Ronald Schlicher is a senior official in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, an enclave for America’s Arab specialists. He is the kind of Middle East expert who would presumably be in the vanguard of officials bound for Baghdad to run the US Embassy there. A twenty-two-year veteran with experience in places like Cairo and Jerusalem, including a six-month assignment in postwar Iraq, Schlicher was this year presented one of the most distinguished honors among foreign-service officers.
Schlicher was awarded the American Foreign Service Association’s annual prize for producing the year’s best “dissent channel” cables–tightly written and cogently argued memos to Washington taking issue with particular aspects of US foreign policy. In effect, Schlicher was recognized for his constructive criticism of President Bush’s policies in the Middle East, a region Schlicher, a fluent Arabic speaker, knows as well as anyone in government.
But Schlicher, now Iraq desk officer in Washington, is not boasting about his prize. In fact, like the State Department’s other Arab hands, he’s not even giving interviews. American diplomats, both active and retired, say he is outraged at the way America’s most talented Arab experts were until recently blocked from playing any meaningful role in the administration of postwar Iraq.
“This administration doesn’t like naysayers,” says Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Ron challenged US policy and they shut him out.”
American Arabists are an embattled priesthood within the nation’s foreign policy elite. Like the China hands of the 1950s, who were purged by McCarthyites, the State Department’s Middle East experts have been marginalized over the years for “going local”–associating themselves too closely with host governments and being critical of Washington’s wholesale support of Israel. It was Arabist denial of the true character and ambition of Saddam Hussein, their critics say, that caught Washington off guard when the dictator invaded Kuwait in 1990.
“Arabists,” said Francis Fukuyama while a Reagan Administration appointee on the State Department’s policy planning staff, “are more systemically wrong than other area specialists in the foreign service.” Such comments could easily be applied to the neoconservative cabal that continues to pilot Bush foreign policy despite the mess it has made of Iraq–after dismissing prescient State Department advice.
Although junior State Department officials have enrolled in Arab-language courses in record numbers over the past three years, it could take years to restore the Arabists’ ranks. The US Embassy in Baghdad will have fewer Arab specialists relative to its size and importance than any other American mission in the Arab world. John Negroponte, the current ambassador, had never served in the region before his recent appointment. The Bush Administration is so short on Middle East expertise that Christopher Ross, a veteran Arabist and former ambassador to Syria, was summoned to Baghdad out of retirement.
“Chris is a rare entity with his language skills,” says Robert Keeley, a former US ambassador to Greece and a member of Diplomats & Military Commanders for Change (DMCC), a group committed to Bush’s re-election defeat. “Yet the Pentagon took such charge of the occupation of Iraq that people like him are few and far between.”