November 9, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Blaming America First

We had gathered at the venerable University Philosophical Society of Trinity College, Dublin to debate the resolution: “This house believes that George W. Bush is a danger to world stability.” 

But those tasked with defending the resolution were disinclined even to discuss what they clearly considered gross understatement. Instead, Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist, began by angrily accusing the United States of embarking upon an “old-fashioned imperial war' in Iraq and beyond. 

As for terrorism, that he dismissed as “something people believe in like they believe in witchcraft. What does it mean?” 

Though he was unsure of terrorism's definition, he harbored no doubts about who was responsible for it. President Bush, he said, “is not fighting terrorism, he is provoking it. That is the truth of the matter.” This brought vigorous applause from the students assembled in the stately hall.

Richard Downes, an Irish journalist, recited Humpty Dumpty. His point was that Iraq had been broken by Bush, whom he called a “maniacal egg killer.” This evoked gales of laughter. 

He called the U.S. military “astonishingly incompetent.” Then he launched into a long story about an encounter he had once had with an African who believed the Irish smeared excrement (he used a more common term) on the walls of their homes. I think he was implying that people of one culture often misunderstand those of other cultures and that the Iraqis had been misunderstood by Bush and his ilk (though certainly not by enlightened people such as himself).

Craig J. Murray, formerly British ambassador to Uzbekistan, asserted that the crimes committed by that country's rulers are “subsidized by the government of George W. Bush.” Bush has done this, he said, for the benefit of Enron. The goal of Americans, he instructed the students, is to “get at the oil and gas so they can guzzle it.” 

He added: “George Bush talks directly to God. He is the most dangerous religiously inspired fanatic in the world.” This, too, brought an enthusiastic ovation.

Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East bureau chief, began by charging that in Iraq there have been “more casualties of civilians by Americans than by insurgents.” He announced: “George Bush is a threat to world peace on so many levels we can't begin to discuss it.”

So he didn't try. Instead he turned to the topic that really fires him up: Israel. Yasser Arafat, he said, had been correct to reject the offer of statehood made at the Camp David peace summit of 2000 because it was “a pro-Zionist type of approach.” In other words, it would have allowed the Jewish state to survive. He clearly found that a distasteful prospect. 

I was not surprised. At dinner prior to the debate, he'd noted that he had heard a BBC host cut off a caller who wanted to discuss Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat to “wipe Israel off the map.” The caller didn't see what was so terrible about this idea and didn't understand why Prime Minister Tony Blair had felt obliged to denounce it. Llewellyn lamented that there now seems to be a taboo against expressing such opinions. 

He mentioned, too, a T-shirt he had recently seen. It read: “Visit Israel before Israel visits you.” That tickled him.

In addition to these invited speakers, a number of students took the lectern to make supporting arguments. Among them was Chris, an American, who pleaded that “the current regime in America is not my America. Bush doesn't represent my America….We've lost our way.” On a personal note, he confessed that he had watched Fox News. “I know I shouldn't be doing that,” he said. 

On the other side of this debate, there were just two: myself and Charlie Wolf, an American-born, London-based radio talk show host.

Charlie was so flabbergasted by Llewellyn's anti-Israeli diatribe that he detoured from the arguments he had planned to make regarding the resolution on global stability. Instead, he attempted to rebut such inaccuracies as Llewellyn's assertion that Israel “was stealing more Palestinian land every day” – pointing out that Israel had just withdrawn from every inch of Gaza.

As for me, I did address the resolution. I had given it some thought and I hate it when my thoughts — rare as they are — go to waste.  (Essentially, I contended that “global stability” is an illusion. An earlier column on that is here.) Then I attempted to challenge a few of the arguments – accusations, more precisely — I had been hearing.

I criticized Cockburn and others in the media for having failed to report extensively on Saddam Hussein's mass murders and routine use of rape, torture and ethnic cleansing – crimes against humanity that never got anything like the attention attracted by the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Cockburn got so angry that he approached the podium and for a few moments it appeared he might take a swing at me. 

I told Llewellyn – politely but straight to his face – that he was an anti-Semite. That term, I explained, used to mean those who wanted a Europe with no Jewish population; today it means those who want a world with no Jewish state.

The moderator of the debate, Charlie Bird, an Irish TV reporter, made no effort to disguise his sympathies – they were not with anyone who would defend Bush. But he effusively praised the student from the United States – a good American, he seemed to suggest, is a contrite American.

Finally, Bird noted that next week the University Philosophy Society would debate whether Militant Islamism is a legitimate form of resistance to American hegemony. While I'll be sorry to miss that event, I do have a hunch how it will turn out. 

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.