Vail Valley’s intellectual niche
“Unilateral Preemption: America’s New Foreign Policy?” That sounds like an exciting way to spend a long Vail Valley summer weekend, doesn’t it? Three days’ worth of a seminar and weeks’ more of reading if you are diligent about it.Outside, Vail’s streets are crowded with beer drinkers, shoppers and Hot Wheels racers. Never mind the rain showers. Downvalley, the neighbors are catching up with each other and celebrating Flight Days. I’m sitting inside the Lodge at Vail, listening to four foreign policy wonks, no doubt a C-SPAN devotee’s dream. This was my weekend June 25-28, fulfilling what started as a favor to Vail Valley Institute Executive Director Elizabeth Eber. What the heck, the family was out of town, and I hadn’t yet met former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, one of the moderators, or Richard Allen, President Reagan’s national security advisor and still every bit an expert in the field.I figured I’d catch the keynote speech and maybe drop in on a discussion session. Elizabeth is so genuinely nice I believe it’s impossible to say no to her. Besides, I’ve been to Flight Days, and, no disrespect to an obviously successful festival built around a child’s plastic trike, that’s just not my thing. And this would at least beat mowing the lawn during hay fever season.I wasn’t prepared to get sucked in, as I was. I wound up missing just one session, and I’m still working through my binder thick with course materials ranging from George Washington’s farewell speech and admonishments against foreign ties to scholar Walter Russell Mead explaining in The New York Times “Why They Hate Us, Really.”The Vail Valley Institute brought in a mix of scholars who have advised presidents, along with a writer, James Traub, who specializes in international affairs. On Saturday they sat for a panel discussion in accordance with their views: Allen at the far right and Traub on the farthest left. To the right of Traub was former Clinton adviser and current Brookings Institution senior fellow Ivo Daalder, then neoconservative thinker and senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Robert Kagan, then Allen. These aren’t the sound bite guys. They come from the ranks of those doing the heavy lifting in the think tanks and universities. Even if their conclusions don’t quite crest the cacophony of opinion among the rest of us masses, their views are so much more informed than your standard cocktail party or barbecue fare. And they are sharp enough that presidents listen to them. Aside from what they had to say, I felt more confidence in America for their presence in government. The politicians are just the tip of the iceberg in D.C., not to be confused with the cream of the crop. I’m not going to try to pack hours of insights, history, discussion and conclusions into an 800-word column. This is one of those cases where you really had to have been there. The sessions certainly piqued my interest in American foreign policy and this question of how the world’s top dog deals with the rest of the pack, which I believe will be a rather large part of this year’s presidential election, thanks largely to our foray into Iraq.Closer to home, the seminar helped me better understand the sheer strength of opinion about the giant flag display in the big box parking lot. Precisely because it involves our flag, it is a big deal, imbued with symbolism as this controversy is. The fact of the active battlefield on the other side of the globe and the dominance of the flag display over the big boxes’ neighbors have sharpened our conflicting beliefs about what patriotism really is. Mead, who has a number of articles and parts from books among our reading assignment, groups American foreign policy currents into four categories named after Presidents Jackson, Jefferson and Wilson, along with founding father Hamilton. I’m still catching up on this part, but I gather that the swell of us with Jacksonian outlooks would tend to want to raise that flag higher, and make it bigger, never imagining that anyone could possibly object. Perhaps when I finish this part of the reading I’ll better understand my own visceral view that by taking nationalism out of proportion to our other democratic values, something uglier is being trumpeted than the American ideals I hold dear. The seminar helped in giving me at least that much more of a glimpse into what neighbors I otherwise respect could possibly be thinking, really.During the Socratic discussion parts of the seminar, I was surprised to find myself more optimistic and to the right of most of the other participants, who mainly were older, highly successful professionals and retirees. It’s quite a juxtaposition to be some kind of commie pinko about the flag display in one forum and a rightwing nut who still supports taking over Iraq in the other. My quibble with Iraq lies in the “how,” which has been badly abused, not the need to go in. Attending the giant flag-raising ceremony Saturday and admiring the beauty of the flag itself against the sky and green mountain backdrop did not change my views about its intrusiveness on the neighborhoods. And listening to wiser elders who doubt the efficacy of invading Iraq did not shake me, either. But in both cases, attending the seminar certainly educated my views, and I still have plenty to think about.The Vail Valley Institute has put on these seminars annually about this time for the past 13 years, generally choosing the hottest national topics and bringing in experts to explore the nuances and give the participants those cutting-edge viewpoints. Vice President Cheney attended one year, before he had to drag Secret Service details along, of course. The tuition is not cheap at $1,750 for a full participant and $1,250 to audit. It’s prohibitive for most working locals, though not for many of our active retirees and second-home owners. This is what it takes to attract the top minds that the institute brings here for these seminars. The best part is the scholarships for high school students. Two sharp, sharp ones – Tiffany Lowenthal of Battle Mountain and Madelyn Sullivan of Vail Mountain School – brought valuable perspective to the weekend.The institute does have a dilemma with attracting participants for these intellectual exercises. The cost is a bit rich for most of us locals, and those who can afford it have tended to be more interested in spending their generally short time here outside. Who can blame them for that?This may change as the valley evolves demographically toward more part-time residents of means making this their permanent home. For now, the niche is narrow. I can tell you I had no idea how much I’d enjoy it and the people taking part in it. I mean: “Unilateral Preemption: America’s New Foreign Policy?” It took a little arm twisting.But I’m grateful for Elizabeth’s pleasant persistence with the invitation. The experience will stay with me for a long time. And I know I’ll never look at foreign policy in quite the same way. That’s invaluable. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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