Saturday, March 6, 2021

From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

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Mayelinne De Lara
Mayelinne De Lara
DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions.

By David J. Dunford, Reviewed by Albadr SS Alshateri.

David Dunford was a long-serving US diplomat whose career in the Foreign Service spanned 1966 to 1995. His book chronicles his experience in the Middle East, from his 1981 appointment as head of the economic section at the US Embassy in Cairo to his time as ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman.  After retirement in 1995, Dunford was recalled several times to serve in Egypt, Iraq and South Korea.[MOU1] 

Dunford attributes the decline of American diplomacy to the rise of the national security state after the trauma of 9/11. He contends that a “new generation of law enforcement and intelligence officials,” who had not had the experience or respect for diplomacy, came to lead their respective organization. Worse even, how by 2014 the “surveillance state was criminalizing ordinary diplomacy”.

The question that irks the author is how, despite unrivaled preponderant power, the US was not able to do better in its diplomatic achievement. Accordingly, the book uses the author’s “personal experiences to illuminate the reasons why” the US has not fared better.

Dunford outlines three purposes for writing this book. First, the uniqueness of diplomacy as a profession; second the meaning of decline of diplomacy to a professional diplomat; third, to show the young men and women who are interested in joining the Foreign Service what diplomacy is and what it means to be a career diplomat.

Dunford’s first post in the Middle East was Cairo, where he arrived in the summer of 1981. Unbeknownst to Dunford, who lacked any experience in Egyptian or Middle Eastern Affairs, a crisis was brewing in the host country. Four months after his arrival, President Sadat was gunned down by his own military officers during a military parade commemorating the October War.

The US Embassy in Cairo went into crisis mode to figure out the consequences of the assassination. Egypt weathered the storm, and the assassination was not a harbinger to a coup. The embassy’s biggest worry turned out to be how to organize the high-level US delegation to the funeral services for the fallen US ally. In one of the book’s anecdotes, the only crisis was seating Henry Kissinger next to an American teenager who had once been a personal guest of Sadat. Kissinger protested that he “hadn’t traveled several thousand miles to sit next to a bleeping kid”.

Egypt was the cornerstone of US foreign policy in the Middle East during Dunford’s tenure. When the author finished his tour in Egypt in 1984, he served as director of Egyptian affairs at Foggy Bottom. From his perch in Washington, DC, he managed the relationship with Cairo. He saw his job mostly as crisis management, including the 1985 seajacking of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists who shot and threw overboard a wheelchair-bound elderly Jewish American, Leon Klinghoffer.

The author provides a wider context for the violence that besets US policy in the Middle East, including Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and the invasion of Lebanon. Under the Reagan administration, “The pro-Israel lobby was at the height of its power” and would have attacked the administration for suggesting “moral equivalence between Arab terrorism and Israeli actions”.

At Dunford’s next assignment was deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Riyadh. The lack of an ambassador there put him in charge of one of America’s largest embassies. An early diplomatic tussle arose over Washington concern about the Saudis purchasing Chinese intermediate ballistic missiles that could reach Israel. The Saudis, however, persuaded Reagan that Riyadh needed those missiles, to the dismay of the Department of the State.

Dunford resumed his DCM role when Chas Freeman, perhaps one of the best diplomats in the US foreign service, was appointed as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Although Freeman foresaw Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and conveyed his thoughts to State, Washington was consumed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and paid little attention to the unfolding events in the Middle East. Sure enough, Saddam crossed the borders with Kuwait on the morning of August 2. The Middle East finally got Washington’s attention.

Of particular note is how much Secretary of State James Baker wanted to keep the diplomats at arm’s length and retain policy in his inner circle during the crisis. After the war ended, Ambassador Freeman “had put plenty of thoughts on paper but ideas originating outside Baker’s tight circle were not welcome”.

The last post for Dunford as a professional diplomat looked more like a reward than a chore, given Oman’s low ranking in Washington’s regional pecking order. Budget cuts under Bill Clinton eliminated the meager financial aid ($15 million per annum) to Oman; it was up to the ambassador to face the consequences.

In the concluding chapter, the author tackles the subject of the decline of US diplomacy. By decline, Dunford means the political leadership has utilized diplomacy less than the military and economic options. “We have used military force extensively since 9/11 attack and the results have been, at best, disappointing”, he declares.

The trauma of September 11 was one factor, but Israel was another. The author argues that James Baker weakened regional bureaus, particularly the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, because he believed the officers there were “sympathetic to Arab positions and not sufficiently supportive of Israel”.

Dunford points to two other factors contributing to what he perceives as the decline of American diplomacy. First, the propagation of political appointments, special envoys, and representatives that replaced career diplomats deprived the US of professionals and experts on the various regions. Second, leaks of diplomatic correspondence and conversations made foreign leaders cagy about expressing their concerns to US diplomats.

Ambassador Dunford is a dedicated professional and the book – albeit marred by a few errors and typos — is an expression of devotion for his vocation. Unfortunately, despite the title, the book reads more like a memoir of the author’s long experience as a diplomat in the Middle East than an account of the decline of US diplomacy.


 [MOU1]He was recalled twice for service in three countries?  How does that work?

This article has been published November 2, 2020 in Modern Diplomacy. https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/11/02/from-sadat-to-saddam-the-decline-of-american-diplomacy-in-the-middle-east-book-review/

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