January 7, 2008, 03:55 PM ET
America and the Middle East
I am now in Beirut, one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world, though of course one cannot forget what the city has endured over the past generation. I am at the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus, right on the Mediterranean, and quite untouched by the war of summer, 2006 — although a lighthouse just off the shore was destroyed then by bombs. I am here as a member of the International Advisory Committee of the new Center for American Studies in the Arab Region (CASAR), which I have been advising ever since it was set up on the basis of a gift from the Saudi philanthropist, Prince Alawaleed Bin Tala Bin Abulaziz Alsaud (a mouthful, I know) in 2003. The Prince has also funded an American Studies center at the American University of Cairo, and centers on Arab Studies at Harvard and Georgetown in the States. The project is fascinating in this region — how does one appropriately teach Lebanese students (and the Beirut community) about the United States in the post 9/11 era? Not so clear. Nor is it in any case clear what American Studies means outside of the United States. The AUB center focuses, sensibly I believe, on relations between the U.S. and the Arab region, but even so the subject is clearly fraught with tensions and difficulties.
I am also here because CASAR is sponsoring a major conference on American Studies, under the rubric of “Liberty and Justice: America and the Middle East.” The conference began with a panel of the International Advisory Committee, each of us speaking to the theme of the U.S., liberty and justice, and the region. We are an interesting and diverse group, mainly Americans: Djelal Kadir (Comp Lit, Penn State), Melani McAlister (American Studies, George Washington), Scott Lucas (an American who runs an American Studies center at Birmingham University in the U.K.), Amy Kaplan (American Studies, Penn — who is the final keynoter and was not on this panel), and Rami Khouri (a Palestinian journalist who now runs an international affairs center at AUB). Too many interesting things were said for me to summarize them. But I think my colleagues would understand if I said that Rami Khouri was the most interesting of the speakers. He tried to explain that the issues (like “liberty and justice”) that understandably concern the U.S. are not the most urgent issues in the Middle East. These he (in part) summarized as the need for a concept of self-validating statehood, security, identity, legitimacy, basic sovereignty, basic needs, democracy and good governance, and human dignity. A pretty urgent and impressive list. He is a very impressive man, by the way — a proud graduate of Syracuse University.
I tried to compare the international interventions of Woodrow Wilson and FDR to those of George Bush, with the theme that American international idealism always gets mugged by the realities of the international world. But I will not bore you with more. Suffice it to say that I am here to learn, and if I keep learning at the current way, I will leave Beirut on Thursday a considerably wiser person. Stay tuned.