Freeze-Out of the Arabists

Freeze-Out of the Arabists

Neocons isolate State Department experts, with disastrous results.


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.”

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.

The Arabists are used to watching from the sidelines as events unfold. Under Richard Nixon, the United States cemented its pro-Israel bias despite State Department warnings that it would fuel growing anti-Americanism in the region. Their frustration grew during the Middle East peace process of the 1990s, which became a policy colossus that smothered Washington’s other interests in the region.

The Arabists’ nemeses are familiar to anyone concerned about the integrity and direction of US foreign policy: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Bill Luti, National Security Council senior director Elliott Abrams, former Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle–all of whom have since the Reagan years counseled a get-tough approach to the Arabs and unconditional support for Israel that explicitly excludes input from the State Department.

Officially, the State Department disputes that there is any tension between the Near East desk on one side and the White House and Pentagon on the other. Adam Ereli, the department’s deputy spokesman, said it would be “splitting hairs” to suggest Iraq would be more stable today had the Future of Iraq Project’s report been given a serious hearing.

Arabists acknowledge that the Pentagon and White House have been belatedly reaching out to the same diplomats they so recently undermined. With Washington isolated diplomatically, US troops mired in Iraq and the November presidential election around the corner, Bush aides have been frantically plundering the Near Eastern desk for advice, with some positive results. At the State Department’s urging, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, was given the authority to divert reconstruction funds away from large contracts tendered to big US firms and toward smaller projects to boost employment (that authority has been seriously impaired, however, by the US government’s decision to allocate $3.5 billion in reconstruction funds to training and equipping Iraqi police and other security forces, protecting oil supplies and preparing for the January elections). Iraq’s minority Sunnis now have a larger voice in the interim government after months of ill-advised Pentagon backing of Ahmad Chalabi’s Shiite-dominated factions. Yet Arabists harbor few illusions about the future. A second Bush Administration would mean another four-year quarantine for the Arabists, at least on the policy-making level.

True, the State Department is the primary US representative in newly “sovereign” Iraq. But just as Bush aides neglected postwar Afghanistan to focus on its real priority–Iraq–they now seem to be resetting their sights on the gold ring: Iran. Widely overlooked in the investigation of alleged Pentagon espionage involving Israel is that it reportedly revolved around a presidential directive that prescribes a tougher posture toward Iran. The Bush Administration’s call for a Security Council resolution to short-circuit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions looks ominously like the force majeure it triggered for regime change in Iraq.

Paul Hughes, a US Army colonel, remembers a remark made by senior Pentagon official Harold Rhode, prominent among the neocon faithful, as the two men were on a flight to Kuwait just before the US invasion of Iraq. The battle for Iraq, Rhode de-clared to Hughes and a detail of British officials, was the first step in the battle for Tehran. “We all exchanged glances and rolled our eyes,” said Hughes. “The Brits couldn’t believe it.” Rhode denied through a spokesman he has ever made such a remark, though State Department and Pentagon officials say the neocons have made it clear they would target Iran in a second Bush term–particularly if Wolfowitz or Condoleezza Rice runs Foggy Bottom.

The Arabists’ biggest fear is that a re-elected Bush would not call for the customary resignation of his senior-level policy-makers, which would allow them to remain in government without having to go through the Congressional confirmation process some of them would not survive. That, say officers on the Near Eastern desk, would all but extinguish the last line of official dissent against the Administration and its ruinous agenda for the Middle East.

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