Thursday, February 5, 2009

David Dodge: aristocrat or footnote?

In his book "The Arabists", Robert D. Kaplan describes an episode after the American pastor, Benjamin Weir, was kidnapped in Beirut in 1984. The US government at the time was trying to secure Weir's release, but as one former diplomat, David Long, recalled, "[t]he Weirs treated me and the State Department as the enemies, even though we were their government, trying to help get Ben Weir released." When Weir's wife, Carol, met with the then US secretary of state, George Shultz, he happened to criticize her husband's abductors. Rather than agree with him, Carol Weir defended them "as people sincere in their beliefs, who 'had some legitimate grievances against the United States.'"

That story came to mind following the news last week that the former president of the American University of Beirut, David Dodge, himself a victim of kidnapping in 1982 and 1983, had died. Dodge's great-grandfather, Daniel Bliss, was a founder of the AUB, and the Dodges were high up in that resident American aristocracy in the Middle East that extended higher education to the Arabs, alongside missionary activity, bolstered by an unyielding Yankee faith in self-improvement.

That positivism would lead many Americans to so embrace the world they had come to serve, that later, out of a sense of fair play or naivete, some would justify its vilest actions. The Weirs paid heavily for their devotion to the Arabs. Benjamin Weir spent 16 months in captivity at the hands of a precursor of Hizbullah, while his striking daughter Ann, with whom I went to school, was killed when a train hit the bus she was riding in Egypt, where she was teaching. These people were better than defending actions that, in many ways, spoke to the vanity of their hopeful efforts.

One might be inclined to see David Dodge's death as a page turned in the American educational and moral enterprise in the Middle East, which began in the mid-19th century. However, that moment truly came 25 years ago, in January 1984, when the AUB president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated outside his office on campus. Maybe his murderers too had legitimate grievances, but I rather doubt it. In eliminating a man who knew the Arab world intimately, who spoke its language and had been born in Beirut, Kerr's killers exhibited only animosity toward the cross-cultural dialogue that the Weirs and others passionately believe in to this day.

Much commotion has surrounded the supposedly new ways of Barack Obama in the Middle East. This cosmopolitan man, we hear, will salve the wounds of the American-Arab relationship, and the first sign of this was his interview last week with the Al-Arabiya channel. We have to wonder, however, whether this narrative is not a parody built on a thorough misunderstanding of what has happened in the past 30 years in the Middle East. We can blame the United States for making mistakes in its dealings with the region, but what goes on there does not take on meaning solely in the shadow of American stimuli. The region's actors have always defined their aims and interests free of America, even if they must factor America in.

To misread this is to misread the Middle East. Malcolm Kerr was not shot down by a bewildered soul, heart-broken by American perfidy. After all, Kerr embodied what was most alluring in the American conversation with the Arab world. He was killed by men with a clear mission, intent at the time to force an American retreat from Lebanon. Benjamin Weir's captors were no different. Their calculations were unemotional, heartless, drenched in a realistic view of power relations and American vulnerabilities. Give the murderer credit for being serious about his crime. More dialogue and engagement wouldn't have saved Kerr; yet in his statements, Obama shows himself to be as foolish as those who believe that if Americans are targeted in the Middle East by virtue of being American, then somehow they had it coming to them.

We live in a very different place than the one the American missionaries moved to in the late 1800s, and which they managed to shape in confident ways well into the 1950s. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the AUB itself came to house the more radical manifestations of Arab political behavior, thanks in part to the fate of the Palestinians, a sign that the end was near for the temperate liberalism of the university's founding fathers. And while it was in the name of that liberalism, and of an attendant sense of moral justice, that many Americans adopted the Palestinian cause as their own, they hardly seemed to notice when it connected itself to a strain in Arab militancy more violent than ever before.

Kerr's lucid comment on this state of affairs has been often quoted. Post-June 1967 Arab politics, he wrote in the preface to "The Arab Cold War", "have ceased to be fun." Using the analogy of an Ivy League football game, he noted that the war had left "several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves instead of scrimmaging happily as before." Kerr has often been reproached for his flippancy here, but there was an essential truth in his belief that the region had taken on dark tones that were destroying it from within. Ultimately, Kerr foretold what was behind his own death.

The AUB survives, but not as a bridge between the best of America and the best of the Middle East. The institution now reflects the realities of our region. The Protestant devotion to good example, to the possibility of a life justly and abundantly lived, decades ago crashed against the hard face of an unforgiving Middle East. That's why the death of David Dodge seems such a footnote today; and it is why the words that Carol Weir addressed to George Shultz sounded something like those of a woman loyally defending the scoundrel who had locked her out of the house.

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