New York World

Rebel Bachelors

So you’re a New Yorker of some years, let’s say, and you get a phone call from the leader of an African rebel army. It’s his first time in the States, and he wants you to show him the town.

I was heading south through Connecticut in mid-September, somewhere near New Haven, when my phone buzzed. It was Alain Lobognon, a spokesman for the rebels who have controlled the northern half of Ivory Coast since a failed coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002.

It took me a second to shake my confusion. I hadn’t spoken to Alain in more than a year, and I’d never seen him outside of West Africa. I’d covered nearly a year and a half of the Ivory Coast civil war as a reporter, and getting Alain to return my calls—for a quote on battle casualties, troop movements, cease-fire talks—had been one of the more frustrating aspects of my job.

Now he was in New York with Guillaume Soro, the 34-year-old leader of the rebels, known euphemistically as the “New Forces.” Guillaume’s official title is secretary general, but he’s also a cabinet member in Ivory Coast’s shaky, power-sharing government. Guillaume had once been a protégé of President Gbagbo’s, and when the 2002 coup failed, he emerged as the face of the rebellion, a smooth-talking and politically astute beacon of hope for northern Ivorians who have long thought they were getting shafted by the southern-controlled government. Combat has been rare the past couple years, but the country remains cut in half and locked in a bitter stalemate, the two sides well armed and kept apart by French and U.N. peacekeepers.

Guillaume was in town for the 61st session of the U.N. General Assembly, and was slated to spend the week in negotiations (futile, ultimately) to resolve the civil war and reunite the country.

Alain passed the phone to Sidiki Konaté, another rebel spokesman. The secretary general wanted to see me, Sidiki said. And then he switched from his usual French to a gruff, halting English: “You will show us New York. New York by night.”

I met them the following Friday afternoon at the Quality Hotel on West 47th Street. They looked so small in the hotel lobby, stripped of their chauffeured Mercedes limousines and Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards. I took Alain and Sidiki on a tour of Times Square. Guillaume didn’t join us—it would be a little while yet before he lost his aloof, I’m-a-big-shot-rebel-leader attitude. Alain showed me the “great Italian restaurant” where they’d eaten dinner most of the week—Sbarro. I wondered about directing them somewhere else—Da Silvano? Then I looked across the street.

“See that sign that says Olive Garden? You could at least have eaten there.”

“That’s a restaurant?” Sidiki asked.

“More or less,” I said.

Sidiki punched Alain in the arm. “I told you there were other places!”

“He’s scared,” Sidiki said to me, laughing. “Alain said it’s too dangerous in New York to go out after dark. He wants to stay close to the hotel.”

We walked down Broadway. Alain is over six feet tall, thin, and has a reserved, refined air. His eyes are always active, whether skimming newspapers or surveying his surroundings. He was wearing a tan shirt and khaki slacks. Sidiki, in jeans and a white-and-blue-checked button-down shirt, is several inches shorter, thick around the middle, and loves to talk. His eyes are constantly at work too, but in a lazier, more suspicious way.

As we made our way toward 42nd Street, their eyes were mostly looking up. All that neon, all those flashing lights, and the first thing they commented on was the early 20th-century Paramount Building. “That’s the one I like,” Sidiki said. Then he pointed to the Reuters Building and its shiny siblings across the street. “Those new towers have no soul.”

I indicated the pole where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, the MTV studios, the New York Times Building. They were duly wowed, but it was the corner of 42nd and Broadway that really got them excited, after I told them that I’d proposed to my wife there. They wanted to know the exact spot and the whole story. And then they hatched a plan.

“Tonight, you’ll take us out so we can meet some American women,” Sidiki said. “And then we’ll bring them back here and marry them—right at the intersection of the world!”

Guillaume, who combines Sidiki’s roundness with Alain’s polish, joined us back at the hotel. He fussed with his dark blue shirt, which hung untucked over his new jeans. His shiny black shoes clicked across the floor. Alain and Sidiki eagerly told Guillaume of their wedding plans, and they joked about the women they would meet and who had the best chance. I took them up Sixth Avenue to meet my wife. When we reached the midtown store where she awaited us, they grew silent. They each bowed slightly, shook her hand, and tried out a few words in polite English.

“The secretary general wishes to express that it is an honor to meet you,” Sidiki said. Then Guillaume himself said a few things, and invited my wife to join me in rebel territory the next time I made the trip.

I picked them up at the hotel at 10 that night. They’d asked an Ivorian who lives in Harlem to come along and provide transportation. We climbed into his minivan and started downtown, Alain in the far back seat and Guillaume and Sidiki in the middle, all peppering me with questions on how to pick up women.

Near the Flatiron Building, Alain announced that the ruling political party in Ivory Coast had just called for French troops to abandon their peacekeeping mission and leave the country. The news put Guillaume back into rebel-leader mode for a few blocks, and he listened with a clenched jaw, staring out the window as the city passed by, his chin high and his fingers clasped together in his lap.

We crossed Houston, turned right on Prince, and parked at the corner of Mercer.

Maybe the bar at Lure wouldn’t be your first choice when out in New York City with a group of African rebels, but I’d arranged to meet a few friends there, and it seemed as good a place as any. They settled onto bar stools and ordered drinks: a Coke for Alain, Glenlivet on the rocks for Sidiki and Guillaume. Soon they were in a lively discussion with a friend of mine about how to meet American women and improve their English at the same time.

“I know what I need,” Guillaume said. He placed his fingertips on his scalp and drew them fluttering down across his cheeks. “A dictionary with long hair.”

Guffaws and high-fives all around.

Our group, now a dozen strong, decided to move on to the Magician on the Lower East Side. Guillaume signaled for the check. Sidiki tried to talk him out of paying the whole thing, since some of the others had eaten dinner on the tab—maybe just buy them a round of drinks? But Guillaume waved him off and peeled a couple of hundreds off a roll of bills he pulled from his pocket. A friend of mine stared, wide-eyed.

Outside, the group split en route to the Magician. Guillaume, Sidiki, myself and a couple others decided to walk, and the rest piled into the minivan with Alain. (“He’s still afraid it’s too dangerous to be out,” Guillaume said. “Like on television.”) It was sometime past 11, and a beautiful night—clear, upper 60’s, the streets packed with people, the cafés and bars spilling smokers onto the sidewalks. As we walked east on Prince, past the tinsel and vendors of the San Gennaro festival on Mulberry, Guillaume said, “This is a real city. This is how life should be.”

We turned south onto Bowery and left onto Rivington. I tried to describe the personalities of the different neighborhoods; Guillaume was fascinated that you couldn’t smoke in restaurants or bars.

At the door of the Magician, a scruffy guy in a beard flicked away his cigarette and asked for our ID’s. Guillaume was shocked. “In America? They check your papers?”

I explained that it was just to make sure we were of drinking age. The rebel leader laughed and flashed his passport. “Am I old enough?” he said with a broad smile. The bouncer waved us in without smiling back.

We took tables in the back. Sidiki became absorbed in the old black-and-white photographs of local tenement buildings that adorn the bar’s walls. But his comrades’ energy level was dropping. Romance was not in the cards for our rebel friends that night. It was near 1 in the morning, and Guillaume signaled Sidiki, who explained that they had to catch a morning train for a meeting in Washington.

“The secretary general wishes to thank you for showing us New York,” Sidiki said. “It is a big city, and we can’t do it all in one evening. Next time we’ll go to a disco—that’s where we’ll find our American girls.”

We went outside and shook hands. Guillaume looked up at the street sign. “Rivington,” he said. “Such a beautiful name. I won’t forget it.”

—Austin Merrill

Hot Wonks

Professor John J. Mearsheimer was all finished debating, so it was time to talk to his fans. From a stage in a dimly lit Cooper Union basement, he dropped to one knee, gazed at the dozen or so below and started grabbing hands.

Thank you so much! was the refrain among the throng as they grabbed for the grinning professor. One young man frantically waved a syllabus from a CUNY grad course in international relations. Can you sign this! After Mr. Mearsheimer agreed, the grad student quietly giggled to a classmate—we just studied him today!—but added that the professor’s article was “poor and shoddy.”

In a way, it was a fitting tribute to a man who had spent the previous two hours (and six months) being called everything from a Jew-hater to a shady scholar.

The critics were responding to an article that Mr. Mearsheimer wrote with Harvard professor Stephen Walt for the London Review of Books, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” in which they argued that the Israel lobby drives U.S. foreign policy.

The piece sparked fiery public reactions from outsized personalities like Alan Dershowitz and Christopher Hitchens. Even those who were sympathetic to the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis, like Tony Judt of New York University, still found their reasoning flimsy.

As a response, the London Review organized a debate last Thursday night at Cooper Union, more than six months after publication. The panelists included academics (Mr. Mearsheimer of Chicago, Mr. Judt, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia), a dignitary—former Israeli foreign and security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami—and two think-tankers, Washington Institute fellow Martin Indyk and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross.

Mr. Judt got rave reviews and the biggest cheers from the 900 people in attendance. But it was the 58-year-old Mr. Mearsheimer, dressed in a rumpled navy blazer and striped tie, who seemed the most energized afterward.

In a post-debate conversation with reporters at 10:15 p.m., Mr. Judt and Mr. Khalidi rubbed their eyes, checked their watches and whispered to one another how damn tired they were. Mr. Mearsheimer stood tall and fielded questions. One reporter asked, in retrospect, if he felt he’d made mistakes in the article. Indeed, he said. The reporters stepped closer. Then came the but.

“I think most of the flaws are minor flaws,” he said. “I think we made one or two factual errors. But I do think, in terms of the major points, we’re right on the money.”

“My theory is that we got the basic points right,” he concluded.

Three hours earlier, the anticipation for the debate was palpable. A little after 7 p.m., the scheduled start time, much of the crowd remained outside, curled around the Cooper Union building and waiting on Third Avenue. The attendees were mostly lefties, media types (Gawker media honcho Nick Denton; Michael Massing of The New York Review of Books; Adam Shatz, literary editor of The Nation) and academy groupies, at least two of which were there for Mr. Judt (one middle-aged woman said she “just loves him”).

During the debate, every seat was filled in the Great Hall, a 148-year-old auditorium in the basement of Cooper Union, with poor sightlines and acoustics so bad that the speakers at the dais often had to grab two microphones at once to be heard. Not that the audience cared—even after enduring long lines and metal detectors (though one woman groaned, “This is like a checkpoint”). The crowd, on the whole, was determined to celebrate deep play.

Other than Mr. Judt, one of the stars of the night was Anne-Marie Slaughter, the head of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and the debate’s bruising moderator, who skipped the introductions at the outset, cut speakers off and kept things moving at a swift clip.

But as with any panel setup, there was a feeling that the debate’s content was diffuse. Six powerhouse guests didn’t make up for the fact that one side—the academics—seemed intent on discussing Big Ideas, while the other—the policy wonks and politicians—obsessed over names, dates, facts.

After taking a beating from nearly everyone on the panel, Mr. Mearsheimer, with a seemingly endless ability to defend himself, said that he and Mr. Walt were preparing “a response to our critics” that would be posted on the Harvard Web site next month. At that point, Mr. Khalidi approached Mr. Mearsheimer and said, “Come on, John, you don’t need to do this anymore.” Then the two walked away.

—John Koblin

New York World