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?
April Glaspie

Iraq certainly has a way of conferring fame on female Arabists. But let it be understood that April Glaspie is in a league entirely different from that of Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell. They, despite their impressive knowledge, were essentially amateurs whose leisure time, the result of inherited wealth, allowed for the development of their personalities in exotic climes. Glaspie is the opposite: a consummate professional and "Washington-type" Arabist, a workaholic upper-echelon bureaucrat rather than a grand lady.

Henry Kissinger is said to have been impressed by Glaspie during his shuttle diplomacy of the mid-1970s, when she was posted to Cairo—and not because, as has been suggested, she found a quick-service laundry for him but because she was doing everything from finding the laundry to taking care of consular matters to analyzing Egyptian political trends (this was before the U.S. reestablished relations with Egypt, and our diplomatic staff was consequently still skeletal). Hume Horan, his institutional loyalty flaring, bears witness: "April's our Joan of Arc, top of the curve, a first-class Arabist. The media need a villain, so they've painted her as 'the appeaser.' But ambassadors look only as good or as bad as the policy they represent. I was fortunate in Sudan, because Washington backed me up to the hilt with a moral and clearcut policy. That was not the case in Iraq."

Samuel W. Lewis, the president of the United States Institute of Peace and a former ambassador to Israel, provided a more exacting interpretation of the ambassador's role at a recent conference in Washington devoted to diplomacy: "The responsibility of the ambassador and his staff is to know more about the country they're in than anyone else and to make policy recommendations to the government." In the view of Lewis, Horan, and others, the ambassador's recommendations, if not always approved, should at least serve as the basis for ongoing policy discussions regarding a particular country. By this definition Glaspie may not have been the villain that the scandal- and personality-obsessed media require in order to simplify the complex question of why the United States was caught off guard by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But more than any other individual in the career State Department, she does bear responsibility. Therefore, a close look at her record is called for.

"April has never been involved in any issue where she was not a policy-driver," says a former colleague who knows her well. "She was dynamic and aggressive, and supremely confident. April dominated issues. It was just not in her character to be a passive ambassador implementing a policy she did not fully agree with." Indeed, Glaspie's influence on U.S. Middle East policy was significant even before she became ambassador, when she headed the State Department's northern Arabian division, which put Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan within her domain.

In fact, it was Syria's alleged terrorist activities that may have revealed Glaspie's policy viewpoint most clearly. In 1986 British and Israeli intelligence caught an Arab terrorist, Nizar Hindawi, attempting to smuggle a bomb aboard an El Al jetliner at London's Heathrow Airport in the suitcase of his unsuspecting, pregnant girlfriend. Electronic eavesdropping revealed that Hindawi had been receiving orders through the Syrian embassy, whose ambassador was subsequently expelled. The European Community took the unusual step of imposing sanctions on Syria before the United States did. "April and Bill Eagleton were violently opposed to a tough American reaction," says a former colleague. "I remember violent discussions with them." One source describes the policy dispute between Glaspie's northern Arabian division and State's counterterrorism people as a bureaucratic "guerrilla war."

"April Glaspie was much more protective of radical Arabs than our policy justified," says a bureaucratic rival at the State Department. With respect to Iraq, Glaspie advocated everything possible to make the Iraqis feel comfortable to avoid a disruption in relations. A Capitol Hill staff member adds, "Her meeting with Saddam Hussein was the culmination of a failed policy line that she and [NEA Assistant Secretary John] Kelly had been tirelessly advocating since 1988." This same person indicates that Dole and Simpson's apology for the VOA broadcasts calling for democracy in Iraq was the result of a prior briefing by Glaspie, which "conditioned the senators for the cave-in." A second source, who accompanied the senators on the trip, is of the same opinion: "I am a hundred percent sure that the apology was the result of Ambassador Glaspie's briefing."

In September of 1987, when the State Department had submitted Glaspie's name to the White House and Congress for approval as the next ambassador to Iraq, some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not been pleased. True, her record was impressive. Glaspie had won several State Department awards for political reporting from Egypt and from Kuwait, and a Superior Honor award for her work in Damascus. But, as one former Senate staff member told me, Iraq in 1987 was the only Arab country fighting a major war, and it had the most brutal and difficult regime in the Arab world, and yet the State Department was "pushing hard" a nominee who had never before been tested as an ambassador—for a job where, as another staff member now puts it, "one's reporting skills are less important than one's representing skills."

Glaspie's reputation—deserved or undeserved—for being too sympathetic to Arab radicals also did not help her. Another irritating factor, according to both a Senate staff member and a formerly high-ranking Arabist, was that at roughly the same time that Glaspie's name was submitted, the State Department had asked Congress to confirm Robert H. Pelletreau Jr. as ambassador to Tunisia. Pelletreau has always been popular in Washington. A former ambassador to Bahrain who had worked at the Defense Department, Pelletreau had firsthand experience in dealing with Israelis as well as with Arabs, and has a reputation for being bold, analytical, and tough as nails. "We felt Glaspie should have gone to Tunisia, a less challenging post, to gain ambassadorial experience," says a Senate source, "and Pelletreau should have gone to Iraq. He was the perfect person for dealing with Saddam." (Pelletreau is now the ambassador to Egypt.)

As it turned out, the Senate committee held up Glaspie's nomination for six months before confirming her. "A few people were uneasy about the choice," a staff member says. "But there was no smoking gun."

But the truth about a person as talented as Glaspie is complex, and the foregoing is just one layer of it. Chas Freeman recalls, "The few times I met her, I got the feeling of a tough woman." Freeman met Glaspie in Bonn in April of 1990, almost four months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They and other U.S. ambassadors in the Middle East had come to Germany for a conference with John Kelly. Among the many documents submitted for review at this chiefs-of-mission conference was a long, three-part telegram crafted by Freeman and his embassy staff in Riyadh. Freeman thought that the winding-down of the Cold War would affect theaters beyond Europe. There would be "a collapse in the Horn of Africa" (which soon took place, with the overthrow of leftist regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia) and an upsurge in the expression of age-old local rivalries throughout the Arab world. The telegram specifically warned of the danger of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait.

"The telegram flew in the face of Kelly and his staff," one source says. But one of the few people who spoke up and supported Freeman's thesis about Saddam Hussein's intentions was Glaspie. "April was certainly not wearing blinkers regarding the despicable nature of the Iraqi regime and its potential for troublemaking," said a source who had access to the pre-invasion cables.

There need not be a contradiction between the April Glaspie whose policy recommendations were soft on Saddam Hussein and the one who recognized his potential for wreaking havoc. What her friends and enemies repeatedly mention about her is that, as one person said, "April is intellectually honest, loves a good argument, and is always willing to entertain another point of view." In short, rather than a bureaucratic rubber stamp, she was an exemplary Foreign Service officer, whose policy recommendations in this case—not to do anything that would provoke or annoy the Iraqi President, because that would be likely to feed his paranoia—turned out to be tragically inappropriate.

"The Seventh Floor"—the Secretary of State and his top advisers—never did act on Freeman's telegram. Kelly's skepticism may have been only one of the reasons. Like most bureaucracies, the State Department is bedeviled by information overload. Foreign Service officers send thousands of cables daily from more than two hundred embassies and consulates around the world. Many world crises have doubtless been predicted in one cable or another that never got the proper attention. One Arabist says, "If George Kennan sent his famous Long Telegram about Soviet intentions today, nobody high up would get to read it."

Hostages to Idealism

Not only was April Glaspie perhaps the victim of a distracted policy apparatus, but those signals that Washington did transmit to her could only have been confusing. The Administration, concentrating on the Baltic States, the reunification of Germany, and Arab-Israeli issues in early 1990, while indicating its intention to withdraw from the Gulf those ships that remained from the l988 Kuwait reflagging operation, seemed to encourage its diplomats in Baghdad to ignore Iraq's behavior toward Kuwait (even as behind-the-scenes aid to Iraq continued). To confront a powerful and volatile dictator, an ambassador needs specific support from Washington. Otherwise—as the Foreign Service drills into the heads of its career officers—an ambassador is supposed to ferret out the ruler's intentions, take notes, and report immediately to the State Department.

April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein one week before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Glaspie saw Hussein without a notetaker, because she had been summoned to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on short notice and did not know that she was about to meet the Iraqi President, with whom she had never had a private meeting during her two years in Baghdad. She wondered if this could be the beginning of an "opening," says a colleague of hers, and she obviously wanted the meeting to go well, especially as there was no time to get special instructions from Washington.

Glaspie told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at an open hearing that the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, which depicts her as acting in a fawning manner toward Saddam Hussein, and as appearing to indicate that the United States did not care how Iraq settled its border dispute with Kuwait, was doctored. But Senate staffers say that the Iraqi transcript and her own cable of the event "track almost perfectly." Glaspie, they and other observers conclude, was the ultimate staff person—obsessed with the diplomatic process to the point where she couldn't accept that sometimes it is better for the process to collapse than for it to continue.

Her performance turned out to be emblematic of the policy vacuum in Washington and of the pathetic political labors of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in the six years since relations had been re-established. Only after Iraq invaded Kuwait did Washington clearly enunciate its position, when George Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, belatedly decided that Kuwait was something we cared about.

Glaspie told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "by staying [in Iraq] we could undertake diplomatic activity," such as extracting a promise from the Iraqis after the Kurds were gassed "that they wouldn't do it again." Listen again to McCreary: "In an awful country the smallest victory, no matter how inconsequential, gives you an incredibly big boost." These are not unlike the rationalizations of hostages, who try to occupy the endless stream of days with uplifting activity. Rather than appeasers, our Foreign Service officers in Baghdad—in the absence of responsible guidance from Washington—became hostages to a professional idealism that blinded them to the obvious: by the late 1980s having diplomatic relations with Iraq was not an achievement but a concession.

But maintaining relations is an entrenched habit of mind, and not just among Arabists. The State Department's attitude, according to Robert Keeley, is "We open embassies; we don't close them." In March of 1973, when Keeley sent a cable advising Washington to "seriously consider" closing its Uganda embassy, because of security problems arising from the iniquities of Idi Amin, the State Department sent out an inspector to see if Keeley had taken leave of his senses. Regarding Iraq, having recently upgraded the interests section in Baghdad to full embassy status, after a lapse of seventeen years, the idea of downgrading it to an interests section once again, in order to show displeasure over the extermination of the Kurds, ran counter to the Foggy Bottom mindset that Eagleton explains: "Once you downsize re-lations, it's hard to upgrade again without a pretext, so you can't pull out an ambassador every time you get mad."

Richard Parker, Eagleton's longtime friend and Arabist colleague, politely but strongly disagrees. "We certainly should have lowered relations in 1988. We shouldn't even have re-established them in 1984. All it did was help massage Saddam's ego." One of Glaspie's subordinates in Baghdad admits, "We had absolutely no influence."

Sustained only by vague hopes, the Americans in Iraq, like the British a half century before, were destined to watch in disbelief as another farhoud unleashed its fury. This time Kuwaitis, not Jews, paid the price.

A New Breed?

A break in diplomatic relations constitutes the worst career nightmare for a Foreign Service officer. That is why the will to cut relations must come from the Seventh Floor and the White House. One U.S. diplomat who had been assigned to a troubled Arab country told me, "If the size of our mission staff had been cut down, I was next on the list to be sent home to Washington. I desperately, desperately wanted to stay on post. I'm Jewish. The Six-Day War was one of those defining moments of my youth, when I really identified with being a Jew. Radical Arab countries were like the dark side of the moon for me. To learn Arabic and serve as a diplomat in one of these places was just fascinating. How could I be expected to want to leave after just arriving?"

I'll call this diplomat Walter—he is an Arabist who may again serve in a radical Arab country, and does not want his real name used in connection with his religion. He has been a political officer in both the Arab world and Israel. He is distinctly middle-class, with degrees from the State University of New York at Binghamton and Stony Brook. I interviewed him at his mother-in-law's townhouse, in an unremarkable New Jersey development, where he was spending his vacation between assignments.

Walter is typical of the new generation of Arabists now moving into important positions. An increasing number of them have ethnic and suburban roots, have studied Hebrew, and have served in Israel. Molly Williamson, an Asian-American who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew, was recently named the U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem—perhaps the most sensitive of Foreign Service assignments, because of its key role in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Though she refuses to be quoted, Williamson revealed herself in several recent conversations with me to be someone who has gone beyond mere objectivity, to a point where she deeply intuits the angst-ridden thought processes of Arabs and Jews alike. The elevation of a new-breed Arabist like her not only suggests that knowledge of both Semitic languages is a likely route to promotion in today's State Department but also shows how James Baker, despite his grievous mistake over Iraq, seems to be sharpening NEA into a precision tool for the years of tortuous peace negotiation ahead.

Another characteristic of the new Arabists is that many of them have Peace Corps backgrounds. Walter, for instance, served in the Peace Corps in the Muslim word before joining the Foreign Service. More than a third of those Foreign Service officers chosen for last year's Senior Seminar—a prestigious program for potential ambassadors—were Peace Corps veterans. The Peace Corps experience, redolent as it is of foreign aid to the Third World, may seem hopelessly out of date in the current post-Cold War climate. But in terms of what the Foreign Service needs to improve its analytical skills and to adapt to this new reality, the Peace Corps has never been more relevant.

Peace Corps graduates, adept at living and working in the bush on meager resources, are oriented toward a leaner Foreign Service that gets out onto the streets—embassy paperwork be damned—to find out what is going on. The growth of the Peace Corps contingent among Arabists, and in the Foreign Service at large, runs parallel to the middle-class takeover of the formerly elitist State Department—a process that has now reached the point of saturation. A Peace Corps background in today's State Department carries the allure that an Ivy League education once had.

These new Arabists stand old stereotypes on their heads. Alberto Fernandez, for instance is a thirty-four-year-old Cuban-American from Miami. A graduate of the University of Arizona, he came into the Foreign Service by way of the U.S. Army, where he volunteered for Arabic training at the Defense Language Institute. "After growing up in an insular and suffocating ethnic society, I needed something completely different to define myself," he says. Because of his knowledge of Spanish and Arabic, Fernandez has served in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

He is critical of the older generation: "It's true Arabists have not liked Middle Eastern minorities. Arabists have been guilty in the past of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as 'Arabism.' I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as fascists. I love and am fascinated by minorities: Maronites, Copts, southern Sudanese, Kurds, whatever. I feel less strongly about the cause of the Palestinians than I used to. There are lots of injustices in the world, and self-determination is not something the Arabs want to apply anywhere else in the Middle East."

Yet Fernandez, like all the Arabists I interviewed, sees the Arab world embarking on a long and convoluted path toward political modernization. Other Arabists adumbrate Fernandez's point. Although unable to predict specific developments a few months down the road, they draw the vague outlines of the longer-term future more confidently. "The Saudis will, over time, rewrite their social contract without ever ripping up the old one," Chas Freeman, the ambassador in Riyadh, says. Jack McCreary says, "There is an enormous widening gap between the regimes and the people. Arabs see clearly that they are cut off from their own governments and that their press lies. Arab intellectuals trust Israel Radio's Arabic service more than their own stations. If Arab governments want to control their own populations in the future, they're going to have to tell the truth more often." Dovetailing with such liberalization, some Arabists say, will be a further breakup in the Arab world itself, with the Mahgreb states and the Gulf sheikhdoms increasingly consumed by their own regional problems.

Whatever the destiny of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship, it seems possible that the coming decades in the Middle East may be less traumatic for the United States than previous decades. Although Americans are certainly disappointed at Saddam Hussein's ability to hold on to power in Iraq, the Arabist assumption that Iraq will undergo a middle-class-driven reform in keeping with its secular and urban character may yet, given enough years, prove accurate. If history teaches us anything, it is that nothing is permanent. But the metamorphosis will be frustratingly slow.

Peter Rodman, of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, wonders whether the Arabists' best days actually lie ahead. "Since we will no longer have to look at the Middle East in East-West terms, it might be more appropriate, as Arabists have always urged, to treat the region on its own terms. But Arabists may blow their opportunity if they take a sentimental view of the fundamentalist phenomenon, which is the new strategic danger." In a new climate, in which various forces impel Arab leaders to focus inward on their own societies rather than on Israel, the interstices that Arabists operate within should be wider and remain open for longer periods.

The importance of exploiting those interstices—pushing matters like food aid, cultural relations, and hostage negotiations forward before an opening disappears, and then going back and starting over again—cannot be overstated, for it is in this way, rather than on the level of grand policy, that Arabists do their most effective work. Norman Anderson, the former ambassador to Sudan, observes, "Foreign affairs has become so complicated and multilateral—with issues like drugs, the environment, and famine, as well as trade and military—that Washington can't know exactly how its policies are to be carried out in each individual country in every specific case. That is the job of the embassies. And it's hard to gather information on a country and do all this without knowledge of the language." He adds that just as he was the only Arabic-speaking U.S. diplomat in Sudan when a coup occurred, April Glaspie was the only Arabic-speaking U.S. diplomat in Iraq on the eve of the invasion of Kuwait. (McCreary had finished his tour of duty there.) Although around two dozen U.S. embassies and consulates have multiple job slots requiring a knowledge of Arabic, Anderson notes that "in the same year in which we dispatched five hundred thousand troops to the Arab world, the Foreign Service field school in Tunis could graduate only half a dozen Arabic-speakers." His implication is clear: if we had produced more of the latter over enough years, we might not have needed the former.

During a recent vacation on the Rhode Island shore, Chas Freeman imparted to me his vision of a smaller and more expert Foreign Service, perhaps along the lines of European ones, whose officers are all multilingual and street-wise—again, the Peace Corps model. An affectingly cocky and opinionated man who speaks Chinese and a half-dozen other languages in addition to Arabic, and who translated for President Nixon during Nixon's 1972 visit to China, Freeman gripes about a Foreign Service bureaucracy that now produces too much paperwork and too few language-proficient officers, and a Washington foreign-policy establishment that distracts everyone's attention with solecisms that don't relate to what the United States should or should not do, can or cannot do, in the field. "To focus more effectively on domestic policy, you've got to disengage politically from foreign policy while engaging in it at a more expert level on the ground overseas."

That is not to say that we need a cadre of independent operators. Even in the conduct of a diplomacy marked by diminished activism there is no substitute for clear objectives, clearly spelled out by Washington. But assuming that these exist, then the expertise and frontiersmanship of the Peace Corps veteran Jack McCreary—the wiser from his experience in Iraq—are the qualities we should look for in a post-Cold War Foreign Service.

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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