Back in Part I, I talked about Bush’s speech, and the reaction to it. I’d like to add a couple of further notes — of a minor nature.

In his opening acknowledgments, Bush said, “I want to thank President and Mrs. Mubarak for their wonderful hospitality. I want to thank the members of Congress who are here. I appreciate the heads of state who have joined us. I thank the foreign ministers who are here,” etc.

I appreciate the heads of state. Bush says that, often: “I appreciate.” He means, “I approve of you, I understand you, I like you, I hail you, I thank you” — all of that, or bits of it. That may be unique to Bush; or it may be a West Texas thing.

Do you remember Don Evans, Bush’s friend from Midland who was chairman of the 2000 campaign and later commerce secretary? Back in that first campaign, he’d say that too: “’preciate you.” Kind of a nice expression.

A word on pronunciation? We all know about “nuke-u-lar” — that is a longstanding American variant pronunciation. At least two other presidents used it: Carter and Eisenhower. (And Carter was a nuclear engineer, remember.) I suspect Johnson too, but am not sure about that.

He doesn’t use the word “nuclear” in the Daisy Commercial, does he? (Most damnable thing in world history.)

Anyway, Bush pronounces “accession” “assession” — like millions of other Americans. These are the same folks who say “assessible” for “accessible.” I expect that someday these will be acceptable, if variant, pronunciations.

But isn’t it interesting that no one pronounces “access” “assess” (which is a different word altogether)? (So are “assession” and “assessable.”)

But you did not come here, probably, for a language column. There was one part of President Bush’s speech I think I disagree with, and I know I hesitate on. We have discussed this before. Bush said,

And we’ll continue to work to expand educational exchanges, because we benefit from the contribution of foreign students who study in America, because we’re proud to train the world’s leaders of tomorrow, and because we know there is no better antidote to the propaganda of our enemies than firsthand experience with life in the United States of America.

Like everyone, I suppose, I was born a big believer in student exchanges: They get to know you better; you get to know them better. Everyone benefits. Suspicions and animosities melt away. The world comes closer together.

In recent years, I have changed my mind a bit — or I at least have begun to doubt. You? I have talked to many people involved in student exchanges, and some of their testimony is: The Arab students leave harder than when they arrived. I have heard plenty of anecdotes along these lines. How you do a proper, foolproof study, I’m not sure.

Think of the terrorists you read about — who studied and worked and frolicked in the West. Familiarity can stoke resentment, not lessen it. I realize these people are a small minority, but . . .

And do you remember that “peace camp” — a summer camp — for Palestinian and Israeli kids? It was in America, far from the Middle East. And I believe the camp had to be closed or suspended, because the Palestinian kids . . . well, there just wasn’t a lot of joy, harmony, and love.

Look, I don’t know. I am certainly not ready to dump student exchanges. My original liberal faith has not been completely stamped out. But I am certainly less starry-eyed than I once was, and I suspect this may be true of you, too.

Another thought occurred to me as I was listening to Bush’s speech: He went on about the Palestinians and how they deserve a state of their own — a better life all around. He is, of course, the first American president to call for an independent Palestinian state — to incorporate such a call into U.S. policy. He talks about a Palestinian state all the time.

But does he ever get any credit for it? Then again, is giving Bush credit for something legal?

‐I fall in with a group of European journalists who work in Cairo. They are very down on President Bush’s speech at this conference. And they are very down on Bush generally. Of course, they assume I think he’s awful too. How could anyone without horns and a tail think otherwise?

One of them says, “Does he have some kind of speech impediment? I thought I heard a lisp or some other defect.” Another says, laughingly, “And he pretended to know something about Egyptian history! Bush does not even write his own speeches. He has speechwriters.”

This is all quite puzzling. First of all, on the subject of pretending to know history: All Bush said was, “We respect your remarkable history. And we’re humbled to walk in the ancient land of pharaohs, where a great civilization took root and wrote some of the first chapters in the epic story of humanity.”

Before Bush spoke, Hosni Mubarak gave a speech, and so did King Abdullah of Jordan. Mubarak opened with a little discourse on the history of the Sinai. Did that knowledge come from his own schoolboy readings? And do Mubarak and King Abdullah do without speechwriters? You think they sit down and compose these elegant things?

I am continually amazed that dictators and monarchs can attract more respect than elected democrats — among Western liberals, I mean.

One of the journalists asks, “Why did it take the American people so long to wake up about President Bush and his Middle East policy? Why did it take so long for them to turn against him? I mean, after 9/11, everyone went along — even the media and the intellectuals. Even the New York Times. You people reelected Bush in 2004. Why did it take everyone so long to see the light and turn against Bush?”

And so on.

Then the subject is Obama and Hillary: “She is more blindly pro-Israel,” says our journalist friend. “He is more independent.” Or rather, he was: “Lately, the Jewish lobby has come down on him, and he’s had to toe the line. He has become flatly pro-Israel, like the rest of them. Do you think there will be much change under a President Obama? Will he have any freedom of action, or will the Jewish lobby prevent it?”

And so on, and so on. I do what I can. There’s a lot more to tell, but you’ve heard plenty, I know.

‐Come with me to see Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan. As usual, he is dapper, elegant, and urbane — and relaxed, engaging, and voluble. I mention the discussion we had last January, in Switzerland. At that time, he said he and his son watched Last of the Summer Wine, a British television show.

Oh, yes, they like that show very much, he confirms. And then he goes on to describe it, in an eloquent, even beautiful, way. The man could be an arts critic (and other things).

Here in Sharm, he has just met with President Bush, and says they had a good talk. I ask, “So, how goes the struggle?” This is a familiar American expression, or at any rate a familiar English-language expression. My friend and colleague Mike Potemra uses it often: instead of “How are you?” “How goes the struggle?”

Karzai reflects for a moment and says, “‘Struggle’ is exactly the word. It is very hard. But we are doing it every day.”

In the course of his remarks, he says that outside aid is a danger — sometimes a necessity, of course, but a danger. You can grow dependent on it. You can fail to do things yourself. I think, “This is true both for a nation and for an individual.”

And a funny moment occurs: An aide takes Karzai’s coffee away, I think to add milk to it or something. And Karzai says, “See? Here is wastefulness in government.” Whatever the man is doing, the president could be doing himself. Or the effort is being duplicated. Or something. In any case, this is a funny moment, as I’ve said.

I say, “There is a lot of contempt for President Bush expressed at conferences like this. What is your opinion of him?” Karzai says that he, along with Afghanistan at large, has nothing but “respect, admiration, and praise” for him. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, Afghanistan has been reborn, in the time of George W. Bush. Still, Karzai makes a moving statement.

He says that, without American action, Afghanistan would be “the most miserable nation on earth — the poorest, the hungriest, the most suffering.” But, thanks to that action, the country has a new life. Decency, health, and material supply have been restored. Afghan identity has been “recovered and revived.” And “we are extremely grateful. The Afghans owe George Bush and the United States a lot.”

He says that people don’t know enough about Afghanistan pre-Autumn 2001. They forget, or never knew, how desperate it was — how persecuted it was. Karzai gives a detailed reminding.

Later, I ask a different question: “Is al Qaeda gaining strength or losing strength?” Just a few days ago, Candidate Obama made a statement that shocked me. He said, “Al Qaeda’s leadership is stronger than ever.” I’m not sure what he means by “leadership.”

In any event, Karzai says, “They are losing, definitely losing. Definitely losing.” You read about “spectacular attacks,” particularly from suiciders. But this is a sign of the terrorists’ very weakness: They lack conventional resources, and they lack manpower. Their popularity is ebbing away.

They themselves gripe about this, in their internal memoranda and lectures to the Muslim world.

Another journalist asks Karzai whether he has any fear for his life (which is threatened all the time). “None!” Karzai says. “None!” He has confidence in his security, and confidence in general, it seems. I don’t know whether anything could shake his serenity and cheer.

Toward the end of the session, I ask yet another question. It goes something like this: “Some say that the American occupation of Afghanistan is a good occupation, and that the American occupation of Iraq is a bad occupation. Others say, they are essentially the same: The Americans are helping Afghan society against its predators, and they are helping Iraqi society against its. What do you say?”

Karzai ignores Iraq entirely (which, in my experience, is uncharacteristic of him, because he is very frank and direct). But he reiterates what America has done for Afghanistan. America has given that nation “more than we could have dreamed of,” he says. Repeating himself, he says, “You can’t imagine what Afghanistan was,” and then he recites statistics: which placed Afghanistan at the bottom of the world.

There was only one TV station, he notes — government-run — and “it was a bad one. It’s still a bad one!” Now there are 14 or 16 of them, privately owned, and there are hundreds of newspapers.

He says that Afghanistan must work diligently to take advantage of these waves of help, “because we will not get this opportunity again, not in our wildest dreams.”

On the subject of Bush, one of the journalists teases him a little. He says, “You’re the only one who supports him.” Karzai responds that he doesn’t care — he’s not going to criticize someone just because others do; he will not “jump on a bandwagon.” “Others can say what they have to say. I have my own opinion. And my judgment is one of praise and recognition.”

He even allows that he has argued with U.S. senators over Bush, irritating them. I can just see it!


‐A World Economic Forum meeting is supposed to be relatively informal — no ties. (That’s the main informality.) But the Middle Easterners, in general, are reluctant to play ball. They tend to be in suits and ties. And the ones in flowing Gulf robes look the coolest — in both senses.

‐The relations of Arab media to Arab governments are interesting to behold. They are, let us say, more respectful than such relations elsewhere. Sam Donaldson is not screaming over a sultan’s chopper.

‐Security at these Middle East conferences is tight, tight. You’re in a shuttle van, say, and it gets swept every 100 yards. (I exaggerate, a bit.) The tightest screening I ever encountered was here in Sharm El Sheikh, two years ago. I could not get through that security doorframe — or whatever it’s called — without beeps. I removed everything; I was practically naked. Finally, I took off my glasses — and it was my glasses that had set off the alarm.

This year — glasses are no problem. In fact, things in general seem a bit looser. Still, I should have brought contacts, just in case.

‐A party is held at the Four Seasons resort, and the setting is amazing. It is night. A full moon shines, the Red Sea shimmers, palm trees sway a bit. The resort’s colored lights decorate a few of those trees. There is gentle, catching Middle Eastern music playing.

Honestly, it is a movie set, something out of one of Cecil B. DeMille’s more exotic productions. Unreal. I expect Dorothy Lamour to slink up to me at any moment. It doesn’t happen.

The Four Seasons has a bit of grass — I don’t mean dope, I mean a lawn. And an American who has lived here in the Middle East for a few years remarks how unusual that is: grass under your feet, as though on a golf course.

They think of everything, these Four Seasons people.

‐This is not a regular Impromptus column, but I sneaked in a language note (or two), up top. Let me conclude this installment with another one. In the second paragraph, I said, “I’d like to add a couple of further notes — of a minor nature.” Can you add further notes? Aren’t any additional notes further ones?

Hmm . . .

Hope to see you tomorrow, for Part IV.


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