Why Not A Debate In Dubai?

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/06/08):

Here’s a crazy idea that’s being discussed by the rulers of the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai: What if they were to invite Barack Obama and John McCain to come to the desert oasis for a presidential debate?

Yes, I know: This is America’s presidential campaign, not a traveling roadshow to be shared with foreigners. And if the candidates can’t even agree on a schedule of town meetings out in the American heartland, why should they travel to a sheikdom that’s 7,000 miles from Washington — and a short boat ride from Iran?

But the idea of a Dubai debate is appealing, not least because it would link the epochal 2008 campaign with a world that cares passionately about where America is heading. The United States is unpopular abroad these days in part because of a perception that we’re arrogant — that we don’t care what the world thinks. An overseas debate would help change that perception.

And there’s something compelling about taking the campaign to the region that will present the toughest challenges for the next president. Americans will be voting in November partly on how they think McCain or Obama will deal with the war in Iraq, the confrontation with Iran and the threat of terrorism. Why not debate these life-or-death issues in a place that is, almost literally, in the shadow of the war zone?

The idea for this debate emerged in conversations and e-mails over the past week with officials in Dubai. It appears to have the unofficial blessing of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid, the emirate’s ruler. Dubai’s leaders “realize the importance of such an idea and are ready to receive the candidates and organize the event,” one senior official told me.

The two campaigns are interested but also wary. “It is an intriguing idea,” a top foreign policy adviser in the McCain campaign told me. But he said that given the other side’s reluctance to take up McCain’s challenge for debates in America, “I doubt the Obama campaign would be interested.”

Obama’s aides similarly are cautious. They note that the Democratic candidate will be traveling soon to Iraq and Afghanistan and that he’ll be doing a lot of thinking about the Middle East. But they worry that a debate overseas might offend some American voters. “While these issues are exactly the sort that ought to be dealt with seriously and comprehensively in the course of this campaign, we think it preferable and most appropriate that they be discussed in front of an American audience,” says Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

So the chances that a Dubai debate will actually happen are pretty slim, which is too bad. For it would be a good venue to engage the Middle East. As much as any place in the Arab world, Dubai is a symbol of modernization and change. It’s a bit over the top, to be sure, with an artificial ski resort, man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree and rococo hotels with make-believe canals and Arab castles.

What’s likable about Dubai is that, as a boomtown, it’s a city that’s “too busy to hate,” as was said a generation ago of Atlanta. I wish that the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, would send an ambassador to Israel. But the UAE has been a strong supporter of the peace process and a key Arab ally in fighting terrorism. The 2006 congressional attack on Dubai Ports World, and its bid to manage some American ports, was sheer poppycock.

Elections are always about change and renewal, but that’s especially true this year. The success of a charismatic African American named Barack Hussein Obama has inspired young people around the world, just as it has young Americans. John McCain, the torture victim who demands that we stop torture, also wants to make a new start. The message of Campaign 2008 is that America is turning a page.

I hope that McCain and Obama will think seriously about these unofficial feelers from Dubai. The Middle East is a mess, sad to say, and dealing with the problems of that part of the world will be job one for the next president. We Americans like to talk about the miracle of our democracy, but putting that democratic process on the road would make it real for billions of people.

I especially like the idea of Iranians watching on satellite TV as Obama and McCain debate the future a few miles away across the Gulf. Now that would be good political theater.