I just wish she hadn't asked for the money.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) might have been making a valuable -- and politically difficult -- point when she thanked Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for his generosity in offering $10 million to the fund for victims of the World Trade Center bombing and then chided New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for returning the check.
What had tainted the contribution, in the mayor's eyes, was an accompanying press release in which Alwaleed said it was time for the United States to "reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."
Giuliani, in effect threw the prince's millions right back in his face. New York -- and probably most of America -- cheered.
But not Cynthia McKinney. In a letter to the prince -- who a few months back was ranked No. 6 on the Forbes list of the world's richest people -- the Georgian said she was "disappointed that Mayor Giuliani chose to decline your generous offer and instead criticize you for your observations on the Middle East." Whether the mayor disagreed or not, McKinney wrote, "he should have recognized your right to speak and make observations about a part of the world you know so well."
Then: "Let me say that there are a growing number of people in the United States who recognize, like you, that U.S. policy in the Middle East needs serious examination."
If only she'd stopped there. McKinney proceeded to make quite specific criticisms of American policy -- not on the floor of the House, not to her colleagues on the International Relations Committee, nor even to the American people. She was talking to a prominent leader of Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Osama bin Laden and many of the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington just a month earlier.
And still she didn't stop.
"Your Royal Highness," McKinney begged, "there are many people in America who desperately need your generosity. . . . The state of black America is not good. . . . Just a few hundred yards from the White House, one can find black man after black man huddled in bus shelters, doorways, over subway ventilation shafts, sleeping on the street, thrown away like trash."
Then: "Although your offer was not accepted by Mayor Giuliani, I would like to ask you to consider assisting Americans who are in dire need right now. I believe we can guide your generosity to help improve the state of black America and build better lives."
It's tough enough under the best of circumstances to get the U.S. government to take a serious look at its Middle Eastern policy. It's tough even to talk candidly about it. It might have been useful for Americans to hear how a friend in the region sees that policy. But there are times and places for these things. In our time of both war and national trauma, we don't need outsiders -- even sympathetic and generous outsiders -- telling us that the bombings are our own fault. And we don't need our own people groveling before foreigners, pimping our plight, even for ostensibly worthy causes.
Certainly from the prince's point of view, and from our own as well, we ought to be asking ourselves if our policies and our attitudes might have contributed if not to terrorism, at least to the general enmity in which the Arab world holds us. Certainly, the plight of black Americans, and of its children in particular, is deserving of special attention, even with our budgetary surplus evaporated and our national focus on more immediate concerns.
But there are ways to do these things. If the prince wanted to suggest specific modifications of American policy that might be helpful under the circumstances, he wouldn't have had any trouble getting those suggestions -- privately -- to the proper ears. If the congresswoman wanted help for a particular cause, she might have asked for it in a far less public way.
As it is, we can only hope that both have learned something from the contretemps: There are some things that even the prince's billions can't buy. And there are some things even a well-intentioned member of Congress can't sell.