Tales From the Bazaar

As individuals, few American diplomats have been as anonymous as the members of the group known as Arabists. And yet as a group, no cadre of diplomats has aroused more suspicion than the Arab experts have. Arabists are frequently accused of romanticism, of having "gone native"—charges brought with a special vehemence as a result of the recent Gulf War and the events leading up to it. Who are the Arabists? Where did they come from? Do they deserve our confidence?
The Iraq Debacle

The postmortem on the Gulf War has been under way for more than a year. The indications are that it will continue for some time, as congressional committees and other investigators reconstruct in fine detail the aims and mechanisms of the foreign policy of the Bush and Reagan Administraions. There will no doubt be many revelations. It is unlikely, however, that any of them will alter the general picture of what occurred: a policy of support for Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran led, after the war, to a policy of coddling and drift. Why did this occur? What role, if any, did the Arabists play?

The answer is not a simple one, but I will lay out some of the elements. First, for a long time—indeed, during most of the period when Iraq was actively at war with Iran—the Arabists had very little say in U.S. policy toward Iraq. Washington did, however, have a well-defined policy of helping the one thuggish regime against the other thuggish regime, which was openly and viciously anti-American. That policy may have been imperfect and cynical, but it made some sort of sense and it was a policy.

A second element is the following: Arabists by and large were comfortable with this policy anyway, for reasons, as we shall see, that have everything to do with the history and psychology of their profession.

A third element is this: When the Iran-Iraq war ended, U.S. policy entered a period of ambiguity. Washington had no clear aims with respect to Iraq, except to permit various financial and military interests in this country to do business with Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State James Baker, moreover, was increasingly preoccupied with German reunification and getting Arab-Israeli peace talks under way. This was the time when Arabists might usefully have sounded a warning—a warning at the very least to disengage. Instead, conditioned by their past and by their training, and by their perception of Iraq as the Arab country of the future, they pushed to maintain the status quo: a measure of engagement, a measure of appeasement.

William Eagleton is called by his former colleague Richard Murphy "the last of the great pashas" in the State Department. "Bill always had time for another trip to the souk or into the Kurdish mountains, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He loved getting away from Washington and into the field, which is not a bad thing." Marisa Lino, the U.S. consul-general in Florence, who served with Eagleton in both Iraq and Syria, explains that there are two kinds of State Department Arabists, the Washington policy type and the overseas cultural type, and that Eagleton was definitely the overseas type. Eagleton ran the U.S. Interests Section in Baghdad from 1980 through 1984, helping pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iraq and the United States which occurred following the end of his tenure. He later became the U.S. ambassador to Syria, and then left the Foreign Service to work for the United Nations in Vienna in behalf of Palestinian refugees. Eagleton is the only U.S. diplomat with a working knowledge of both Arabic and Kurdish to have served in Iraq. If ever someone in the State Department had the mental tools to understand Iraq and where it was headed, it was—or should have been—William Eagleton.

Eagleton was born in 1926 in Peoria, Illinois. He attended local public schools before going to Yale, where he began to master Spanish and French. His first Foreign Service job was in Madrid. "It was through southern Spain, with its Moorish element, that I became romantically interested in the Arab world," he explains. "I requested a Middle East posting and got Damascus in 1951." From that point onward Eagleton's overseas addresses appear more akin to those of an adventurer than to those of a diplomat: Kirkuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan; Tabriz, in northwestern Iran; Tangiers, Morocco; Noukchott, Mauritania; Aden, South Yemen; Algiers, Algeria; and finally Tripoli, Libya, before he went to live in Baghdad for four years.

"Read, travel, read, travel, that's the way to go," Eagleton told me. "Certainly the old Victorian travel books, but also some of the modern political stuff. An Arabist is someone interested in getting deep into the culture and people of the region. Those who aren't interested in the culture don't deserve the title of Arabist." Along the way Eagleton wrote not only a political history of the shortlived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (in post-Second World War Iran) but also a book on Kurdish carpets. In all those places Eagleton was his own boss, without even the need for ambassadorial protocol—running a lonely consulate in a provincial backwater, or an interests section in a radical Arab capital. When Eagleton was nominated to be ambassador to Syria, in 1984, his long stints in radical countries raised eyebrows in Congress. "The State Department didn't help me out much. I had to get Jewish friends from Cleveland and elsewhere to call [Senators Rudy] Boschwitz and [Howard] Metzenbaum to tell them—well; you know—that I was okay." Eagleton felt compelled to tell me this, although I hadn't asked him about his confirmation troubles. Actually, I found Eagleton's motives for passing his life in places like South Yemen, Libya, and Iraq quite easy to fathom. At sixty-five, he has eyes that still appear young and full of enthusiasm: they are the eyes of a traveler who has retained a youthful disposition by means of constant adventure, challenge, and cultural stimulation. Eagleton is a true spiritual descendant of the early missionary-explorers.

His critics on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff and on the National Security Council in the early 1980s—Reagan Administration appointees, for the most part—were never impressed, however. "Eagleton was a classic case," one of them told me. "He didn't know how to apply his cultural and ethnographic background knowledge to political analysis. We'd laugh at his cables."

I first met Eagleton in Baghdad, in March of 1984. It was in the wake of a horrific incident that the media generally failed to report. In June of 1983 Robert Spurling, an engineer from Illinois who was overseeing operations at the Novohotel in Baghdad, had arrived at Saddam International Airport with his wife and three daughters, in order to fly home to the Midwest. At passport control an Iraqi official informed Spurling that there was a "small problem" with his exit visa and asked him to wait while the rest of his family proceeded to the departure lounge. After his wife and daughters passed through the barrier, Spurling was arrested as a spy. Iraqi officials then ordered Spurling's wife and children onto the plane without him. Somehow his wife managed to phone the U.S. mission.

For three months the Iraqi authorities denied any knowledge of Spurling. Then, in August, after Eagleton's persistent appeals, Iraq admitted that it was holding such-and-such a man. Eagleton's own check into Spurling's background revealed that the Iraqi allegations of espionage were nonsense. In October the Iraqis delivered Spurling to Eagleton's doorstep. Spurling had been subjected to electric-shock torture in his genitals and elsewhere. He had been beaten with weighted fists and wooden bludgeons. His fingernails and toenails had been ripped out and his fingers and toes crushed. He had been kept in solitary confinement on a starvation diet.

A Canadian diplomat in Baghdad first told me the story, all of which Eagleton confirmed, adding that Spurling had spent several days recovering at Eagleton's official residence before flying back to the United States. "This is a completely arbitrary system," Eagleton told me during our conversation in 1984. "There are no laws, no charges filed; anything can happen. I wish I could recommend one Iraqi official who would be worth talking to, who might say something to you meaningful about his country. Unfortunately, there is no one I can think of. They're simply too scared." Eagleton added that the Iraqi security apparatus responsible for Spurling's arrest and torture was headed by Saddam's half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Takriti. Barzan later became Iraq's human-rights delegate in Geneva.

Eagleton also spoke about the Kurdish mountains. He indicated that one could not comprehend the puzzle of Iraq by knowing the Arab pieces alone—an insight that was less ordinary in 1984, when he expressed it, than it is now. Yet Eagleton was enthusiastic about the Arab portions, too: "You should read what the British had to say about Iraq. They loved this place." Though Eagleton dutifully noted the Spurling incident in his annual human-rights report, he urged me to see the matter in perspective. Never before had something like that happened to a U.S. citizen here, and Eagleton implied that he had obtained a commitment from the Iraqi authorities that it never would again. (So far it hasn't.) "Saddam is at the tough end of the moderate Arab world," Eagleton assured me in 1984. "Even when the Iran-Iraq war ends, Saddam could not return to his radical policies, because Iran will continue to be a threat and Iraq will need help from the Gulf Arabs."

When I saw Eagleton again, seven years later in Washington, after the end of the Gulf War, he defended that last statement. "I don't think I did anything wrong. Saddam was at the time moving precisely in the direction we wanted him to go—toward moderation. There was a period of a year back then when we had no documented evidence of Iraqi involvement in terrorism. So our policy, encouraged by [King] Fahd and [Hosni] Mubarak, reflected this. But I despised Saddam. I knew Iraq in the good old days [before the 1958 military coup, which ended the monarchy]. Now I couldn't even invite my friends from the bazaar to come to my house and look at my rugs. They would have been arrested."

Eagleton, who was held in suspicion by some of Saddam Hussein's clique because of his demonstrated concern for the Kurds, and who deserves credit for Spurling's release, did not feel in 1983 that the impending resumption of relations between the United States and Iraq was worth disrupting over a single incident, however unfortunate. An innocent American had been torn from his wife and children and tortured in the manner of a dreary bureaucratic procedure, unconnected to any war or invasion with which the United States was involved. If appeasement was a force gathering from a variety of particulars, then the U.S. government's ability to overlook the troubling implications of what Saddam's half-brother had done to this American seems indeed seminal. But appeasement does not perfectly describe our tragedy in Iraq. There are other factors. There is that faiblesse that Hume Horan spoke about, and there is also that ineradicable impulse among diplomats to find something useful to do in a country where there may be little useful to be done.

The Enthusiasm Factor

Archie Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and a pioneer Arabist at the Central Intelligence Agency, writes in his memoir, For Lust of Knowing, "Baghdad held so many fascinations it was difficult to tear myself away, but an entire country had yet to be explored and understood." It is the period of the Second World War he is writing of, and as Roosevelt himself points out, Baghdad was then a backwater of a backwater: a supply base for the British in neighboring Iran, who were holding back the Germans and, after a fashion, the Soviets there. His activities were less a function of the need for intelligence on Iraq's peoples than of his own fascination with Iraq. David Newton, another "top-of-the-curve" Horan contemporary, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 1984 through 1988, brought a similar enthusiasm to his job.

"If you have a strong historical knowledge of a place," Newton told me, "you see it through different eyes. And if you really know Baghdad, you can still get a sense of the Ottoman city. It's hard—sort of like reconstructing Homo erectus. But I love the souks. I'm a romantic at heart. During my time in Baghdad, I used to give small groups of embassy personnel guided tours around the city. One of the appeals of Iraq is that it's so distinctive. Once you're there, you can't be anywhere else. It's a reality that's not quite Persian, or Turkish, or even Arabian."

Like Eagleton before him, Newton had a romantic interest in Iraq that, it must be said, in no way blinded him to its horrors. These two men were always willing to talk to the few journalists who happened to show up in Baghdad to write about the regime's brutalities. When I first met Newton, in the Iraqi capital in August of 1986, another foreigner—Ian Richter, a British businessman—had just been arrested by the Iraqis on trumped-up charges. "This is the most terrified population in the Arab world," Newton told me. "If the security services somehow get it into their heads that you've done something, there's not much any of us can do to help." During that same visit I had my own brush with Iraq's regime-induced paranoia. I had been granted a visa to visit a group of pro-Saddam Hussein Kurds in the north who held territory over the border in Iran. But upon introducing me to my Kurdish hosts, Iraqi security men confiscated my passport. I did not see it again until two weeks later, when, in a car stuffed with the same morose-looking security men, it was handed back to me en route to the airport. Last spring I sought Newton out again to discuss what, exactly, he had thought he was accomplishing in Baghdad.

Newton is now the international affairs adviser at the National War College, in Washington, D.C., his spacious office in a domed brick building that is bordered by a golf green, the Washington Channel, and the Anacostia River. These comfortable surroundings made me realize how ridiculous is the notion that Arabists have fallen on hard times owing to the debacle in Iraq. Newton, fifty-six, is a dapper man with a trim moustache. He has years of first-hand experience in five Arab countries, and a "4" language rating not only in Arabic but also in German. This kind of man, unlike so many of the policy mavens who crowd Washington, has tangible assets that lose little of their market value because of this or that failure in prognostication. Arabists are like doctors and lawyers: you can be angry with them, but you will always have a need for their skills. During the Gulf War, Newton acted as an adviser to the Pentagon. Like Horan, Murphy, Eagleton, and other ex-ambassadors in the Arab world, he is in a way making a sacrifice by staying in the academic and policy fields. All these people could be earning more money with oil companies or other Middle East business interests.

"I was a bookworm as a kid," Newton recalls. "By eleven I wanted to be an archaeologist, because of a fascination with ancient Egypt. What hooked me permanently on the Near East was the lectures I attended at Harvard by Sir Hamilton Gibb, a wonderful orientalist." Gibb, whose writings are replete with exquisitely subtle criticisms of Arab Islamic civilization, is nevertheless loathed by Elie Kedourie and other Zionists because of his fundamental toleration of the existing Arab political order—just as Loy Henderson, though admired by old State Department hands for his clairvoyance regarding Stalin and his role in getting the Soviets to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946, is seen by some friends of Israel as a villain who was opposed to the creation of the Jewish state. Attitudes like these, refined and hardened over decades, toward Gibb, Henderson, and innumerable other obscure figures, give the outsider a sense of how vast is the psychological chasm separating the Arab-oriented and Israeli-oriented subcultures in Washington.

Yet it is a Palestinian Arab scholar, Edward Said, who is hardest on Gibb, claiming in his book Orientalism that "Gibb's inaugural biases remain a formidable obstacle for anyone hoping to understand modern Islam." Newton responds, annoyed: "Said did a job on orientalists. You can't judge people of the 1940s by the standards of the 1980s. There were no Arab scholars back then on Gibb's level." Not only Newton but also other Arabists, I found, feel genuinely caught between the animus of friends of Israel on one hand and that of Arab scholars on the other.

Prominently displayed in Newton's office are color photographs of himself and April Glaspie—his successor as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq—in the presidential palace in Baghdad, both smiling as they introduce Saddam Hussein and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to a congressional delegation led by Senators Robert Dole and Alan K. Simpson. This was the occasion, a few months before the invasion of Kuwait, when Dole and Simpson apologized to Saddam Hussein for Voice of America broadcasts critical of his regime. "I keep these photos in the office as a teaching device: they fascinate my students," Newton told me. He seems to be a man completely at peace with himself, who talks easily and honestly about his mistakes.

"Saddam put a lot of emphasis on nation-building and the Westernization of the economy, which was popular. Because he had everybody scared, one would have thought that there was no reason for excess brutality. Obviously, the gassing of the Kurds [in March of 1988] affected my view. We worked on intuition, with very few sources."

"After the Kurds were gassed, why didn't you just pull out—close the embassy?" I asked, alluding to a conversation I had had some years back with Robert Keeley, a former ambasssdor to Greece who now heads the Middle East Institute, in Washington. Keeley shut the U.S. embassy in Uganda at the time of Idi Amin's reign of terror. "You maintain a diplomatic presence as long as you're effective," Keeley told me. "But in Uganda there came a point when we really were no longer able to have an effect. To be true to our own values, the only thing we could do was to leave, and scream about Amin from the outside."

Newton said, "That made sense for Uganda"—a landlocked country of no strategic or economic importance to the United States. "But it's naive to think you can just pull out of a militarily powerful and oil-rich developing country on the Gulf with which American companies were doing hundreds of millions of dollars of trade." What might have been accomplished in Iraq, according to Newton, was that over time, with U.S. help, "Iraq's level of repression could have been improved to that of Syria."

Arabist-bashers could have a lot of fun with that statement, reeking as it seems to of moral relativism. But it needs explaining. Despite several visits to Syria, I was shocked the first time I arrived in Iraq. In Damascus, I could walk into the telex room of the post office and punch out a story unsupervised. In Baghdad plate glass separated me from the telex machines. My copy was handed to an Iraqi on the other side of the window, and that was that. I could travel wherever I wanted to in Syria; in Iraq trying to would have landed me in prison. Going to Syria from Iraq was like coming up for air. Making a Syria out of an Iraq would be a minor human-rights miracle. "But appreciating this," notes Peter Bechtold, who runs the Middle East area-studies program at the Foreign Service Institute, "requires a frame of reference based on travel experience that not only most Americans lack, but so do people on the National Security Council."

Frame of reference is the clue to understanding the behavior of Newton and his colleagues in Iraq. Living in Baghdad lays bare a second reality besides the one of the prison yard and the torture chamber: the reality of an urban, essentially middle-class culture crying out silently to the West. In no other densely populated zone of the Arab world is Islam so downplayed and literacy so widespread as in Iraq. This urbanization has not come about through the destabilizing migration of peasants into the big cities, as has occurred in Iran and Egypt, although it is true that Iraq is unstable: because its relatively efficient and well-educated people live in crowded conditions and are riven by tribal and national feuds, extreme levels of repression are required to hold the country together. Yet the promise of an Arab state empowered by its middle class, and thus truly modern, has always been there; it is what attracted the British in the first place. Until 1958, when the military overthrew the pro-British monarchy, Iraq, in the words of the British Arabist Peter Mansfield, "was the West's favorite Arab state," considered to have an industrial and agricultural potential unrivaled in the Middle East. It was this same ever-present pageant of secular urbanism, so much more visible and dynamic than the analogous process in other Arab countries, that formed the ground on which U.S. diplomats placed their hopes, theorizing that whatever the gruesome brutalities of the regime, the social reality would eventually have to overcome that which the regime tried to impose on it; one just needed to be patient and work in the interstices until that day dawned. To be sure, for Newton, McCreary, and the others, the sheer professional excitement of living and working in a core Arab country provided a significant motive for investing one's tour of duty with a high goal. By the time this enthusiasm wore thin, the tour had expired and a replacement arrived bearing a fresh supply of idealism. Competition for a posting in Baghdad was always intense.

Norman Anderson, who served in Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia and also as the ambassador to Sudan, makes this observation relevant to his colleagues in Iraq: "There is not enough posting continuity in the Mideast, because with so many embassies in Arabic-speaking countries, it is rare for a diplomat to go to the same place twice. Kennan and Bohlen were able to be on target regarding Stalin because they each had several tours of duty in the Soviet Union, the only place where Russian is spoken." Though the situation was ameliorated somewhat by "lateral cable traffic," whereby reports from the Baghdad embassy were sent for review and comment to Arabists with earlier experience in Iraq, one was nevertheless reminded of something that had occurred in Vietnam: because every ambitious officer wanted time in a combat zone, they all got twelve-month tours, and in the process little institutional memory was accumulated on the battlefield.

Some Arabists argue that the closed and totalitarian nature of Saddam Hussein's regime made accurate assessments of it problematic anyway. Chas Freeman, who has been the ambassador to Saudi Arabia since before the Gulf War, disagrees. "Area expertise means sufficient understanding of a language and a local reasoning process to put yourself in the position of a decision-maker in that society and make a fairly accurate prediction about what he will do. If the number of decision-makers is limited, then you actually have a better statistical chance of predicting the future, because all your analytical energies can be focused on one individual: Saddam."

But the succession of embassy staffs in Baghdad—impressed, like the British, by the awesome human and economic potential of Iraq—were not thinking coldly enough about the bloodstained ruler of the country. Nor were they encouraged to. Remember, the Arabists in Baghdad contributed to but did not ultimately formulate U.S. policy. My talk with Eagleton in 1984 came during a period when CIA Director William Casey was rumored to be striking an intelligence deal with Iraq as a lever against the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. U.S.-Iraqi trade was then beginning to boom, and both the non-Arabist commercial element of Eagleton's staff and the Arabist political one had few qualms about conducting business as usual.

A Policy Vacuum

Through Eagleton's and Newton's tenures in Baghdad the area specialists were at least operating within a well-defined policy construct. In 1988, however, the Iran-Iraq war ended, and Saddam Hussein provided a glimpse of his postwar self by exterminating five thousand Kurdish civilians. That was the time to begin a vigorous reassessment of the eight-year tilt toward Iraq, especially since a new Administration was entering the White House and a new ambassador was about to be dispatched to Baghdad. But the policy review seems never to have taken place.

Part of the reason for this was the new Secretary of State, James Baker, and the way in which he shifted the balance of power inside the State Department. Baker is the most powerful and interesting Secretary of State since Kissinger. At the outset both men distrusted the career Foreign Service, particularly the area specialists. But, according to Freeman, "Kissinger quickly acquired the talent to dig into the bowels of the bureaucracy while circumventing senior officials, in order to suck out the bank of information the area experts represented." Baker is different. One former assistant secretary says, "To a greater extent than Kissinger, Baker operates alone. He meets with a Middle Eastern leader, then he tells Dennis Ross [the head of the Policy Planning Staff] what Ross needs to know, then Ross gives orders to his own subordinate, and so on. It's a narrow chain of command."

The only Middle East issue that really energized Baker was the one with a domestic political payoff: the Arab-Israeli question. That is why one saw the elevation of people like Ross and Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Kurtzer—people who are not traditional Arabists but, in the words of an Arabist colleague of theirs, "Arab-Israeli wallahs," with limited interest in peripheral inter-Arab disputes. This may partly explain why, as critics observed, by 1990 Iraq was completely "off the radar screen."

Ambassadors, Horan says, can and should make policy recommendations, but as Foreign Service professionals they have a duty to reflect, exactly, Washington's current attitude toward a particular country. April Glaspie's fate was to succeed Newton as ambassador to Iraq at a time when there was more drift than actual policy. And so, as in the days of Her Majesty's colonial administration—when the British Arab Bureau was a law unto itself—the area specialists were left to fill the vacuum with their own goals and justifications for being in the awful country they were in, goals and justifications not always fully congruent with those of the nation whose interests they were supposed to serve.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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