Freeze-Out of the Arabists | The Nation


Freeze-Out of the Arabists

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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.

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Stephen Glain
Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. The paperback edition of his second book, State vs....

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"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."

An Arabist exodus is part of the price Americans are paying for Bush's destructive hurtle into a needless war. Weeks before the invasion, John Brady Kiesling, who has been posted both to Israel and the Arab world, resigned in protest against US foreign policy along with two other State Department veterans. "Why does our President condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this Administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials?" Kiesling wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security." The subtext was clear: By listening to fabulists in the Pentagon and White House, instead of his eyes and ears in the nation's outposts abroad, the President was leading the country into disaster.

Kiesling left behind a foreign service that would reap the whirlwind he prophesied. "I spend all day writing memos, fighting dumb ideas," says a State Department official. "We fought the turfing-out of the [Iraqi] military tooth and nail, and [former US proconsul in Iraq Paul] Bremer wouldn't listen. We warned them again on the need for a more transparent rebuilding process, and they did nothing." Says a top Arabist who recently left the Near Eastern desk but requested anonymity because he remains in government: "I never felt like a pariah except in Washington."

In an Administration that penalizes those who see the world as it is versus what the President wishes it to be, it was inevitable that the Near Eastern Bureau would be attacked as an obstacle to the New Crusade. When, in the run-up to war, Powell tried to dispatch a team of Arab specialists to help rebuild Iraq's government ministries, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides vetoed the list of names. The State Department's Future of Iraq Project, which accurately predicted widespread looting and insurgency after Saddam's removal, was intercepted and buried by the Pentagon.

"It is a peculiar feature of the Bush Administration and neocon ideology to treat foreign policy issues largely in military terms," says Charles Freeman, US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. "It is a diplomacy-free foreign policy, and this has cost us dearly in terms of our image and influence abroad." Freeman, who is also a member of DMCC, laments how "Powell's enormous talents have been squandered in favor of numerous military adventures." Even if a re-elected Bush were to clean house, he says, the damage done to the mechanics of American diplomacy has been all but irreversible. "So long as an important part of our body politic believes that security can only be established at gunpoint, an assumption that is belied by history, the United States will remain in international isolation," Freeman says.

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