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Foreign policy conference shows Maine's best side

For 22 years, Camden has been a place for leading foreign policy minds to exchange ideas.


Twenty two years ago, Harvey Picker, a few retired CIA officers and other local leaders founded the Camden Conference with the rather audacious subtitle "A Community Forum for Exchange of Ideas on Key Global Issues."

Over the years, the weekend conference, always in February, has grown in scope and stature. Now a ticket to Conference HQ at the Camden Opera House is as hot an item as one for a Red Sox-Yankees game.

The conference routinely draws some of the best minds in foreign and defense policy and has now spread to three remote venues, including the Hannaford Auditorium at the University of Southern Maine, through a link with the World Affairs Council.

This year's conference was titled "Global Leadership and the U.S. Role in World Affairs," timely indeed with a new administration in Washington.

The agenda was loaded with foreign policy heavyweights, leading off with Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to three presidents, and closing with John Deutch, former CIA director in the Clinton administration.

One of the hallmarks of the Camden Conference is that the speeches are relatively brief and the period for questions is relatively long, allowing for real dialogue.

Moreover, the attendees have a well-deserved reputation for asking tough questions (and for being "Maine casual" in their dress code).

One would not be surprised to learn that the gentleman in the plaid shirt asking Deutch a question on Kashmir turns out to be one of the world's leading experts on that area – and he is from Owls Head.

Many of the speakers at this year's conference focused on the challenges facing the Obama administration in foreign policy – not surprisingly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a clear Number One, followed by South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan), Iraq and Iran.

Interestingly enough, several of the speakers spoke of the need for the United States to find partners in its foreign policy initiatives – an obvious failure of the Bush administration. This led to discussion of reform of the United Nations, particularly expanding the Security Council to reflect the rising influence of such countries as India and Brazil.

The most intense dialogue was focused on Israel and Palestine. Speakers such as Scowcroft and Tamara Wittes from the Brookings Institution encouraged the Obama administration to play a more aggressive and more balanced role.

One key may be getting an agreement between Israel and Syria, apparently possible if the U.S. is willing to broker a deal that would include a peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights. There may be opportunity here for former Sen.George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East – so the world hopes.

The Camden Conference, though, is more than simply a discussion of current foreign policy challenges – as good as this dialogue is.

It demonstrates each year what can be done by a small, talented and determined Maine community eager to connect with the world.

It also demonstrates the ability of Maine to attract and embrace some special people in places like Camden.

Of these there is no better example than Harvey Picker, a founder of the conference, who died last year at the age of 92 and to whom this year's conference was dedicated.

Picker was one of those remarkable business leaders who was attracted here by his love of sailing. In the early 1980s Picker "retired" here to become a major force in business in the Camden area through his ownership of Wayfarer Marine. He also became a major force in public policy in Maine.

When I met Picker he had just embarked on the thankless task of reforming Maine's onerous and prohibitively expensive worker's compensation laws.

Most pundits did not believe that a solution agreeable to both management and labor could be crafted. Under Picker's leadership, the commission he headed did just that. The agreement put in place as a result of this work has been a model – a highly effective piece of public policy.

As the tribute to Picker in this year's program suggests, he was "a physicist, inventor, educator, businessman, philanthropist, and sailor ... his list of accomplishments seems endless." Picker was also gracious and self-effacing. He was a gem.

We will miss Picker, but we were fortunate to have had him with us as long as we did.

We are also fortunate that the unique character of this state continues to attract such talented people here and to embrace them and all they contribute.

The Camden Conference is but one aspect of this rich legacy.