So here we are again. There’s nothing like another panel discussion with former Ambassador Dan Kurtzer to kick off the year at Princeton. Believe it or not, enough goes down in the Middle East to warrant a talk with Kurtzer about every two months or so, and so attending Wednesday’s talk between Kurtzer and former ambassador Barbara Bodine (Up to the Minute: Americans Under Attack: Libya, Egypt, Yemen and American-Muslim Relations) was refreshing in its familiarity. We live and breathe tradition here at Princeton, and talks about current events should be no different.
I would give you a quick review of the recent attacks on American embassies across the Arab world, but the truth is, the subject matter of the talk isn’t very relevant. If there’s one thing that has occurred to me over the course of a year or so of attending such talks (I believe three on the peace process, two on the Arab Spring and subsequent fallout, but don’t quote me), it is that they are defined more by their tropes than their content. My hope is that this brief overview is sufficiently abstract such that the reader will not get caught up in petty details of our ephemeral geopolitical situation, but will instead apprehend the underlying structure – the Platonic Form, if you will – of the Kurtzer talk.
First, there is the makeup of the audience. I was impressed to see that by the time I got to Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall (i.e. Woody Woo), the room was full. Damn, people are still interested in this stuff. As I entered to the bottom right (Prospect side), I walked up a few stairs and gazed around the room, hoping to steal a seat from one of the sprightly geriatrics enjoying retirement and talking to some pals they made the last time Kurtzer spoke. Unfortunately, there were none to be had—all temporarily open seats were carefully guarded by a purse or a cane, and soon enough I was ordered to go to Bowl 16, the usual “overflow” room.
Soon after I found my way to the appropriate room, the chatter died away and Elisabeth Donahue, the Associate Dean for Public and External Affairs, began the second part of the formula: the introduction. Truth be told, to call it an introduction is a bit unfair, since we’ve all been here before. Liz knows this quite well, and so after a quick joke about how Kurtzer was the ambassador to “Egypt and to Israel … but not at the same time” (nice one, Liz), she launched into a plea for Facebook likes and Twitter followers, since, you know, Woody Woo is into those things now and they’re doing pretty well at it too. This might seem a little inapposite, but I get it. There has to be something to spice up an otherwise typical night. And I did actually appreciate the solicitation of a roomful of the elderly into artificially boosting WWS’s social media profile as a fitting lead-in to a discussion about the climate of the Middle East in the fallout of the Arab Spring, which, if I remember the last talk correctly has something to do with these newfangled forms of communication, virality, and some other buzzwords I’m forgetting.
With the brief preamble over, Kurtzer can get into the requisite analysis. What was the deal with these embassy attacks? Was the attack in Libya premeditated—as claimed by the Libyan government—or was it random, because shit like this just happens all the time? When Kurtzer managed 2200 people in the American embassy in Egypt, was that people too many people?
Kurtzer, as per usual, shines in his role. A few tepid jokes; a statement regarding the changing dynamics of the region; a shoutout to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; a soft critique of American foreign policy and diplomatic strategy. Some new numbers have been crunched, some new experts consulted, and it turns out that the Middle East is still pretty complex. Good. I like my Middle East talks like I like my Law and Order: catchy plotlines, and conclusion I can predict by minute fifteen. When Kurtzer’s has enough of politics he’d make a damn good replacement for Mariska Hargitay.
After the talk comes the Q&A process, which with slight exception follows the same arc each time. First, the mic is opened up to the students, since “we do this because of them.” (An attitude that fits comfortably with the fact that all nine of us are watching the talk remotely.) Then comes the awkward silence as the moderator wonders aloud why there are no questions, not realizing that all of our questions were answered months ago, the first time this happened. As the queue eventually begins to fill, it occurs to me that I should probably leave. Being there is kind of like being in precept, except the proportions are skewed even further: no one has done the reading and everyone is trying to show off. Oh, you spent the last two years in Tunisia? That’s really cool, and makes you an expert. Sitting in the overflow room actually provides some added intrigue, since the camera is set up such that we can only hear the questions, but not see the questioner. Is that a community member or a student? Okay, a Woody Woo major? Man or woman?
These questions swirl in my head as I work up the energy to extricate myself from this intellectual purgatory. That is, until we reach what I recognize as the familiar indignant rant. I thought it would not come this time, but I should have known better. I know that after his/her long winded speech about conservative racism/Orientalism/liberal foolishness/Islamo-fascist apologetics, the fumbling with the microphone, the moderator’s inability to resolve the situation, some muffled demands from nearby audience members for “a question,” the collective uncertainty over whether to look embarrassed, angry, or simply disappointed that this is happening yet again—then it will be time to go. The conversation continues after this question, but to me it serves as a nice capstone, a spark of edginess that compliments the otherwise clinical tone that almost of necessity characterizes a talk by former diplomats. I can leave, rest assured that in two months time I will re-engage in this ritual without it feeling rote.