I had the privilege of attending a talk by former Florida Senator Bob Graham at the American University of Beirut yesterday. The talk was entitled “From 9/11 to Obama, US Relations with the Muslim World.” When I arrived, Senator and Mrs. Graham were greeting attendees at the entrance to the auditorium with a handshake and a smile. I’m glad to say that I shook the senator’s hand and smiled at him, too. I think he’s actually a very nice guy. The American ambassador to Lebanon was also there, although regrettably, I didn’t have a chance to speak to her.
For those who aren’t familiar with Graham, a Democrat, here’s the bio that was distributed before the talk:
Senator Bob Graham is the former two-term governor of Florida and served for 18 years in the United States Senate. Graham was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, serving three consecutive terms. One of his most important contributions came during his last term, when he was named Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He co-sponsored the bill to create the Director of National Intelligence position and co-chaired the "Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001.” Graham later authored 2004’s Intelligence Matters, revealing serious faults in the U.S. national security system.
I should add that the senator is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
The talk was mostly what you’d expect. President Obama is great for everyone and the Cairo speech marked a turning point plus America cares about Muslims and people everywhere. I hope Senator Graham will forgive me if I didn’t adequately capture the thrust of his lecture, but that’s what I took away from it.
The talk ended after about forty minutes or an hour, and I was the first one to be called upon during the Q&A portion. That was probably because I was right up front in the third row. I had lots of questions about Iran, Hezbollah, American imperialism, and Senator Graham’s assertion that the greatest threat to America is the one posed by terrorists with biological or nuclear weapons. But I only managed to shoot off three.
Now, I believe that the biggest threat to American interests in the region is the widespread perception of hypocrisy and the disjuncture between American words and deeds. I hoped to ask a few very loaded questions to express that point to the senator.
Here are the questions that the senator was kind enough to take after asking for my name and what I did (he asked that of everybody):
1 What’s your view of President Obama’s evident expansion of executive power, most notably his program focused on the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens in Afghanistan, as reported on extensively by Glenn Greenwald?
2 Is US complicity in the siege of Gaza and the collective punishment of the Palestinians there enhancing America’s capacity to pursue its interests in the region?
3 And as a follow-up, on what basis did the US reject the outcome of the Palestinian elections in 2006?
This is how Senator Graham responded:
1 He didn’t know anything about the program, and this was the first time he was hearing anything about it.
2 The US supports the two-state solution and the right of Palestinians to a state of their own.
3 The Palestinians elected a terrorist organization, etc…
When Senator Graham was answering the third question, he repeatedly looked to the US ambassador in the front row who was nodding at him. That gave me the impression that some of these questions were anticipated and that he’d been coached. When in doubt, regurgitate a talking point.
While many of the other questions were softball (lots and lots of sympathetic Americans in the audience helped me forget where I was for a moment) a few focused directly on AIPAC and the eighty-odd senators who signed the AIPAC letter to the president. Senator Graham did not dodge these questions and spoke guardedly about the role of special interest groups in American politics, and referred to AIPAC obliquely. He also said that Israel was asked to become a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty this week.
Whatever I thought of most of what the senator had to say, this was progress.