TRP: Eating with the Enemy

Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack
by Robert Egan and Kurt Pitzer
It was ok.

Bobby Egan is a guy who was picked on a lot as a kid and who has been looking to align himself with power ever since. He loves his country, he loves his wife, and he loves food. He also loves international affairs. This book, Eating with the Enemy, chronicles his encounters with foreign diplomats and his attempts to improve relations between the United States and countries she doesn’t care for. He meets with representatives from Vietnam, Iraq, and North Korea and is able to build relationships of trust with them.

One great thing about this book is how it demonstrates that one person who really cares, with a heckuva lotta luck, can make a difference in the international area– provided that person is not continually thwarted by his government, which, unfortunately, Egan was. I like Egan’s personal portraits of the different people he encounters. he shows how some of the people in North Korea think and act.  In his opinion, the US needs to loosen up a little and give North Korea some room to save face. The US needs to dial down the paternalism and start treating other countries as equals. He also feels that the US needs to be more open to different approaches towards rogue nations– since the United States’ current approach doesn’t seem to be working.  He offers these opinions throughout the book explicitly, but his best evidence isn’t in his reasoning (which is sound), but in his descriptions of his experiences and relationships. His friend, Han, might start out as a typical oppressed automaton, but Egan demonstrates that even mouthpieces for oppressive governments are also human. His experiences stress the need to take the time and be creative in building trust between individuals, and, by extension, between nations. I think Egan is able to do that himself because it’s a priority to him. He wants to be hooked into the power, so he takes the time and effort to build this trust. He’s a straight-shooter, but he doesn’t just come right out and demand anything the first time he meets a person. Our federal government, however, doesn’t have Egan’s motivations (the US is already, like, an international superpower, right? That’s what people say?), and therefore doesn’t seem to have those priorities, either. It’s a shame that the government seems to think that because the US is so powerful already, that we don’t have to be polite about it. Or at least that’s how Egan paints things. 

One thing I didn’t care for about this book was its pervasive attitude of anti-intellectualism. I agree with Egan that most politicians don’t actually care about world peace; they care about getting more money, more power, more “juice” as Egan would say, and getting re-elected. I share his frustration with the bureaucracy that runs our country and the fact that our system seems so inflexible and slow when it comes to getting anything done (see: Gulf Oil Spill, Health Reform, Hurricane Katrina). But these are problems with politicians, not education. Maybe it’s a problem with anyone who has real power, even, but again, those are individuals, not education. There are lots of people who are well-educated who don’t participate in the kind of back-slapping boys’ club that Egan feels thwarts him at every turn. His bitterness at being excluded from the rich kids’ club shows in his (somewhat misguided) criticisms, as does his insecurity and his constant need to ally himself with powerful figures. He’s kind of like Jay Gatsby that way (though, unlike Gatsby, Egan attempts to conceal his insecurity behind a loud, blustering pride in his blue-collar origins.). But just because Egan achieved a lot and could’ve achieved more doesn’t mean that other (well-educated, powerful) diplomats haven’t done similar things (Henry Kissinger, anyone?). Egan’s success, to me, is an interesting story because it happens despite his position, and not necessarily because of it. I just have this feeling that if he’d been a roofer rather than a restaurateur, he would’ve offered to put new roofs on things rather than give people food. He’d have done what he did regardless of his career.

The other kind of negative thing about this book is that it sometimes strays from its focus. If this book is about “waging peace with North Korea,” as the subtitle suggests, then it should be about that, and not Egan’s involvement with Vietnam or any other country. I can see including such things to build Egan’s ethos, to show that he really is a guy who knows what he’s talking about, but I still don’t feel like the inclusion of those other involvements are necessary.  I can see including a sentence or two, maybe even a paragraph, or alluding throughout the book to these other experiences with foreign diplomats, but as it is, I think the book devotes too much space to situations that are barely relevant. It muddies the focus of the book and weakens Egan’s overall message.

In spite of those couple of things that I didn’t like (and obviously I really didn’t like them), I thought this was a fairly interesting read. I feel like I understand more about the USA’s policies towards other nations. I feel like I was given a new, more sympathetic, perspective on these nations. And like most people, I’m a sucker for a rags-to-riches story. I wanted Egan to succeed so badly even though I’m living in 2010, after most of the events of the book have taken place, so I know how things have turned out. If you like memoir and you’re interested in international policy, you might really enjoy this book.

(For more on Egan, the North Koreans, and Cubby’s BBQ, check out this piece from Vanity Fair in Sept. 2007.)

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