I’m not a big fan of conferences.
There’s nothing more tedious than
sitting in a panel where the presentations have interesting titles but are
otherwise disappointing. Or listening to a speaker who may be very good but says
absolutely nothing you don’t know already.
However, sometimes you have
fascinating experiences which are not exactly on the agenda. Here are three from
a conference I attended in Prague a few years ago, each of which contains its
Incidentally, the events below weren’t off the record, but
names and some details have been omitted since this is about points, not
1. THE GERMAN parliamentarian was well-dressed, angry and
red in the face. He raised his voice in righteous indignation. Why, he
complained, were there a number of Israelis at the meeting but no
Obviously he thought that he had caught the Czech hosts in some
After he finished his somewhat insulting remarks
and sat down, one of the Czechs stood up and explained very politely
of Palestinians had been invited, all expenses paid, and had accepted
simply not shown up.
That’s something I’ve seen plenty of times.
lesson: Why get rewarded for deciding not to succeed? Hamas refuses to
peacefully, and then is rewarded for having committed aggression and
soundly defeated as a result (2008-2009). The same applies for Hizbullah
The Palestinian Authority refuses to make peace and then is rewarded for
suffering under an occupation it has the power to end when it so
RECENTLY, A reader made a startling suggestion that I think is a
brilliant insight. In this day when not only equal opportunity but equal
are supposedly supposed (yes, that double use is deliberate) to be
Israel is being “unfair” at doing so well socially and economically.
past decades, the failure of a nation to achieve democracy or prosperity
have been attributed to its own choices. That’s a good thing because its
can then realize their mistakes, correct them and succeed. Today,
failure is often attributed to being a victim of racism, imperialism and
Woody Allen allegedly said (it isn’t clear that he did) that 99
percent of life is showing up. Yes, indeed.
Showing up and performing
But in the counter-Calvinism of our time, material achievement is a
proof of damnation.
The development theory of the 1950s and ’60s focused
on how a country could achieve takeoff to progress and prosperity. It is
followed nowadays by China, South Korea and some others.
dominant view, at least in intellectual circles and among fashionable
and terrorists, is the idea that underdevelopment is not a result of
culture, society and bad choices but of imperialist exploitation.
reforming yourself, the object is to wage war and other struggles to get
West to hand over the loot. This leads to violence, social
political stagnation and failure.
But at least it is a popular,
2. THE POMPOUS American intellectual made a
stirring speech about how great things were going in Afghanistan, a
obviously knew nothing about. He was playing those Washington and
in which the lives of distant people are toyed with on the basis of book
learning and theories. The fact that this particular fool happened to be
conservative didn’t change anything in the usual pattern.
friend, who had been analyzing his own country for years and has seen,
as he put
it, half his family murdered by the communists and the other half
the Islamists, could take no more. He stood up and countered with facts
details. His talk was a devastating response. The police in Kabul
their barracks to deal with violence. The warlords were out of control.
official optimism, Afghanistan was still Afghanistan and American plans
A lesson: One would have thought that the arrogant fool
would have been forever silenced by the graphic demonstration that he
nothing and was speaking nonsense. Of course, such people are never
by that kind of humiliation.
I’ve heard and read him since saying similar
things. These “masters of the universe,” to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase –
historically on the right but nowadays much more common on the left –
about their egos and careers, not the lives being affected by their
Nevertheless, the experience provided a stirring example of
the difference between the real and fantasy worlds, between those who
those who blow hot air, between those who merely articulate their
desires and those who have the courage to speak the truth.
enough to ask “Guess who gets the bigger honors and rewards?” but not so
pessimistic or craven to stop trying to do what’s right.
3. IT’S ONE
thing to be a pacifist, but quite another to talk like a pacifist while
high-ranking official in the French Defense Ministry. The well-dressed,
and relatively young man was explaining how nothing was worth fighting
conflict had to be avoided at virtually any cost. Naturally, he would
my summary, but it is nonetheless accurate.
I have a friend, though, who
loves being provocative in a funny way. In personal life, he is a sweet
considerate person but he loves to play the role of the nasty, arrogant
You could see in his glittering eyes and slight smile that he
saw a big fat target of opportunity.
And so, as the French bureaucrat
proclaimed that no one should go to war without prior approval of the
friend stood up and pointed out that France had intervened dozens of
Africa – overthrown governments, put down revolts, backed up oppressive
– without any reference to the UN.
Up on stage, the French guy was livid,
totally losing his temper, rose menacingly and, as I remember it,
punch out my friend.
The spiritual man of peace had instantly turned into
a macho man cruising for a bruising. I think someone physically
A lesson: When others advise you that you have no right of
self-defense, are using excessive force and similar such stuff, note how
ferocious they become and totally indifferent to moral or legal
when their interests are at stake.The writer is director of the Global
in International Affairs Center and editor of
Middle East Review
International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at