Terms of Engagement

Scenes From an Arab Classroom

The surprising lessons my class in Abu Dhabi taught me.

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

For the last four months, I’ve been commuting back and forth to Abu Dhabi to teach a class on U.S. foreign policy to a group of Emirati college students as part of a program organized by New York University (which will be opening up a full-fledged university there in September). We had our last class on Sunday, and I asked my 10 students — seven women, three men — how I could do better next time. Should we have debates and role-playing? Yes. Would students be willing to take the pro-war side on Afghanistan? Yes. Iraq? Yes. Pro-Israel on Israel-Palestine? "No, no, you can’t ask that!"

We had just finished listening to, and talking about, the passage of Barack Obama’s famous Cairo speech in which the U.S. president talked about the Palestinian conflict, with its paired admonitions to both sides to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations, and the suffering, of the other. That was good — mutuality and respect. But imagining yourself into the position of the oppressor? Beyond the pale. And these were bright, ambitious kids who had won a scholarship named after Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of one of the most pro-American states in the region. If these kids weren’t going to heed Obama’s plea, who would?

It was an education for me to understand what the world looked like to my students. Our first class was on Woodrow Wilson and the origins of the idealist tradition in American foreign policy. They were not impressed. Did Wilson really believe that nations would respond to appeals to conscience? When it came to the League of Nations, they thought that Sen. William Borah, Wilson’s thunderous arch-foe, got the better of the argument. American exceptionalism struck them as sheer hypocrisy. A few classes later, we listened to the CBS newsman Harry Reasoner portentously explain why the United States had to fight in Vietnam: America offered the world freedom, and the Communists, enslavement. "You can’t talk that way," said Salama. "How can you say, ‘We are good and they are bad?’ We would never say that."

If American moralism struck them as arrogant, its tradition of liberal conception — the sense that the world is malleable rather than merely manageable — seemed to them naïve. They were default realists: Hans Morgenthau, though hard for them to parse, was more their cup of tea than Lyndon Johnson. We read Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, with its insistence that, especially after 9/11, Americans, unlike Europeans, accepted that we live in "an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable." "Is that the real world?," I asked. "I think so," said Fatma, a free-thinking novelist-to-be. "You can’t convince people with hearts and flowers." Nouf, our most intellectual student, shot back, "Frankly, I found the book appalling." She defended European anti-militarism. But mostly she was shocked by Kagan’s claim that at times the United States "must live by a double standard," advocating arms control for others, for example, but not for itself. The idea of America as liberal hegemon stuck in her craw.

Living in the Emirates gave my students a distinctive, though I think not unique, perspective. Abu Dhabi, especially, is something like Renaissance Urbino or Ferrara: a wealthy city-state ruled by a benevolent prince. The students consider themselves incredibly fortunate — as indeed they are — to live in a place so prosperous and forward-looking (at least if you’re a citizen rather than a member of the vastly more numerous immigrant-labor class). But they know the Emirates are not a democracy. We listened to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1982 speech at Westminster in which he called for a new policy of democracy promotion. We talked about what distinguishes a democracy. "A free press?," asked Mohamed. OK, but does Abu Dhabi have one? No, not really. Then what? Then, one of the students said, we should either change our definition of democracy or say that democracy promoters shouldn’t target the Emirates. Citizens of Russia and China say much the same thing; we Westerners are not likely to convince them otherwise.

I put off Israel-Palestine as long as I could, and then we had a 45-minute everyone-against-me debate. They all agreed that the founding of Israel had been a calamity for the Middle East. But was the very idea of a Jewish state in the historic Jewish homeland unjust? Yes. The Jews could have gone to the United States. Anyway, it was the Jews’ fault that they no longer had a place to live. Their fault? One student said that that the Jews had gotten kicked out of European countries because they engaged in bad business practices. Really? Where had she heard that? On a documentary she had seen, probably on Al Jazeera.

They were no more convinced about the September 11 attacks than they were about the Holocaust. I asked the class one morning whether they thought the war in Afghanistan had been justified. Most thought not. Why not? "Because nobody knows for sure if Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11." In fact, it was the other way around, said the normally taciturn Saad; "Bin Laden was cooperating with the Americans." The others wouldn’t go that far, but they considered bin Laden’s culpability an open question. Even though he took credit for it? Even though the event had been minutely traced back to its origins? I had to strain to keep an even keel; what was settled truth for me, and for almost all Americans, sounded to them like a pretext for belligerence, like Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. I found this very alarming, and I provoked a discussion about information sources. How do we decide what to believe? How do we avoid the trap of accepting the validity of whatever data suits our pre-existing views?

But I don’t despair of my students; quite the opposite. I was feeling positively buoyant by last Sunday, and not only because they were such a sweet, generous, earnest bunch. They wanted complexity; they were prepared — no, eager — to think a new thought. Wasn’t George W. Bush an idealist?, I asked, maybe a bit needlingly, that last day. Wasn’t he an heir of Wilson? One student raised her hand. "I think he was an idealist," she said. "But some idealists are naive, and some are not. I think Bush didn’t understand the world." Obama, the class decided, was a different kind of idealist; or maybe he was a realist. "Why do we even need these categories?," Nouf asked. "Don’t they just reduce a complicated reality?"

Preconceptions are powerful, but they are not immutable. Which is the more potent fact? The former, says the pessimist, but the optimist thinks otherwise. (What am I? As a teacher, an optimist; as a journalist, a pessimist.)

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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