The conversation began harmlessly enough.
Sunday morning, after breakfast, I walked out of the cafe and passed a gentleman sitting at an outdoor table. The man intently scribbled on a legal pad, engrossed in his subject. On the table among a stack of papers sat a book titled "Black History for Beginners." I smiled and said, "What do you want to know?"
The gentleman, a Mexican living in America for two years, laughed heartily at the offer by this black man to help him out.
"O.K.," he said. "When did blacks get the right to vote in America?"
"Well," I said, "it depends on what you mean by the right to vote. In some Northeastern states, some blacks voted from the founding of the republic. If you mean all blacks, this did not occur -- at least legally -- until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870."
So far, so good. The man, I soon learned, worked for a major news organization. "So," I said, "what do you think of the war in Iraq?" Before he responded, I told him I supported it, and that, in my opinion, nothing short of civilization stands in the balance.
He frowned and called the "pre-emptive war" unjust, wrong and built on a foundation of lies. He said that Bush sold the war on the assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, and that the president connected the dictator to the events of 9/11.
"Yes," I said, "Bush did indeed, as did the international intelligence community, assume Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Weapons hunter David Kay called Iraq a more dangerous place than he originally thought and said that based on consensus of international pre-war intelligence, he does not see how Bush could have reached any other conclusion but that Saddam constituted a 'grave and gathering threat.' And Clinton's CIA director talked about a decade of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda."
"No," he said. "Bush lied. Condoleezza Rice accused Saddam Hussein of involvement in 9/11. I know. I had a transcript." Furthermore, he said, America helped create Saddam Hussein by supporting his regime in the Iraq/Iran war, and Osama bin Laden worked for the CIA!
"Worked for the CIA?" I said.
"Yes, during the Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union, America sided with the mujahideen whom Osama bin Laden supported."
"If you mean this country supported Iraq against Iran, a country that seized American hostages and shouted 'Death to the great Satan,' and we supported Afghanistan against the Soviets, primarily by giving them intelligence, point taken," I said. "If, by 'worked for the CIA,' you mean bin Laden possessed a CIA hall pass and drank coffee in the commissary, we part company.
"Assume I accept everything you say," I continued, "that Bush misled America on WMD; the Bush administration falsely tied Saddam Hussein to 9/11; that Bush and his oil cronies helped create Osama bin Laden; what purpose does the Bush administration serve by going to war in Iraq?"
"Two things," the man said. "First, oil. Second, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz ushered in the doctrine of 'pre-emptive war' to enable the United States to remake that part of the world in its own image."
"How about something a little simpler?" I suggested. "We are at war with terror. Osama bin Laden told Muslims of their sacred duty to acquire WMD, including nuclear weapons, and use them against America and her interests. Also, we know Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people and admitted possession of anthrax."
"What gives America the right to solely possess destructive arms, while denying the same right of other countries?" he asked.
"Several countries," I said, "possess nuclear weapons -- including France, Great Britain, China, India, Pakistan and Russia, with other countries attempting to achieve the same. Intentions count. For years, Islamic extremists attacked America and our interests, launching a war this country failed to acknowledge, let alone fight. Libya recently acknowledged its possession of WMD, coming clean -- by its own admittance -- because of the American-led war in Iraq. The father of the Pakistan bomb, at the insistence of the head of Pakistan, went on nationwide television and told of his transfer of technology and WMD components to North Korea and Iran. A document seized by our government written by a terrorist in Iraq fretted about America's resolve to stay the course, feared the construction of a democracy in Iraq and urged outside terrorists to help the process. Can you at least acknowledge we now live in a safer world because of Bush's 'pre-emptive war'?"
"No," he said. "We now have the entire international community hating America."
I reminded him of a political cartoon drawn before America entered World War II. It depicted a solitary English soldier -- shaking his fist at a swarm of approaching aircraft -- quoting a resolute Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "Very well, alone."
Oh, well, at least I enjoyed the breakfast.