THE SPINE SEPTEMBER 17, 2006
The big, annual fall gabfest of the international set is upon us. The United Nations General Assembly convenes every year around this time, and heads of state and other political eminences converge on New York for ever-longer stretches of time. (The more desolate the country of origin, the longer the stay.) You can tell their arrival by the horrendous traffic and the literally dozens of motorcades on the Upper East Side, all escorted by the imported bodyguards, the local police, and the secret service. Sometimes streets where the visitors are staying are cut off entirely. Then, there are the hotels where the guests are staying, some of their governments paying hefty slices of the national income to pay the bills, usually for a retinue so patently inflated that one would be forgiven the thought that this visit is one of the rewards of service.
The presence of these visitors is a big boon to the Council on Foreign Relations, which used to be the old elite and is now the clubhouse for both strivers and deposed. Sheltered for many decades in an elegantly upgraded mansion, Pratt House on Park Avenue and 68th Street, the CFR is host to many of the presidents, premiers, and foreign ministers who have descended on the city. There are breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffees, non-eating functions, and maybe even private nightcaps. Some of these are open to all the members of the Council. The more exclusive are ... well, let's say, who gets to go is more selective, that is, selective as measured by the enormity of the invitees' wealth and sometimes the enormity of the invitees' intellectual authority. As, for example, you couldn't not invite Fouad Ajami, among the two or three most learned scholars on the Muslim world and particularly on its Shia orbit, to dinner if your honored guest were Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. To be sure, Ajami is also on the board of the Council. And, of course, he was invited. Would he have gone? It's my guess not. In any case, he teaches on Wednesday nights in Washington, and Wednesday is when the encounter is slated to occur.
Elie Wiesel was also invited. I heard about the event through a third person whom Elie had called to discuss it. Now, from the start, there is something obscene in inviting the iconic and sublimely eloquent emissary of the dead and the surviving victims of the Jewish catastrophe to dine with the world's most committed and eager anti-Semite. This entire affair is the creation of Richard Haass, the Council's president, a squeamish Jew himself and a foreign affairs analyst of no particular intellectual standing except with the likes of Brent Scowcroft and Casper Weinberger, now dead. But could he have made the decision to invite Ahmadinejad himself? No. Anybody but a fool would have grasped that many in the Council (and outside it, like me, who declined membership in it years ago) would think this invitation a moral outrage and an intellectual pretense.
I do not know the inner workings of the Council. But some matters are obvious. For example, Haass, who was a mid-east peace processor under the first President Bush, certainly would have needed the approval of the CFR's chair, Pete Peterson, who was Richard Nixon's secretary of commerce, which he apparently received. And also the consent of Carla Hills, George I's U.S. trade negatiator and the vice chair at the Council. Another vice chair is Robert Rubin, who many Council members hope will succeed Peterson. But he is averse to getting involved in controversy, as he showed when he allowed the Harvard Corporation to quite unceremoniously dump Larry Summers as president. The Ahmadinejad invitation will surely create some tensions in the organization. Some folk won't mind the invitation itself. They'll just resent not being asked to be at what might be the CFR's most controversial event in decades. By the way, the Council is giving their guest the extra courtesy, almost unheard of, of having their event at the Intercontinental, his hotel.
But already some have been heard to bristle at Haass's putting his middle finger up to the Bush administration and making the point, through this event, that he is still around. I know that neither my good friend Mort Zuckerman nor Ron Lauder are going, and not because of schedule reasons. Haass is apparently mystified by their behavior. Look, you or I may have feelings about whether Condi Rice should or should not deal with the likes of the Iranian president. But this social occasion is not a question of that sort. And please don't give me that crap about "freedom of speech." President Mahmoud has all the freedom to sound off he needs, and much more.
This is really about the Council's neutrality in foreign affairs. And, of course, being so contemporary, it behaves as if every one's narrative has equal claims to the truth and certainly to be heard. No, I believe you don't speak to everyone. If I had been Chamberlain, I would not have spoken with Hitler when he did. If he hadn't, the appeasement road would have been stopped in its own tracks. It was a political deed of great evil when the Duke of Windsor and Charles Lindbergh took tea together with the Führer, encouraging the very rationales of appeasement. Alright, I am not comparing Ahmadinejad with Hitler. Everybody gets spooked when you make the Hitler comparison. But think about it: Ahmadinejad has been much clearer in his intentions towards the Jews than Hitler was until deep into 1939, at least.
So I will ask: Would the Council have invited Goebbels into its inner sanctum salon? And, if yes, perhaps it would be that its officers deluded themselves into thinking, "a good conversation might persuade." This is nonsense, utter crap.
Let's imagine a deep question on Wednesday night at the Council fest in the Intercontinental. "Mr. President, when you said that you wanted to wipe Israel off the map, were you speaking strategically, or is your genocidal sentiment solely for domestic consumption?" Of course, some might argue with the president and even persuade themselves they had made some headway for reason. Poor fools.