For Jack McCreary, it was a moment of sweet satisfaction. A self-described "child of the sixties," who had spent nearly two decades of his life in the Arab world, McCreary was the U.S. embassy's press and culture officer in Iraq in January of 1988, when the doors of the new American Cultural Center, on Mansour Street in Baghdad, opened for the first time. At last, McCreary thought, there was one place under Saddam Hussein's rule where ordinary Iraqis and Americans could talk to each other in the same room. "The great thing about living for long stretches in an awful country," McCreary said during an evening I spent with him and his wife, Carol, at their home in Virginia, "is the smallest victory, no matter how pathetic and inconsequential, gives you an incredibly big boost."
Life in Baghdad for the McCrearys and their young daughters, Kate and Joanna, was made up of a number of such boosts. If anyone can squeeze a little water from an ugly regime's monolithic stone, it is McCreary.
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, McCreary entered the Peace Corps, serving in Marrakech, Morocco, where he and Carol met and were married. At the American University of Cairo, McCreary perfected his Arabic. He then joined the U.S. Foreign Service, working as a political officer at American embassies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. In Yemen, where I first met him, McCreary was becoming frustrated. Doing his job properly, he felt, ought to mean immersing himself in Arabic with Arabs. "I still marvel at the physical beauty of Arabic script. I'm shocked at people who come to Arab countries and can't read the signs." But Yemen, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was politically closed and sterile. Embassy officers were denied regular, official contact with Yemenis. McCreary, who has a "4" rating in Arabic, on a Foreign Service test scale of 5—meaning he speaks and reads Arabic fluently—was meeting nobody except other diplomats. So he gave up the job of political officer in order to run the embassy's press and culture division. As far as his career was concerned, this was an unorthodox move. But McCreary's life changed. "Suddenly I was with Yemenis all the time."
Hume Horan, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Sudan, observes, "It's the embassy cultural officers who get the real internist's-eye view of a difficult country. They have fewer restrictions placed on their movements. Since Arab writers and artists are in a terrible financial situation and nobody cares about their work, they come cheap: for the price of a meal and a bit of appreciation they'll pour their souls out to you, providing the kind of psychological clues to the workings of a system that a political officer will never get from his Foreign Ministry contacts."
In the summer of 1987, after finishing his assignment in Yemen, McCreary was posted to Iraq. "On a strictly political level, nothing was happening," McCreary explained. "The embassy people knew nobody at the palace. We had no access to the Baath Party. We'd invite Iraqis to receptions and they were too frightened to show up. For us to claim we knew Baghdad would have been like a Third World diplomat claiming to know Washington because there was one desk officer at the State Department who returned his phone calls. But on the cultural level in Iraq there was tremendous hope."
Western secular culture was a bone that Saddam tossed to his affluent urban subjects. Among other things, Baghdad was the lone Arab capital offering classical piano and violin recitals and a degree program in European music. McCreary's daughters took ballet lessons at an Iraqi government school. McCreary became involved in a jazz club, Al-Ghareeb ("The Stranger"), in downtown Baghdad, where he played the saxophone and Joseph Wilson, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, sang, while McCreary's daughter Kate—along with a crowd of Iraqi artists—made charcoal sketches of the performances. "It was a marvelous place: jazz at night, me playing, Kate and the Iraqis drawing away. From the point of view of my job, the Iraqis' interest in classical music and jazz was certainly to be encouraged."
The jazz club and his daughters' ballet lessons bought McCreary and his wife rare entrees to the homes of numerous Iraqi families. "It was an artsy crowd of ancient regime types and politically neutered intellectuals. Carol and I worked constantly to give these people a sense of American values, to demonstrate how free people think and behave: to show them it was possible. But they were cowed. The big crisis in one family was the teenage daughter, whose beauty had attracted one of Saddam's Takriti goons." (Takrit is Saddam Hussein's birthplace, and that of many of his closest associates.)
The United States Information Agency helped arrange for an American singer, Billy Stephens, to give a concert in Baghdad. Stephens sang "We Shall Overcome" and John Lennon's "Imagine." But when the singer asked the crowd of English-speaking Iraqis to join in, there was silence. "Nobody dared," Carol McCreary remembered.
"But there was such hope, things really were getting better," Carol went on. She described the lifting of internal travel restrictions after the Iran-Iraq War was over, and the end of rationing. The American diplomatic community in Baghdad assumed that there was a thin wedge of opportunity it could exploit, especially after the revolution in Romania. Maybe it could happen here. The diplomats all knew it wasn't much of a hope, but it was enough to keep them going.
Jack McCreary said, "Of course, considering all that has happened, this must sound silly to you. I'm embarrassed to talk about it. They were building chemical and nuclear weapons while they let a few diplomats open a library and play in a jazz club. It all seems so stupid and misguided."
The McCrearys, whom a right-wing observer might be tempted to ridicule as "liberal, multicultural, Peace Corps types," have in fact tested a canon of neoconservative interventionism—"the export of democracy"—on a deeply personal level under the worst possible conditions, and have the emotional scars to prove it. "The Arab world can be a nasty place," says a key State Department official currently engaged in Middle East diplomacy. "But the Arabist is someone who doesn't have the luxury to theorize from the sidelines. He must actually live there and work solo with this intractable reality."
McCreary and his colleagues are, of course, aware that "Arabist" is among the most loaded words in America's political lexicon. In the Middle Ages an Arabist was a physician who had studied Arab medicine, which was then more advanced than the kind practiced in Europe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an Arabist was a student of the language, history, and culture. With the birth of Israel, in 1947, the word gained another meaning. "It became a pejorative for 'he who intellectually sleeps with Arabs,"' said Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, during a recent interview. Murphy's wife, Anne, nodded sadly. "If you call yourself an Arabist," she said, "people may think you're anti-Semitic."
Along with that suspicion come suspicions of "clientitis" and elitism. I was told a story about one U.S. diplomat's wife in Cairo during the 1956 Sinai war who innocently said of the Egyptians, then fighting a British-French-Israeli alliance: "We're so proud of them." The head of a conservative foundation in Washington once lectured me along these lines. "Spanish—because of our intimate contact with the Latin world—connotates a non-elite, drug-lord, 7-Eleven-store culture. Arabic is a distant, difficult, and thus mysterious language, and fluency in it suggests erudite entry to a ruling class where Jews and other ethnic Americans are not welcome."
In the wake of Iraq's August, 1990, invasion of Kuwait, which most Arabists did not anticipate, the term "Arabist" became even more negative. Francis Fukuyama, then a Reagan Administration appointee on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and now a consultant for the Rand Corporation, commented after the invasion, "Arabists are more systemically wrong than other area specialists in the Foreign Service. They were always sending cables, and coming into the [Planning Staff] office, saying things about Saddam being a potential moderate that now they're claiming they never said."
The more it gained ascendancy as a term of political abuse, the more indiscriminately "Arabist" came to be applied. During the Gulf crisis the New York Times columnist William Safire and the Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland frequently described John Kelly, who was then the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, as an Arabist, even though Kelly, with his limited Middle East experience, was distrusted by real Arabists as a politically imposed outsider. By war's end anyone who was vaguely sympathetic toward Arabs was being called an Arabist, even if he or she didn't speak the language and had never lived in the Arab world. I asked a senior Arabic-speaking diplomat at the State Department about the word "Arabist," and he frowned, his chin slumping to his chest, as he muttered, "The word has become poison; nobody uses it around here anymore."
But people do. One reason is sheer convenience. Terms like "Arabic-speaking officers" and "Middle East specialists" are simply too cumbersome. Another reason is prickly pride. "NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] is the best bureau at State," says one State Department Arab hand. "It attracts the best people because Arabists are always exposed to crises." Another NEA type says, "Any fool can learn Spanish in order to serve in Latin America." "The Eastern Europe people never had a riot on their hands until 1989," says Carleton Coon Jr., a former ambassador with wide experience in the Middle East. "They never had an ambassador killed. Near East hands know what it's like to be shot at and in the media hot seat." The attacks on Arabists notwithstanding, these people are a self-assured breed, for whom the word "Arabist" implies a tight-knit fraternity within the diplomatic corps, united by their ability to speak a "superhard" language and by a vivid, common experience abroad that, as one Arabist told me, "we can't even properly explain to our relatives." "We Arabists," says Hume Horan, in a whimsical, self-mocking tone, "are the Pekinese orchids begot by an American superpower. I suppose only a rich and powerful nation has a justification for us."
Horan knows that that is an overstatement. Arabists, or something like them, would be needed by the United States in the Arab world even if America were to abandon the internationalist assumptions of its foreign policy and its overreaching hopes for a new world order. Leaving the question of Israel aside, American businesses have economic interests in the Middle East worth many billions of dollars. It is important to know what is going on in the region. Then, too, there is the obvious matter of the Middle East's oil, on which much of the world economy depends. Though it should stop well short of the role of policeman, the United States clearly needs to maintain a significant presence of some sort.
And yet, even during the hottest moments of recent history in the Middle East, few diplomats have been more anonymous than the Arabists have. With the exception of April Glaspie, the recent U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Arabists are just an opaque "them," even to many of their worst enemies. Arabists, I found, are privately talkative, publicly shy. Like other bureaucrats and civil servants, they don't call attention to themselves. They don't pontificate on talk shows or op-ed pages. Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, who ran the Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan Administration, believes that the breadth, depth, and texture of the Arabists' knowledge of the Arab world may work to immobilize their analytical thinking about it.
Buffeted by this and other, more sinister judgments about Arabists, I began an investigation of them warily. In what follows I will describe conversations with people who are or have been among the leading U.S. Arabists. I will look at the origins of the calling in the lives and writings of a handful of adventurers and missionaries. I will examine some of the psychological traits that one encounters among Arabists—traits that may help to explain U.S. diplomacy prior to the debacle in Iraq. Finally, I will describe the emergence in recent years of a newer kind of Arabist, one who is perhaps more suited to an adjusted view of America's role in the world.
Past and Present
Hume Horan speaking: "Here is the dilemma: God spoke Arabic. Oh, he may have delivered an earlier, flawed message in Hebrew, in the Old Testament, or in Greek, in the New. But he sure got it right the third time. The Koran is not history or biography, like the Bible. It is pure revelation. Arabic is coterminous with God. So, unlike English, which is a compost, a welcoming cathedral, the most catholic of languages, Arabic is a completely closed system, resistant to loanwords, a terrifyingly logical, well-oiled piece of machinery that just clicks, clicks away. Once you've got the infixes and the prefixes in your head, and the three-consonant root verbs you can construct any word you want. It's like gene-splicing. And the religious etymology is so intense, unlike English, where unless you've studied Greek or Latin, you can't really feel the original meaning of the word. Another problem is that Arabic is so beautiful to listen to. So you find yourself putting up with all kinds of crap from these people because of the crystalline way their language lays itself out in space. Just look at the Koran. The English translations are incompetent, I know. The first chapters should really be footnotes at the end: nothing but laundry lists, supplemental legislation—Leviticus. 'The Chapter of the Cow'—bah how dull! But later on, bang, the revelations come at you with a muzzle velocity of three thousand feet per second that just knocks you flat on your can."
Hume Horan, a boyish and gangly fifty-eight-year-old with close-cropped gray hair, is edging toward his theme, not pausing for breath. He has recently been in a bicycle accident, and is slumped back in his living-room chair, gesturing with his right hand and left crutch. His eyes are drinking light, focusing on some blank sheet of inner space, the kind a physicist might look at.
Arabic, Horan goes on, may be no more insulated a language than Chinese. Chinese, one could argue, is even more inimical to Western thought constructs. The Arabs are desert monotheists. Averse to graven images, they harbor, in T. E. Lawrence's words, a "clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation." They thus gravitate toward the abstract. Painting, sculpture, and other plastic arts are not Arab fortes. "The medium in which the aesthetic feeling of the Arabs is mainly . . . expressed," wrote Horan's mentor, the Oxford orientalist Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb (a man fluent in several Near Eastern tongues), "is that of words and language—the most seductive, it may be, and certainly the most unstable and even dangerous of all the arts."
Horan picks up another strand: Islam was revealed in seventh-century Arabia, a world of political anarchy and social degeneracy. "Mohammed—unlike Jesus, whose mission could assume an ongoing classical order—had to propagate not just a religious message but a social and political one. So Mohammed, in effect, created a supertribe, based not on consanguinity but on a common belief. This social invention proved more practical than Mohammed's political one: his political system broke down with the assassination of the fourth caliph. From then on Arab regimes lacked legitimacy. They had only expediency to fall back on." Alienated from politics and gravitating for linguistic reasons toward the ideal and the abstract, the intellectual energies of the supertribesmen began focusing on religion and on shari'a law, "a universe," Horan says, "of splitting hairs and infinite refinements." Politics was ignored, so there are "no legitimizing precedents for political life as it is lived in contemporary nation-states." Socially, Mohammed's message "was progressive in the Middle Ages but not now." So the existence of a supertribe, stirred by the most idealizing and artistic of languages and employing a medieval social code, yet operating in a complete political vacuum—a real Darwinian universe of survival of the fittest—"makes the Middle East a dangerous place not only for Christians and Jews but for all nondominating minorities, even Muslim ones like Kurds and Palestinians."
Horan, who has served the United States in Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, is no romantic. He distrusts "the cultural remittance men and international groupies who fill out their personalities in exotic backgrounds." Here are his observations on Libya, where he and his wife, Nancy, lived for several years:
"We're dealing with the traumatization of the disadvantaged: the ultimate vacuity, settled at the last moment by the loser tribes kicked out of Egypt and Tunisia, who were then colonized by the Italians—rulers as nasty as they come. In World War Two, battles raged back and forth across the desert and the rape is complete. Afterward, it is the poorest country in the world, its biggest export scrap metal from the war. Then, bang, instant wealth and a coup that brings a true believer to the fore. The wealth goes to their heads, and of course they hate everybody."
Horan's maternal great-grandfather was a U.S. diplomat during the Lincoln Administration. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet was a distant cousin. And his father was Abdollah Entenzan, a Foreign Minister under the late Shah of Iran. His parents divorced, and Horan grew up with his mother and stepfather, who was a journalist and businessman, in Argentina. He returned to the United States to attend private boarding schools and Harvard, but should not be dismissed as merely the product of a good education. His fluency in French and German is self-taught. Hopping around his library, he pulls a German novel off the shelf with his crutch, turning the pages with it, proudly showing me his old vocabulary lists. He is a jumping jack of energy and meticulosity. Holed up for two weeks in the bullet-riddled U.S. embassy in Amman, during King Hussein's 1970 civil war with the Palestinians, Horan was limited to a quart of drinking water a day, of which he denied himself enough to shave and wash the collar and cuffs of his shirt. In Lebanon, Horan spent his nights translating an Arab novel. In Libya he audited courses in shari'a law at an Islamic university. In Washington he studied biblical Hebrew in order "to read Amos, my favorite prophet, in the original" and to "understand Israelis as Israelis, to know them through their own language, a language of boulders tumbling down mountains—wow, no wonder they can be so tough." Horan races on, his eyes swimming with enthusiasm and deep sensitivity. If only he had one more life.
Horan is the Foreign Service's equivalent of a Talmudist. "He's the real thing, a scholar-Arabist in the classic Bernard Lewis mold," says a former White House official who has rarely had a good word for Foreign Service officers. "When we do our job perfectly," says John Collier, of the Foreign Service Institute's School of Area Studies, "the result is a Hume Horan." Horan is as much revered inside the State Department as he is obscure outside it. A staple of diplomatic lore is the fact that he completed a twenty-one-month advanced Arabic course in twelve months, emerging with the highest language rating ever awarded to a Foreign Service Arabist.
A book published in 1837 by John Lloyd Stephens—Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land—helped fire Horan's enthusiam for his field. Stephens, a New York lawyer, later achieved fame as an explorer of Mayan ruins in Mexico. But he was also among America's first Arabists. Dressed in native garb and armed with guns he flew the American flag over his boat on a trip up the Nile.
"Stephens was a true Jacksonian," Horan says. "Early America's spirit breathes throughout his narrative." Horan cites the author's populist enthusiasm for both Arab and Jew in the Holy Land, his hatred of Turkish despotism and recognition of the suffering of African slaves, his interest in the practical improvements recently made in plague-ridden Alexandria, and his complete lack of paternalism and condescension. Horan was particularly taken with Stephens's determination to confront a desert sheikh who tried to cheat him.
I assured [the sheikh] that . . . I did not believe there was a worse Arab in all his tribe than himself; and finally, throwing open my trunk, I told him that I did not fear him or all his tribe . . . and added, turning my pistols in my belt, that they should not get it while I could defend it.
Keep cool is a good maxim, generally, in a man's walk through life, and it is particularly useful with the Bedouins in the desert; but there are times when it is good to be in a passion, and this was one of them.
Horan, too, has found that when dealing with Middle Easterners there are times when it is good to be in a passion. In late 1984 Horan, as ambassador to Sudan, played a key role in smuggling thousands of Ethiopian Jews, known as falasha, through Sudan to Israel with the tacit help of the Sudanese government. After the U.S. embassy's role in the rescue operation became public knowledge in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, there was hell to pay. Horan was accused in the local papers of being an enemy agent, and anti-American sentiment grew in intensity. Horan found himself living with several Sudanese bodyguards in his ambassadorial residence. But he decided not to play it "cool and low-key."
"At every reception I attended in Khartoum I told people I was proud of what we had done, and that they should be proud too. I told the Sudanese government that the departure of a few thousand hungry people was not going to alter the correlation of forces between the Arab world and Israel. I had found an issue to meet people head on with—so they knew that the United States stood for something."
Horan's habit of standing up for principles, combined with the treacherous nature of Middle East politics, eventually derailed his Foreign Service career. Saudi Arabia is more than America's principal strategic and financial ally in the Arab world. Its uncompromising desert is where the foundation stones of Bedouin culture and Islam were laid. For a State Department Arabist, therefore, no position is more exalted than the ambassador's post in Riyadh. In late 1987 Horan was just settling into this job when he and his staff, assisted by national intelligence findings, began to solve the latest riddle of the sands. In the desert south of Riyadh, Washington learned, Chinese technicians were installing medium-range ballistic missiles, easily capable of reaching Israel. The Saudis had secretly broken an understanding with Washington, and Horan was instructed to make clear to King Fahd just how distressed the United States was. Horan delivered a formal protest in writing to the King. The shamed King made it clear that Horan was no longer a viable interlocutor. Horan was recalled to Washington. He later was elected president of the American Foreign Service Association.
"Hume Horan and I belong to an elite club," says Richard B. Parker, a sixty-nine-year-old former ambassador to Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco, "the Awhab Shubak—'Arabists Who Have Been Shit Upon by Arab Kings."' (Parker's tough reporting on Morocco caused King Hassan to demand his recall.)
A feeling persists within the Foreign Service community that Horan was done in not just by the Saudis and their powerful friends in Washington but also by senior bureaucrats within the State Department, for being too perfect an area specialist—that is to say, for understanding the Saudis better than they wanted to be understood. Horan brushes these suspicions aside. "There is a Kleenex quality to ambassadors. We're policy instruments, not policy-makers, there to take the blame, to be wiped away so the process can continue." That brings Horan to the subject of his fellow Arabist ambassadors. Making an arc in the air with his finger, he says, "You can plot Arabists on a curve, starting with the old hands and ending with the new generation. But I like to think that the top of the curve is my generation."
By his generation he means those who combined the intense interest in Arab culture and literature evinced by the old-timers with the cool and skeptical objectivity of the newer analysts. The origins of the profession lie deep in the nineteenth century, and Arabists today are marked by some of the qualities of their distant forebears. Their forebears influence as well which parts of the Arab world are deemed to be of central importance—and that, in and of itself, can be something of a trap.
Talcott Seelye's home, more so than Horan's, holds the material effects of a lifetime spent in the Arab world: Oriental carpets, miniature paintings, lithographs of the Holy Land, old books about the Middle East. I remember what another Arabist told me about his colleagues' affection for exotic carpets: "Rugs are a form of nomadic furniture that a Foreign Service officer can carry around the world and that creates its own intimate space."
"I want to write about Arabists," I begin. Seelye, a lanky and balding seventy-year-old, smiles and answers with a question: "Have you read The Wilder Shores of Love?"
The Wilder Shores of Love, by Lesley Blanch, is a book about four Victorian women who, as Horan would say, "fill out their personalities in exotic backgrounds," accepting something that, Blanch wrote, "was vanishing from the West, something to which they were all subconsciously drawn." The book continues, "Repose: the Eastern climate of contemplation, of Kif, of nothingness, brought to its quintessential state of voluptuous, animal stillness was a state wholly alien to the West." Seelye is no escapist. But despite a sometimes stormy career that has brought him into head-on clashes with supporters of Israel, among others, Seelye seems to have reached his own state of Kif, and is at any rate willing to display a soft spot for romance.
Seelye's grandfather and great-grandfather were both Congregationalist missionaries who spent their entire adult lives in the Middle East. They were part of an insufficiently studied chapter in U.S. history which saw Americans, mostly New Englanders, fly the Stars and Stripes over mission outposts in remote regions of Mesopotamia, Kurdistan, Syria, and Iran as early as 1820—a time when the American West was still waiting to be settled. William Frederick Williams, Seelye's great-grandfather, was part of a missionary group that saved the life of Rabbi Sholoem of Mosul in 1853, after Muslim officials had arrested the rabbi on trumped-up charges. His grandfather, William Nesbitt Chambers, was an eyewitness to the Armenian holocaust and wrote a poignant memoir about it. Seelye's father, Laurens, was a professor at the American University of Beirut, in the city where Seelye was born.
As a youth, Seelye returned to the New England of his ancestors and attended Deerfield Academy and Amherst College. After military service in Iran during the Second World War, Seelye joined the Foreign Service. Following a tour of duty in Germany, in 1952, he switched to the Near East bureau, where he remained for the next twenty-nine years, generally going from one embassy job in the Arab world to another, ending with ambassadorships in Tunisia and Syria. Seelye's daughter is continuing the family tradition: not long after graduating from Amherst she moved to Jordan to teach, and subsequently she went to work as a staff aide to Queen Noor.
Seelye talks easily about the time in October of 1973 when, as ambassador to Tunisia, he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a cable advising him not to send arms for Israel's defense after the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. He was, of course, ignored. Yet Kissinger was well enough aware of Seelye's skill as a hands-on Arabist to trust him to go to Lebanon as a special emissary in 1976, after the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Francis Meloy Jr. Though Seelye was criticized for utilizing PLO security men, he did manage to effect a low-key evacuation of U.S. diplomats and their families from war-torn Beirut. "I used the PLO simply because they controlled the area we had to pass through," he explains.
Later, when he was ambassador to Syria, Seelye's cables to the State Department's Policy Planning Staff—so seemingly understanding of Syria's actions—would cause Francis Fukuyama to scrawl in the margins, "Talcott Seelye is the Syrian Ambassador to Washington, not the American Ambassador to Syria." In 1981, upon his retirement from the Foreign Service, Seelye called reporters into his office in Damascus to disparage the Camp David accords and to call on the United States immediately to open a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Seelye insists on making a few things clear. "My boyhood in Lebanon was two thousand percent American. I resisted learning Arabic and had to learn it like any other Foreign Service officer. I had mixed feelings about serving in Germany after the war, on account of what the Nazis did to the Jews. I went into Arab affairs only because there were too many German-speaking officers and the Middle East was opening up as a career. But given my family history, I suppose my relationship with the Arabs is atavistic. In America we've lost the attribute of the extended family, while the Arabs have this in spades."
Despite the tenor of some of the high points in Seelye's career, he would probably describe himself as holding a perfectly balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has visited Israel at least nine times. "Israel," he says, "is one of our highest priorities in the Middle East. But it's a matter of where we go from there." That there exists a mutual suspicion between many Arabists and friends of Israel is as hard to deny as it is easy to understand. Seelye recalls the time when he and a group of Arabists from the State Department were invited to a Jewish fund-raising dinner. "At the end of the evening, though, we [the Arabists] were all back at the same table alone together. I guess they felt uncomfortable with us and perhaps we with them. It was sort of a shame."
Seelye says he does not keep up with current literature about the Middle East. He goes back to "the old books," particularly George Antonius's The Arab Awakening, published in 1938, "a seminal book that had an impact like no other." The Arab Awakening is commonly regarded as the first book about the struggle between Jews and Arabs told from an Arab point of view. But its real significance, some would say, lies slightly afield. Antonius, a Christian Arab, was anti-British but poignantly pro-American, describing U.S. missionaries as the "foster-parents" of modern Arab nationalism. Seelye admits that this characterization is somewhat of an exaggeration. Yet it is a story that requires telling if the roots of his and the older generation of Arabists'—tortured attitude toward Israel are to be properly understood.
As Seelye explains, when his missionary forebears came to the Middle East, in the early nineteenth century, they quickly realized that the Muslim Arabs were not about to be converted to Christianity. But the missionaries discovered that they had something else to sell, which the Arabs did want: Western education. By 1860 American missionaries were operating thirty-three schools in the Middle East. In 1866 came their crowning achievement—the opening of the Syrian Protestant College, in Beirut, with a Vermonter, the Reverend Daniel Bliss, as its president. The school would later evolve into the American University of Beirut, commonly known as the AUB.
Whatever official monuments there may be, in truth there has never been a greater monument to Woodrow Wilson's vision of liberal internationalism—and the difficulties such a vision faces in the real world—than the AUB. Here we were in the sunny Levant, educating those less fortunate others who upon graduation were assuming leadership roles in their own new nations, carved out of a dying European imperialist order of which we were entirely innocent. And not only were we openly loved for this activity, but as a very consequence we were garnering political influence without having to dirty our hands in realpolitik. "We basked in being disinterested good guys," recalls Arthur Close, who comes from a Beirut missionary family. In 1945, at the charter meeting of the United Nations, there were more AUB graduates among the representatives than graduates of any other university. Eliahu Elath, a former president of the Hebrew University, and other members of the liberal Jewish intelligentsia in pre-Israeli Palestine were also AUB alumni. Daniel Bliss's stirring vision had indeed become a reality:
A man white, black or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution . . . and go out believing in one God, or in many Gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for any one to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.
However, in the wake of the Second World War came the creation of Israel and the beginning of the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, with its corresponding turf battle in the Middle East. The old-time Arabists knew that with the vote on partition going against the Arab world, and with the United States sworn to uphold Israel, the days of a beloved American presence and an easy American influence were over. "In some of their minds," Carleton Coon says, "Israel spoiled it all."
In the 1950s, according to Terry Prothro, who was a psychology professor at the AUB from 1951 through the mid-1980s, the university "became a place where the Arab student body tried out all their political responses" to the challenge posed by Israel. Some of the American faculty openly sympathized. In an essay recalling those heady days, the late AUB president Malcolm Kerr wrote of "heroes," such as "Faisal I of Iraq and Nasser"; "villains," including David Ben-Gurion; "revered texts," among them The Arab Awakening; and "the problems of the Arab-Western relationship," including "the usurpation of Palestine by Zionists." Young Arabists could hardly have been unaffected by this climate. Prior to the start of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975, the Foreign Service field school for Arabic instruction was in Beirut (it's now in Tunis), and many an old Near East hand has idyllic memories of pre-war Lebanon and AUB friendships. Seelye told me that as a junior Foreign Service officer in Jordan in the 1950s, he'd had a special relationship with the Jordanian cabinet because "half of its members were ex-students of my father at the AUB." Horan observes that the AUB finally emerged as "the translation of a religious and educational calling into a political one."
The Vietnam War further radicalized the campus: students and faculty members saw America's support of Israel as an extension of its mistakes in Southeast Asia. Israel's capture of Arab lands in the Six-Day War of 1967, Prothro recalls, sparked the creation of a "pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian group made up largely of AUB people," called Americans for Justice in the Middle East. But campus radicals in the United States were never mugged by reality the way those at the AUB were: the onset of civil war in Lebanon made the faculty and student complaints of the 1950s and 1960s seem laughable. In the end, as the war dragged on and Western hostages were taken, and after Malcolm Kerr himself was murdered by Muslim extremists, "there was no politics among the Americans anymore on campus," Prothro says. "Staying alive was the only thing that mattered."
The violent, drawn-out decline of the AUB was, for those of Seelye's generation, symbolic of a wider catastrophe. It marked the destruction of what the Protestant missionaries had lovingly helped, to build over the course of a hundred and fifty years: an Arab political renaissance founded on American values that, as fate would have it, collided in the night with another idea grounded in Western liberalism—the birth of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Seelye's views regarding Israel may grow out of this collision. He belongs to a post-Second World War breed of U.S. diplomat that Peter Rodman, a longtime associate of Henry Kissinger's, labels "aggrieved area experts." This breed is perhaps best understood through the career of the late Loy Henderson. Henderson, along with George F. Kennan and Charles Bohlen, was a Kremlinologist whose reports from Moscow before and during the Second World War painted an extremely gloomy picture of Soviet life and Stalin's long-range intentions—a picture that ran counter to the rosy image of the Soviet Union entertained by many Americans back then. As a consequence, Henderson was ejected from the Soviet bureau at State. He wound up in the division for Near Eastern and African affairs, where he rose to become director at the time of Israel's creation—something he was dead set against. Henderson perceived Israel as an oil-less impediment to good relations with the oil-rich Arab world at a time when the United States was entering a long, difficult struggle with the Soviet Union. This was not anti-Semitism but just a cold-blooded exposition of what Henderson saw as U.S. interests. It happened to be a sentiment that fit snugly with the life experiences of Arabists of Seelye's generation. Older Arabists like to compare themselves to the Kennan-Bohlen-Henderson school of Kremlinologists. They argue that whereas those Soviet experts of yore were victimized for daring to report the negative aspects of the Russian reality, Arabists are victimized for daring to report the positive aspects of the Arab one.
A case in point: When Anwar Sadat came to power in Egypt, in 1970, Michael Sterner, one of Seelye's Arabist colleagues with experience in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, predicted that, as Sterner told me in an interview, "the new guy will not be a facsimile of Nasser but will take things in a different direction"—a point of view that at the time was criticized by the Israeli government and many of its U.S. supporters. Sterner, whose opinion was based on a personal relationship with Sadat, continues to regret that neither the Israelis in the early 1970s, prior to the Yom Kippur War, nor, at first, the Nixon Administration trusted Sadat's overtures. He showed me a montage from a 1971 edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (The Land), depicting himself, Murphy, and a handful of other State Department Arabists in Lawrence of Arabia costumes. "This is how the Israelis ridiculed us," he said with a laugh.
"But there really was lots of localitis back then," recalls Richard Parker, who was a contemporary of Seelye's and Sterner's. Parker admits that he refused an opportunity in the 1960s to learn Hebrew and serve in Israel, "because it might have had an adverse effect on my career as an Arabist." Parker is studying Hebrew now, however—in retirement.
Though the American public tends to view the radical states of Iraq and Syria with disdain, these two ancient lands represent the historical, literary, and linguistic core area of an Arabist's life work. "Syria is the apogee of Arabism," Horan says, "because the Syrians have everybody else's number and nobody has theirs. I always regret that I never got to serve in Syria. Syrian Arabic is the Arabic I most enjoy listening to. Iraqi Arabic, on the other hand, is less aesthetically pleasing, because it has a heavy admixture of Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish." This linguistic fact, however, is evidence of a different allure: Iraq, in addition to being an Arab urban center second only to Egypt in importance, is home to the Fertile Crescent's richest overlay of civilizations. For these reasons, Horan observes, Arabists exhibit "a certain weakness, a faiblesse," for Syria and Iraq.
This faiblesse merges with the Arabists' grasp of the modern histories of the two radical states, which is the result of reading, often in Arabic, and of actually living in Damascus and Baghdad. "Syria sees itself as the most mutilated descendant of the Ottoman Empire," says Richard Murphy, who became America's first ambassador to Syria after President Richard Nixon re-established relations in 1974. Indeed, when the great British Arabist Charles M. Doughty traveled in the Middle East in the 1870s, the region was divided into only two parts: the limestone plateau of the north, called Syria, and all the rest—a sandstone desert stretching south to Yemen—called Arabia. Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and the Turkish salient of Alexandretta were then all part of Syria, and each was taken away. Murphy explains that whereas most Americans see Syria only as a brutal regime of anti-Western peasant Alawites, Arabists have lived in Damascus, where the Sunni population is urban and instinctively pro-Western. Gene Cretz, who was an embassy political officer in Damascus in the late 1980s, recalls, "Syrians are sophisticated and quite at ease with Westerners, at least on a personal basis. I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I never had a bad day in Syria. Dealing with my Syrian friends and acquaintances was as natural as breathing."
Whereas Syria is a bastard child of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq is the Arabists' very own Frankenstein creation. It was jerry-built by the British out of the forlorn Ottoman vilayets ("provinces") of Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shi'ite Basra, for reasons both base and altruistic: first, to have an oil-rich foothold at the head of the Gulf to buttress British India; and second, in the words of the linguist, archaeologist, explorer-traveler, and diplomat Gertrude Bell, to "make it a centre of Arab civilisation and prosperity."
Iraq became the experimental plaything for a band of British scholars-cum-imperial agents. They included a personage as well known as Lawrence of Arabia and ones as obscure as the Oxford don George Margoliouth. Their eloquence led H.V.F. Winstone, a biographer of Bell's, to wonder whether "the world might have been a more peaceful place for future generations if they and their like had not been such able and persuasive writers." Bell was the dominant figure of the group. "I read all of her books," says William Eagleton, who was the top U.S. envoy to Iraq in the early 1980s. "I rate her very high." Wealthy, well-connected, and passionate about the Orient, Bell once exclaimed, "When we had made Mesopotamia a model Arab state there was not an Arab of Syria and Palestine who wouldn't want to be part of it."
Bell, the most influential British official in Iraq, never did go back to Britain. She retired to a house in Baghdad and was referred to as Umm al-Mumminin ("Mother of the Faithful"). "I am an Iraqi," she declared. Before she died, she admitted that though the arguments she had used to promote Iraq were political and economic ones, the "keynote" of Iraq "is romance" (her emphasis).
Bell was soon followed at the British embassy in Baghdad by another prominent Arabist, Freya Stark, for whom Eagleton has much less enthusiasm. Stark combined a gift for romantic travel writing with one for wrong-headed analysis. A half century ago she saw a great future for democracy in Iraq. She also believed that pan-Arab unity would prove as easy as "child's play." Stark was part of a contingent of official Britons that dealt—or, rather, failed to deal—with a pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad in April of 1941. The British ordered their troops to stay on the sidelines while an Arab mob carried out a pogrom in the Jewish quarter—resulting in more than a hundred and fifty deaths—in order to allow time for King Faisal's soldiers, in Stark's words, "to win their own fight unaided."
Among the surviving Jews was a little boy, Elie Kedourie, who would grow up to write many books and articles critical of the old British Arab hands. Kedourie sees the 1941 Baghdad pogrom, known locally as the farhoud ("looting"), as the direct result of decades of amateurish meddling in Iraq by the likes of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, who, having invented a country and a power base for an Arab Muslim population, should have assumed responsibility for the minorities henceforth threatened by those Arabs. In The Chatham Horse Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies, Kedourie, now a University of London professor, writes,
The right of conquest [the Jews of Baghdad] could cheerfully acknowledge, for all their history had taught them that there lay safety . . . . It was not by the help of this experience that they would understand the strange, exquisite perversions of the western conscience: the genial eccentricity of Mr. Philby, proposing to make a thug who took his fancy the president of an Iraqi republic; or the fond foolishness of Miss Bell, thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbassid empire; or the disoriented fanaticism of Colonel Lawrence ["of Arabia"], proclaiming that he would be dishonoured if the progeny of the sharif of Mecca was not forthwith provided with thrones. Yet it was with such people that [the Jews'] fate rested.
The Philby mentioned is Harry St. John B. Philby, who converted to Islam in Saudi Arabia, acquired a slave girl for his earthly pleasures, and became a Nazi and Communist sympathizer. (His son, Kim Philby, would formally cross the line into treason, as a Soviet double agent.) In desert Arabia, Philby was followed in stature by Wilfred Thesiger, another British Arabist and a fearless explorer of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter.
U.S. Arabists harbor a conflicted attitude toward these "sand-mad" adventurers. One former U.S. ambassador to several Arab countries remarks that "nobody in his right mind has nostalgia for these Brits." William Rugh, a former ambassador to Yemen, argues, however, that "one of the most interesting things in life is to cross a cultural barrier, and there are just not enough books by Arabs about themselves." He adds, "I therefore have no problem with Doughty, Philby, Thesiger. I've read all of Philby's books. I met Thesiger once in Jiddah—a real eccentric character he was. These books help take you inside [the Arabs'] heads." Rugh's point is that if you are a diplomat in Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Yemen and you want basic ethnographic information about such matters as tribal feuds and how geography has affected local mentalities, you cannot avoid the books written by the old British hands.
"Living in the Arab world," Horan says, "it is easy to become cynical if you just concentrate on the politics. So you need to broaden your base, to become interested in the local literature of a region." He mentions Charles Doughty, who traveled alone for two years in northwestern Arabia. Doughty had a "briar root quality" that even a self-declared nonromantic like Horan can admire. Doughty wrote, "The sun made me an Arab, but never warped me to Orientalism." It is the ultimate fine line that every good Arabist aspires to walk, Horan seems to suggest—and that not every one is able to.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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