Colin Powell will never forget that diplomatic conference in Egypt when, during a formal dinner, he was seated next to the foreign minister from Iran.
The U.S. secretary of state and Iran’s top diplomat having dinner together — Powell was sure the “mischievous” Egyptian foreign minister arranged the whole thing.
Still, he tried to make polite conversation, asking the Iranian what he did in civilian life. Turns out he was an economics professor.
So Powell asked him what the single biggest problem facing Iran was.
“The answer [was] to find 600,000 jobs for people every single year,” Powell recalled. “Bam that was it. And ever since that conversation, Iran has sunk deeper and deeper into economic distress.”
Weeks later, December 2004, in one of his final appearances as secretary of state, Powell hosted a conference in Morocco for Arab and European Union representatives.
“One gentleman raised his hand and got up and he said ‘let me tell you what the most significant problem is in this part of the world,’” Powell remembered. “And I said [to myself], ‘Oh here it comes — Israel.’ And he said, ‘the most important problem we have, the most important need we have — jobs, we need jobs. Jobs so that a man or woman can come home at the end of the week with a paycheck, money that brings dignity into the home … we need jobs; we need to make sure that that is what our focus is on — not just peace processes, but jobs.’ ”
Those two encounters left an impression on Powell, who was the featured speaker last week at the Pittsburgh-based American Middle East Institute’s Sixth Annual Business Conference.
“When you think about what’s happening in the Middle East, it’s not just wars and conflicts,” Powell said. “There are other things going on; there are other ambitions that the people of the Middle East have.”
He noted that this year’s conference addressed water and energy issues in the region and how to use them both efficiently while protecting the environment.
“When you’re at an organization like this, it seems to be another one of those Middle East talk shops where you’re going to talk about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, or you’re going to talk about a conflict here and there, but what makes this one different is that it is talking about trade and business,” Powell said. “It is talking about what it takes to have a successful society, and I think that’s so important.”
The trick to reducing the lure of violence and terrorism in the region, Powell said, is wealth creation in countries where terror organizations find willing recruits.
But not wealth creation not for its own sake, he said. “There’s a greater purpose: to bring people up out of despair, bring them up out of poverty so they won’t turn to violence and won’t turn to terrorism. So they will believe a representative government can be had.”
Though Powell barely touched on Israel during his talk, he did address other issues many Jews support.
• Health care: While he didn’t give a blanket endorsement to the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare), Powell, a Republican, did say all Americans deserve some kind of health care.
“In a country as wealthy as ours … with the money we’re spending on health care we surely should be able to find a way of delivering health care so that every single American [can be covered].”
• Energy: America will never become completely energy independent since the developing nations around the globe will only drive up the demand, he said. That’s why America must develop all her energy resources, including “petrochemical energy, nuclear energy, solar.”
He said the United States is uniquely positioned to satisfy the demand for energy.
• Environment: Wealth creation needs energy, but it must be produced in ways that protect the environment, Powell said.
“Look at what’s happening in China as a result of too much coal-fired things that are not clean in the slightest,” he said. “Did you see the pictures in the paper last week of a Chinese city that had to be closed? They had to close the city because the residents couldn’t see three feet in front of them. What kind of health hazard is that creating?”
In introducing Powell, Gov. Tom Corbett called him “an emblem of what America does well.”
The American Middle East Institute (AMEI) is “an independent nonprofit organization, based in Pittsburgh, that focuses on building business, education and cultural ties between the United States and the countries of the Middle East,” according to its own literature.
Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of AMEI, said her institute has cooperated on some events with the Jewish community such as an interdenominational event at Temple Sinai with Rabbi James Gibson. It also hosted Professor Bernard Avishai from Tel Aviv at a roundtable event to discuss ways that greater business interaction could happen between Israelis and Palestinians.
“We strive to be independent, unbiased, and nonpolitical,” Curtis said in a statement to the Chronicle.
She said many of the Middle Eastern countries AMEI works with “have economies that are in dire straits, and they could benefit greatly from increased cooperation and collaboration with American corporations and universities.
“In contrast … Israel is light-years ahead of these countries in just about everything and also in terms of how positively it is regarded by Americans — i.e., Israelis have great PR in this country relative to U.S. perceptions of Arabs, and they have a strong and diverse economy, not to mention that they are also a democracy and the closest ally to the U.S. in the region.
“Because business doesn’t like controversy and tries to stay away from politics, U.S. corporations we deal with tend to keep their dealings with Israel separate from their dealings with the other countries of the Middle East,” she continued. “American businesspeople come and go to Israel and to the Arab world frequently, but they have two different passports and they tend not to bring up their separate dealings. The American Middle East Institute has mirrored this behavior to some degree as we haven’t really featured Israelis and Arabs together on panels at our big annual event, although they have been together at a few smaller venues.”
But that may change, she added.
“Israel has so much going for it here in the United States — so many organizations work in support of Israel — that we haven’t felt like they really need AMEI for business, cultural, and educational exchanges, given what a success story they are. However, we are open to talking about ways to incorporate Israel more into our programming and I will bring this up with my board.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)