May 04, 2005

Dislocated

Jet travel is a funny thing. One day I'm driving around South Lebanon near Fatima's Gate at the Lebanese/Israeli border looking at the Golan Heights, Hezbollah's roadside propaganda, and scorched tanks.

Golan Heights.jpg

Hezbollah Roadside Propaganda.jpg

Scorched Tank.jpg

Next day I'm in calm and collected Portland sipping espresso while surfing the Internet. As if jet lag weren't enough, I'm still experiencing culture shock inside my own country. A month really is long enough for that to kick in.

I'm still only vaguely aware of what has been happening on this side of the ocean. Laura Bush apparently said something controversial about horses and sex. (I have no idea what she said, nor do I care.) I have some remote flickering awareness of Bill Frist saying or doing something that alienated people on the center-right, but again I neither know nor care what it was. American politics seems utterly trivial to me at this moment.

I had dinner with an American who had just arrived in Beirut who had a hard time getting over his fear of car bombs. I tried to get him to relax by pointing out that it was vastly more likely he'd be hit by one of Lebanon’s homicidal maniac drivers. It didn't really make him feel better. "Thank God I'm American," he said. We didn’t vote for the same guy in the last election, but we never once argued about politics. There was no point. "This place really puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?" he said.

Indeed, Beirut does that.

Does anyone in this country walk down the street and worry that one of the parked cars next to the sidewalk might explode at any moment? Um, no. But if you lived in Beirut you would think about that. I did. It didn’t frighten me, but I thought about it. No sane person here worries that secret police in the service of a foreign regime will rat them out to death squads. There is no terrorist-ruled state-within-a-state within walking distance of any downtown area on this continent.

When I wake up in the morning I still think I'm in Beirut and that these are some of the things I'll have to contend with during my day. Then I open my eyes and am first disoriented then shocked that I'm so far away from where I thought I was. I look at the newspaper and think: Iraq looks like a country that has some serious problems. But America is fat, content, and happy. Life in this country is experienced the way a cat experiences a nap in the sun compared to the way Middle Easterners live. I'll forget this in a week or so, but for now that's how it looks.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 4, 2005 09:35 PM
Comments

Laura Bush gave a hilarious monologue at the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner. The controversy is that some folks need to lighten up.

Posted by: Doc at May 4, 2005 10:24 PM

I can remember coming back to Portland after a month in Tangier and then a week in Manhattan and yes, everything here seemed inconsequential and small. It had to catch up with me that I was still dragging my same self around wherever I ended, and that who I was (and remain) may be inflected by where I travel and what adventures one has, but in the end... one still is who one is. There's no escape.

And yes, life is luxurious here. Seeing the other side puts anorexia or "body identity integrity disorder" in perspective. (The latter comprises though who seek surgeons to amputate their limbs until they feel "right.")

Posted by: Todd Grimson at May 4, 2005 10:33 PM

Reminds me (to a much lesser extent) of coming home from boot camp. Dropped two f-bombs on the car ride home from the airport with my folks, and it took me the better part of a year to remember how to slouch...

Posted by: Cybrludite at May 4, 2005 11:27 PM

BTW, that tank is either a T-54 or a T-55. Main difference is the anti-aircraft machinegun that would be stripped off of a wreck... Left over from Operation Peace For Galilee, I'm guessing?

Posted by: Cybrludite at May 4, 2005 11:34 PM

Surprisingly, politics here does have major consequences, but little gets done.
Politics in the US have few consequences, but lots gets done. Terri Shiavo is not a huge global issue, but Congress, judges, advocacy groups, personages, and free citizens participate as if the world would end if they didn't.
Here, there is so much we don't know where to start. We need advocacy groups that focus on something in particular because saying that everything needs to be changed gets nothing done.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 5, 2005 05:00 AM

On my way to work, I pass one government building on my way to another. On the sidewalk used to be concrete barriers; they took up most of the sidewalk and meant most people had to walk in the street.

One day the barriers were moved into the street, making more room to walk on the sidewalk. I thought "Great, more room!"

Then I thought "Car bombs. They did this because they're worried about car bombs."

Despite the higher per capita spending on homeland security for places like Wyoming, there are places in the United States that were attacked by terrorists and that continue to be targets. Funny that a lot of people who live in those places have very different, very personal ideas about what terrorism means and how to fight than do people who haven't experienced terrorism directly, yet have no problem expropriating it as a political and cultural plank...

Posted by: The Commenter at May 5, 2005 05:27 AM

That's America: complacency at any price.

Posted by: Deuce at May 5, 2005 05:42 AM

Nice post, Michael. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to do a fair amount of international travel, and even though none has been to global crisis points, even a trip to, say, Milan for a week clears the cobwebs of complacency.

Posted by: Mark Poling at May 5, 2005 06:51 AM

Front page story today on NY Times.com

Flowerpot blows up. No injuries. Broken Glass.

There is a definite lack of perspective.

Posted by: Solder's Dad at May 5, 2005 07:47 AM

MJT,

Nice to have you back.

Thanks, I really liked this post. We all need a perspective adjustment from time to time.

Posted by: JBP at May 5, 2005 08:04 AM

“I neither know nor care what it was. American politics seems utterly trivial to me at this moment.”

The world revolves around the United States whether we like it or not. This is the burden we endure because of our preeminent military and economic power. It may seem frustrating at times, but what happens in our own country impacts the rest of the planet in a very nontrivial manner. The independence movements in the Middle East cannot possibly succeed without our enthusiastic assistance. America’s isolationists and self haters can derail their efforts.

Posted by: David Thomson at May 5, 2005 08:13 AM

David Thomson: what happens in our own country impacts the rest of the planet in a very nontrivial manner.

If we're talking about foreign policy (including trade policy), yes. If we're talking about Terri Schiavo, no.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 5, 2005 09:10 AM

"The world revolves around the United States whether we like it or not."

I suppose youre surprised when people say they find Americans to be arrogant and self-centered.

Patriotism is a scary thing, ask anyone studying the causes of the first world war.

Allot of people commenting here seem to think freedom and peace were invented in the White House, and The United States is the only country that represents these abstract terms to the fullest.

I have read very intresting stuff here, there is some good thinking going on. Contrasting with this, I have also read allot of short-sighted, very disturbing opinions.

I really dont have the time to start a serious discussion, so dont bother writing how wrong I am, just consider this as a delirious rant from a non-American.

Posted by: Anotherbigmouth at May 5, 2005 10:00 AM

Oh Anotherbigmouth, your criticism of Bush and obvious hatred for freedom turn me on. Let's make out!

Posted by: Treasonous Liberal at May 5, 2005 10:08 AM

“I suppose youre surprised when people say they find Americans to be arrogant and self-centered.”

Am I the quintessential example of the Ugly American? Do I believe that God has decreed the United States to rule the world? No, I simply refuse to run away from reality. My country is the preeminent power on this planet. This is not wishful thinking, but cold reality. There is no sense denying it. Moreover, America has achieve this dubious honor by default. Did we tell the Canadians, French, and Germans, to spend so little money on their military and embrace self defeating economic policies? On the contrary, they opted for welfare state paternalism. They are solely responsible for their second class status. This is their problem and nobody else's.

Posted by: David Thomson at May 5, 2005 10:15 AM

MJT: I'll forget this in a week or so, but for now that's how it looks.

Nah, I don't thinks so. I think you're hooked.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at May 5, 2005 10:16 AM

The world revolves around the United States whether we like it or not.

That certainly used to be true, but events over the last four years have changed that. The world will be lesser because of it. And that's the biggest tragedy of the last four years. We were so damned close to a new world order, and it's been pissed away.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at May 5, 2005 10:18 AM

I think I wrote not that long ago about the hubris required to believe that a democracy movement halfway around the world requires America's help to succeed, especially when all the other democracy movements - like Solidarity in Poland, or the various recent revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. - all succeeded on their own, because their people wanted freedom.

Hmmm...

Posted by: The Commenter at May 5, 2005 10:24 AM

The Commenter seems to think that somehow the push for freedom in Poland happened outside the context of the Cold War, and that the U.S. had nothing to do with it.

As I recall, nothing could be further from the truth.

Posted by: stutefish at May 5, 2005 10:32 AM

Stutefish, please allow me to clarify.

Certainly, what happened in Poland happened within the context of Reagan's confrontation with the Soviet Union, just as what is happening in Lebanon is happening in the context of the invasion of Iraq.

Correlation, however, is not causation. What's happening in Lebanon - like what happened in Ukraine and Georgia - belongs to those people, not us. Their efforts will succeed or fail depending on what their fellow citizens want, not what we want. Events probably wouldn't follow the same path if the war in Iraq hadn't occurred, but the desire for freedom and attempts to achieve it predate the war and, again, belong to the Lebanese, not us.

Lech Walesa never had to come to America to beg for our help. He achieved what he did because the Polish people wanted what he wanted, and risked their lives to achieve it. When real people are risking their lives to achieve real freedom, it's more than a little insulting to say that their success depends not on their sacrifices, but on what some spoiled Americans, comfortable in their homes, think.

Posted by: The Commenter at May 5, 2005 10:46 AM

“like Solidarity in Poland, or the various recent revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. - all succeeded on their own, because their people wanted freedom.”

Wow, this is truly a jaw dropping misreading of history. Ronald Reagan’s leadership was indispensable to the Solidarity movement. It would have squashed like a bug if the United States had not put pressure on the former Soviet Union. At this very moment, Putin dares not openly defy President Bush regarding the Ukraine and Georgian liberation movements.

Posted by: David Thomson at May 5, 2005 10:52 AM

At this very moment, Putin dares not openly defy President Bush regarding the Ukraine and Georgian liberation movements.

Why not?

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at May 5, 2005 11:02 AM

“Lech Walesa never had to come to America to beg for our help.”

Baloney. Lech Walesa and his fellow freedom activists knew damn well that the United States had to put pressure on the Soviet Union. They would have been rendered helpless without our assistance. But what the heck, who in hell am I? Let Walesa tell you in his own words:

“When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can't be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989.”

http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110005204

Posted by: David Thomson at May 5, 2005 11:03 AM

David Thomson: "My country is the preeminent power on this planet. This is not wishful thinking, but cold reality. There is no sense denying it."

Except it can't last. At least not if the US continues with its horrendously irresponsible fiscal policies.

You can't sustain "preeminent power" by running half-trillion-dollar annual deficits.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at May 5, 2005 11:08 AM

Have you read Oriana Fallaci's novel Inshallah, essentially an ode to Beirut?

Posted by: beautifulatrocities at May 5, 2005 11:19 AM

David Thomson - what do you think Putin is fearful of that is preventing him doing anything in the Ukraine and Georgia? What would happen if he did intervene?

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at May 5, 2005 11:33 AM

Breaking news: Pope John Paul II also was irrelevant to the freedom movement in Poland.

It was all thanks to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Bill Moyers.

Posted by: spaniard at May 5, 2005 11:33 AM

"Correlation, however, is not causation."

Every good anti-Conservative's mantra whenever some good outcome might reflect well on a Republican.

"Nothing to be seen here folks. Move along...."

Posted by: Mark Poling at May 5, 2005 12:08 PM

I'm not at all ashamed to say that "America is fat, content, and happy" as you put it. We've worked our *sses off to get to where we are now. Not to mention that we're a very generous nation, which people also tend to forget.

Terri Schiavo, trivial? Please! It was quite literally a matter of life and death. If Americans can't embrace culture of life values here on their own soil then what chance do citizens of struggling nations have to rid themselves of murderous dictators and terrorist thugs?

Posted by: Kay Hoog at May 5, 2005 12:11 PM

The Commenter, I think the US has more to do with Ukraine than you think. First of all if the US did not exist the Ukraine would be in the middle of a communist empire that streched across Europe. The second connection between the US and what is currently happening right now involves a very sleazy American. Some have gone as far as labeling Dick Morris VY's Karl Rove. That might not be true though, since Dick is a lying scumbag.

You are correct though that it is the people in Georgia and the Ukraine who are demanding their rights. Good for them, that is the way it should be.

Posted by: Mike at May 5, 2005 12:28 PM

Oh and you missed put the lime in the coconut cola.

What is perspective but a view outside looking... in.

Posted by: akweth at May 5, 2005 01:20 PM

Great to have you in the US, MJT; hope you feel welcome.

As Kay mentioned though, you're wrong about Terri. While you were helping in Lebanon, I was giving out info about Terri to a couple of (small) international pro-life conferences in Slovakia; that info was desired by many Europeans. Pope John Paul II died while you were away, and Pope Benedict XVI is clearly going to continue to advocate for a "culture of life", and against any "dictatorship of relativism". The execution by starvation of Terri shows many strengths and some weaknesses of the US, or any, system.

My wife was a pro-life advocate at the big 1995 UN Women's Conference in Beijing, and again in 2000 in NYC at Beijing+5. Some of the best gov't allies of the pro-life folk are from Islamic governments. The US is deep in a secular hedonism vs. modern Christianity struggle for culture. The Islamic world has yet to see a secular-tolerant modern Islam victorious over an intolerant, and much poorer, Islamic fundamentalism.

The mostly unearned oil wealth of many Arabs, in funding their fundamentalism, is hugely holding back their own need for modernization.

I guess it quite likely that pro-gay, pro-abortion liberals will be disappointed at the religious support of democratic Iraq for more conservative values.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at May 5, 2005 02:22 PM

Now you know how Europeans feel when they visit New York or Miami... They're fascinated by the place and the energy but the real risks of being the victims of random violence and the sheer out of controledness and harshness of American society make them better appreciate the security and comfort of their own societies.

Posted by: Tim O'Brian at May 5, 2005 03:33 PM

"They're fascinated by the place and the energy but the real risks of being the victims of random violence and the sheer out of controledness and harshness of American society make them better appreciate the security and comfort of their own societies."

Yup, the Bosnians in the early 1990s sure felt safe and secure. The Balkans were a fantastic place to live until Prsident Clinton ordered the bombing of the Serbian positions.

Posted by: David Thomson at May 5, 2005 04:27 PM

Tim O'Brian,

Last I checked, Paris and London are a lot more crime-ridden than New York. Any European who fears the mean streets of New York is an ass or has seen way too many movies.

That said, I wasn't afraid of Beirut while I was there despite the fact that there were four car bombs in the two weeks before I was there. So maybe my comfort zone is just different than most people's.

Baghdad, however, would frighten me.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 5, 2005 06:06 PM

Hey, and welcome back. I hope to handle my return to the US with as much grace as you do (however much that may be - I expect it'll be more than my own).

Posted by: Doc at May 5, 2005 06:24 PM

Mike,
If I take a trip to Lebanon even with the danger and the worries, can you guarantee me I'll get to meet and hang out with Joumanna?
I'll take that deal.

Mike

PS How old was she about 22?

Posted by: Mike N at May 5, 2005 07:33 PM

David Thomson - what do you think Putin is fearful of that is preventing him doing anything in the Ukraine and Georgia? What would happen if he did intervene?

Basically, the US would screw Russia over economically. Oil is nice, but it's not going to stay over $50/barrel forever. Access to western markets and capital are what Russia needs in the long term if it's going to ever be a world power again.

Posted by: rosignol at May 6, 2005 05:27 AM

Michael: Welcome back to Oregon, where most (even compared to the rest of America) REALLY don't know how good they've got it. I enjoy your perspective, but can't believe your comment about crime in London and Paris vs. New York. What sort of crime are we talking about? Burglaries, maybe. Not car-jacking or rape or murder though. I agree that London during the early '90s was at times a nerve-racking experience, thanks to the IRA. But as one who has lived abroad for 13 yrs. and travelled to 50 countries, I cannot ascribe to your assertion about feeling safer in NYC than in Europe. And we should take note of what has effectively ended terrorism in the UK after 25 yrs. It was something everybody dreaded...it's called dialogue.

Posted by: activist kaza at May 6, 2005 09:28 AM

Activist Kaza,

Crime in New York has plummeted dramatically lately.

And Al Qaeda is not the Irish Republican Army. How are we supposed to have dialogue with fascists who hunker down in caves and plot mass-murder even against moderate Muslims?

You can have dialogue with some terrorists. Hezbollah perhaps, up to a point. Al Qaeda, no. Not gonna happen, and that's their fault nor ours.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 6, 2005 12:13 PM

I’d be much more frightened to visit any city in Europe than places like New York. First of all, anti-Americanism is rampant in Europe, and I may easily be the target of violence just because of where I’m from. Here in the State, no one would attack a Frenchman, just because he’s from France. Second of all, as scary a place as NY may sometimes be, at least I have the option to carry a gun to defend myself. In Europe I have no choice but to wander the streets unprotected.

Posted by: Kay Hoog at May 6, 2005 01:28 PM

And we should take note of what has effectively ended terrorism in the UK after 25 yrs. It was something everybody dreaded...it's called dialogue.

Support for terrorism in Ireland was pretty much ended when Ireland joined the EU and escaped from British economic domination. A more prosperous nation didn't see the need to protect or support the thugs of the north.

IRA attacks against civilians produced the Irish-organized peace movement which was one of the final nails in the IRA's coffin.

British efforts at appeasement were a godsend to the IRA goons. At last, someone was showing them some respect.

In any case, the IRA is not comparable to al Qaeda or other Islamist-state sponsored terrorist organizations. Fortunately, Hezbollah, despite their state support, does seem to be losing whatever respect it once had.

Posted by: mary at May 6, 2005 04:09 PM

Kay,

No European is going to physically attack you for being an American. I've never heard of such a thing. Just be nice to people when you travel abroad and they'll be nice back. I have had no trouble traveling in Europe. Even the French, despite their reputation, were sweet to me both times I was there.

And that's doubly true of the Arabs. I've not been welcomed more warmly anywhere than in Arab countries.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 6, 2005 04:50 PM

MJT,

"No European is going to physically attack you for being an American"?

Well, I guess the Moroccan cab driver who held me up at gunpoint in Brussels a couple of months ago because I was an American just doesn't count as a European, then, does he?

Speak for yourself, but anti-Americanism does exist in Europe and it is exhibited is violent ways. You got lucky, perhaps. I was just trying to get back to my hotel.

Note: police report is at the embassy in Brussels, since the bastard stole my passport and all my money.

Posted by: DN at May 6, 2005 11:00 PM

DN,

Doesn't sound to me like a guy who mugs you does so because he's mad at the States, but rather because he's a thief. I doubt you're his first.

Of course anti-Americanism exists in Europe. It also exists in my neighborhood.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 6, 2005 11:23 PM

On the topic of fear in Europe versus fear in the United States...

Last summer I visited Munich and a few other German cities, and even though I spent a good part of my trip wandering around by myself, frequently at night, looking as touristy as possible (with camera and tourist map and everything!), I never ever once felt uncomfortable.

Of course, I do live in the crime capital of the US, our beloved Washington, DC - so even though I live in one of the nicest parts of the city, the ghetto is only a few blocks in any direction. That might have something to do with it - but isn't that the point?

Posted by: The Commenter at May 7, 2005 08:06 AM

Michael: I appreciate your countering the paranoia of some Americans about overseas travel. This is the beginning of "dialogue". More Americans like you and me (and Mary and the unfortunately robbed DN) need to be out there engaging with our fellow world citizens, most of whom like Americans a lot, just not our government's policies. You'll also note I didn't advocate negotiating with al-Queda as such; I agree with your assessment that there are some you CAN negotiate with (the Basques might be another good example) and some you CANNOT. The key to killing off al-Queda is still "dialogue" however. What do I mean, specifically? How about spending a few million to fund education as a real alternative to the many maddrasahs that have sprung up in Pakistan over the past decade, for example? We need to do something to counter the anti-American, anti-Christian hatred that is literally being programmed into young Muslim minds...don't you agree?

BTW, I still (respectfully) disagree with you about the relative dangers of living in NYC vs. London or Paris. Ultimately, security is a state of mind (not a statistic) so I guess you can be happier in your city (or state of mind) and me in mine/mind!

Posted by: activist kaza at May 9, 2005 06:49 AM

Kaza: We need to do something to counter the anti-American, anti-Christian hatred that is literally being programmed into young Muslim minds...don't you agree?

Absolutely. It might not be easy to go into Pakistan and Saudi and set up schools, but it would be nice. Saudi Arabia spreads its reactionary ideology with petrodollars. We might want to spread our more liberal ideology with some money of our own whenever we can.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 9, 2005 09:20 AM
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