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How American Diplomacy Is Failing Its Military In The Middle East

A former diplomat gives a scathing assessment on the state of American diplomacy in the Middle East

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With the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January, tensions have certainly developed in the Middle East.

As a former US ambassador to Oman, and deputy ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as well as being an academic with expertise in the region, David J Dunford is well placed to judge the current state of US diplomacy there.

In his new book ‘From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East’, he chronicles the decline in American diplomatic effectiveness and the damage this has done to the US and the world.  

Rather than criticising the Trump Administration specifically, Dunford claims instead that the poor state of diplomacy today is part of a larger trend – a trend in which previous administrations have helped set the stage for what he says is the current diplomatic debacle. As he puts it in his book at one point:

“Since the Reagan administration, presidents and their administrations have bought into the notion that career Foreign Service Officers cannot be trusted (to manage our Middle East diplomacy). The quality of our diplomacy suffered, as did the morale of professionals in the Foreign Service. The results, or lack thereof, in our Middle East peace process diplomacy in the 1990s and since speak for themselves.”

And yet, by drawing on his 30 years’ worth of Middle East experience, he says that the lessons he has learned could be used to help improve US diplomacy, both in the Middle East and more generally.

Article by David J Dunford

My story begins in Egypt in 1981.  

I arrived less than three years after the Camp David Agreements that led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (following their war in 1973), and two years after the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  

The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq had begun the year before. And it would not be until the following year that Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula*, which they had first occupied while at war with Egypt in 1967.

(*This did not include the 250 acres of beachfront called Taba).   

I first met Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, in September of 1981. When I did, he charmed me with the charisma that made him wildly popular in the West.  

Though he certainly wasn’t universally popular at home.

He would be assassinated by Islamic extremists a little more than a month later.  

president of egypt
Anwar Sadat

Conventional wisdom attributed the assassins’ anger to Sadat’s decision to sign the peace treaty with Israel. 

The two countries had fought two wars in fairly close succession: the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel captured all of the Sinai peninsula (a significant chunk of Egypt’s territory); and the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Egypt pushed back into the Sinai. The US diplomacy that followed along with Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem led to the peace treaty that Sadat signed.

But it wasn’t just the treaty that turned some Egyptians against him.

Those of us in Cairo witnessed his declining popularity in Egypt because of his lavish lifestyle, failure to deliver the economic benefits of peace to average Egyptians, and his ruthless crackdown on dissent.  

In the fall of 1981, he jailed many of his domestic opponents, both Christian and Muslim.  

It is fair to say, however, that peace with Israel would never have happened without Sadat’s bold initiative to go to Jerusalem and address the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).  No Arab leader before or since has demonstrated that kind of courage. Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, was a far more cautious man.

white house
Reagan and Shultz outside the Oval Office in 1986

Ronald Reagan was president during the entire six years that I worked on Egypt (three years in Cairo and three more years in Washington.)  

George Shultz, Secretary of State during the last five of those years, largely entrusted the execution of US policy toward the Middle East to professional diplomats.  

I learned my craft from many of those skilled professionals, including Roy Atherton, Nick Veliotes, Dick Murphy and Frank Wisner.  

Yet, the Reagan Administration’s achievements in the Middle East were modest. And the Iran-Contra initiative, where the Administration sold weapons to the Iranians without Congressional approval and used the proceeds to support anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, was a spectacular failure. 

We did, however, successfully guide the US-Egyptian relationship through several political and economic crises, most notably the aftermath of the Palestinian hijacking of the Italian cruise ship ‘Achille Lauro’. 

When I moved to Saudi Arabia as second in command of the US embassy in 1988, my challenges were shaped by the dramatic events of 1979. As noted, that year saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was also the revolution in Iran that saw the western-backed Shah replaced by an Islamic republic led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the taking of US hostages at the embassy in Tehran.

The Saudi-Iran relationship had also worsened the year before I arrived. This was due to a clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi troops in the sacred Islamic site of Mecca that left over 400 dead.  

The Saudis, focused on Iran, secretly elected to purchase intermediate range ballistic missiles from China.  

The US, meanwhile, was more concerned that Israel was within range of these missiles. 

The government in Washington instructed Hume Horan, our ambassador and the best Arabic speaker in the Foreign Service, to demand that the Saudis freeze all construction and training related to the missiles. King Fahd’s reaction triggered the prompt departure of Horan and the acceleration of my assignment to the Saudi capital, Riyadh.  

The eight-year Iran-Iraq War was still raging at the time, and the US Navy was protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. 

Iraqi jets attacked the USS Stark, killing 37 in May, 1987. And the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 290 in July, 1988.  

Less than three weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech accepting the “poison” of ending the war with Iraq. 

Meanwhile, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had led to US-Saudi cooperation, the result being to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen. That program was very active during my early days in Riyadh.   

President George H W Bush
President George H W Bush

George H W Bush was elected president in 1988, and Jim Baker became his secretary of state.  

Baker was less inclined than Shultz to let professionals manage foreign policy, particularly Middle East policy.  

Unlike Shultz, he rarely reached out of his inner circle of trusted advisers for advice and he could only focus on a limited number of issues at a time. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath in 1991, for instance, dominated his attention. 

Secretary of State James Baker in Saudi Arabia in 1991
Secretary of State James Baker in Saudi Arabia in 1991

Though on August 2, 1990, Baker was forced to pay attention to the Middle East. This was the day Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, an event that would lead to the Gulf War.

I was, that morning, in charge of the embassy in Riyadh. By the time my ambassador, Chas Freeman, returned from leave in the United States, the decisions had been made to implement Desert Shield and deploy over 200,000 US troops to Saudi Arabia. 

The number later grew to 500,000 as Desert Shield became Desert Storm in January 1991.  

During this period, cooperation between US commander General Norm Schwarzkopf, Chas Freeman, British commander Sir Peter de la Billiere and British ambassador Alan Munro was exceedingly close. It remains a model of civilian-military cooperation in a war zone.  

Colin Powell when he served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War (left) and Dick Cheney in his role then as Secretary of Defense (right)
Colin Powell when he served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War (left) and Dick Cheney in his role then as Secretary of Defense (right)

Jim Baker, along with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, did a superb job of putting together the coalition. They also excelled at enacting the diplomacy that resulted in Saddam’s crushing defeat and at organizing the Madrid Conference that jump-started the Middle East peace negotiations.   

We in the embassy in Riyadh, however, struggled.

We had trouble getting Washington’s attention on issues like stemming the crush of official visitors to Saudi Arabia. 

We also had problems getting their help managing the anxiety of American civilians badly needed to keep the Saudi oil industry and Saudi military operations running. Little responsibility was delegated downward in Baker’s State Department.  

With the Gulf War over, we were concerned about the costs of the war on the Saudi economy and the backlash against the deployment of (non-Muslim) Western troops on Saudi (Muslim) soil.  

Many Saudis, including Osama bin Laden, veterans of the fight in Afghanistan  against ‘godless communism’, returned to Saudi Arabia battle-tested and ready for new challenges. Conservative religious opposition to the Saudi regime ramped up.  

But Washington’s attention had shifted elsewhere. I departed Riyadh for Oman in 1992. And Chas Freeman, the last career diplomat to serve as US ambassador in Riyadh, left soon after me.  

The decline of our Middle East diplomacy continued after Bill Clinton took over.  Budget cuts reduced the numbers of diplomats assigned to manage our key relationships with Middle East countries.  

And the number of political appointees introduced into the Department of State grew significantly, reaching down to the deputy assistant secretary level.   

President Bill Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and chairman of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) Yassir Arafat in 1993
President Bill Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and chairman of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) Yassir Arafat in 1993

Now in Oman as ambassador, I had to manage the fallout from a sudden and inexplicable decision to eliminate the modest economic assistance we were providing to Oman. The program was established years earlier in exchange for Oman’s agreement to provide the US military access to their air bases for operations in the region.  

Following my retirement in 1995, I agreed to return to Cairo to manage an international team tasked with setting up a Middle East development bank. The bank was part of a multilateral track also launched at the Madrid Conference in 1991.  

The Middle East peace process had ground to a halt after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel. 

The US peace negotiators, none of whom were career diplomats, engaged in a quixotic effort to convince Netanyahu to agree to a two-state solution. Although a two-state solution is the right option, I watched in frustration from Cairo as the multilateral track that focused on engaging the UK, Europe, Japan and other countries in the peace process withered away. The proposed bank became a victim of the breakdown and we had to abandon the project in 1998.  

When it came, the 9/11 attack led to what some called a national nervous breakdown and the last two chapters of my book chronicle the resultant militarization of US foreign policy.  

The US invasion of Afghanistan made sense at the time but the subsequent decision to invade Iraq, driven by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, defied logic. 

The Department of State dutifully prepared a Future of Iraq project with detailed studies of issues that likely would arise after an invasion.

The studies were ignored, and the Pentagon set up a civilian organization (Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance or ORHA) to manage what it imagined to be post-conflict Iraq.  

Rumsfeld resisted the inclusion of active and retired Foreign Service officers.  Now retired, I was one of a small cadre of professional diplomats that the Pentagon eventually agreed to accept. My job was to get Iraq’s foreign ministry back up and running under new management.   

ORHA morphed into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Ambassador Jerry Bremer arrived with plans to abolish the Ba’ath Party that Saddam Hussein had employed to rule Iraq.  

Bush admnistration
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney in the George W Bush administration

Bremer also moved to dissolve the Iraqi military as well as the Iraqi intelligence service. All were dominated by Sunnis who made up only about 20 percent of Iraq’s population. 

Clearly the most senior leadership of Saddam’s government had to go, but the policy was far too extreme. The effective excommunication of Sunnis from Iraqi political life made the subsequent insurgency inevitable. Our policies, along with our efforts to fine-tune the appointment of a governing council, reinforced Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions. 

The few of us in the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) with Middle East experience warned that this would lead to an increase in violence. 

Not only did violence increase but the seeds for ISIS were planted.

Furthermore, we not only did Iran a great favor by overthrowing Saddam but the emergence of Shi’a-dominated government in Iraq also opened Iraq to greater Iranian influence.  

The wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, while easy to start, proved difficult to end.  

From 2004 to 2011, I traveled periodically from my home in Tucson to work with military units preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.  

I was part of a team that offered short seminars (usually three days long) on the history, culture and economy of a given country. After all, by then, the only real work for someone with my professional skills was with the military. 

I was effectively attempting to teach our soldiers diplomatic skills. I came away with great respect for the professional US military, but I also came to realize that you can turn a soldier into a diplomat in a short time, just not a very good one.  

Military leaders recognized this and were calling for the deployment of more civilians, but the deploying and securing of civilians in a war zone proved problematic and not very effective. So I also went on to conclude that you can turn a diplomat into a soldier, just not a very good one.

A key component of effective diplomacy is the ability to collaborate with diplomats and officials from other countries.  

In Cairo, I ran a team of experts from eight different countries. Jacqueline Lawson-Smith from the British Foreign Office and Ambassador Radu Onofrei from Romania, two superb professional diplomats, were on my team in Baghdad. 

I couldn’t help but notice that the diplomatic services of other major countries are completely staffed with professional diplomats. The US stands nearly alone in handing out critical diplomatic posts to amateurs for partisan political reasons. The disappointing results should not surprise us.    

However, I am still optimistic that a future US president will see the need to restore and enhance America’s diplomatic capability. America cannot expect to enjoy the global dominance it had at the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

That makes it more important than ever to invest in what is necessary to create a truly professional diplomatic service.  

To learn more about David J Dunford’s remarkable career and his assessment of recent history and US involvement in the Middle East, read ‘From Sadat to Saddam’, which can be purchased here. And visit Casemate Publishing for more military-themed titles.

To get a £7 discount that reduces the purchase price to £16.99, enter the code FN3020 before proceeding to check out.

Discount code valid until the end of June, 2020.

Cover image: Shutterstock 1612343089 by Stefan Hochreutener

From Sadat to Saddam by David Dunford