Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

November 24, 2009

Pity the U.S. diplomat posted to the Middle East

On its biannual Political Pilgrimages to the Middle East, the CNI Foundation tries to get as complete a picture as possible of what is  happening “on the ground” in the region. We try to meet those in power, as well as those in the opposition; those parties and figures deemed “pro-American” and those dubbed “anti-American”, too.

For example, in Lebanon our delegations attempt to meet with members of the March 14th alliance (Hariri, Siniora) and the March 8th alliance (Aoun, Hezbollah) — as well as those who oscillate in between (Joumblatt). Lebanon is fortunate (or, is that unfortunate?) to have such a wide political spectrum. One hopes that hearing from so many voices helps the visitor obtain a clearer sense of how things actually are.

In this spirit, our delegations also try to arrange briefings at each of the U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries we visit. It may seem ironic that we, as American citizens, feel it necessary to visit a U.S. embassy to get a different point of view. But in several of these countries, and on a host of issues, the U.S. point of view stands distinctly in the minority. It is a minority view with the weight of the sole superpower behind it, however, so we listen carefully.

Also, these diplomats represent us, and are paid for by our tax dollars. So of course we want to see what they’re doing!

These meetings help us complete our picture of what is happening on the ground, by showing us how U.S. policy gets filtered down to the diplomats who work in the region. There is sometimes some frustration with the obliging official, though we realize that this frustration stems primarily from our sense of being outflanked in the political system back home.

As nearly all of our American diplomatic interlocutors reminded us, if we disagree with U.S. policy, we should take our complaint to those who reside in Washington, DC. The diplomats don’t make policy, they implement it.  (However, all diplomats also have a role, according to their pay-grade, in shaping the the internal reporting and analysis on which cabinet members in Washington base their decisions.)

Obviously, of particular interest to our delegations are issues relating to Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab-Israeli peace. On these matters, the diplomats we met with in the Arab countries were generally reluctant to weigh in. Their recommendation? Talk to the embassy in Tel Aviv. They deal with this, not us.

Most members of the U.S. Congress today seem to hold reflexively pro-Likud views (though thankfully there is a growing minority that supports a fair peace and an end to the Israeli occupation). The degree to which these same views have taken root in the U.S. diplomatic corps is not as easily discernible since diplomats, unlike legislators, don’t have to regularly cast votes for or against “Sense of the House…” resolutions written by those with views favorable to the right wing in Israel.

Our small, unscientific survey of US diplomats in the region found that there is both reason to be hopeful and more than enough reason to have some doubt. As for why we should be hopeful, it was clear that some officials we met with did not entirely agree with the positions they were espousing (something you should expect in any healthy diplomatic corps). While their role as diplomats on behalf of the U.S. government circumscribed what they could and could not say, they at least seemed open to following different policies, should the leadership back in Washington give them authority and direction to do so.

A frequently mentioned, but not insurmountable, obstacle that several officials mentioned to us was the limitations that the U.S. Congress places on U.S. policy in the region (e.g., the Syria Accountability Act). Given the Presidential leadership to modify legislation, these diplomats would be freer to promote and protect U.S. interests abroad as the President sees fit.

On the other side of the ledger, some officials we met with seemed unaware that views other than those emanating from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv even existed. These were the meetings that were the most tense. For example, one official we met with breezily suggested the possibility that U.S. aid to a pro-U.S. Arab ally could be conditioned on that country implementing democratic reforms.

But then, in the same conversation, one person in our team member asked if the U.S. might condition its $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel on its compliance with the terms of the Road Map. The diplomat appeared stunned by the audacity of the idea. He told us that he had never heard of anyone in Washington contemplating such an option. When it comes to U.S. policy towards Israel, such direct pressure seems quite verboten.

The danger for the U.S. is that, especially over the past 16 years, it seems to have been developing a diplomatic corps that reflexively defends whatever position is adopted by the government in power in Israel, no matter how right wing or actually detrimental to the peace process that position might be.  These diplomats no longer seem ready to provide any regionwide analysis that challenges the predispositions of those heavily lobby-influenced forces in Congress who hold the purse-strings for all US diplomacy and continually try to place their own, highly partisan limits on what the diplomats can do.

For the past 16 years or more, that seems to have blocked most of those younger diplomats willing to imagine the future of the region from a purview broader than that provided by Tel Aviv from advancing in their careers.

In that case, the diplomat’s role as messenger from the U.S. to the region is compromised, but so too is her or his role as a keen watcher of events on the ground and their deeper meaning for U.S. interests around the world.



  1. the U.S. point of view stands distinctly in the minority. It is a minority view with the weight of the sole superpower behind it, however, so we listen carefully.

    Yes we believe you, It is a minority view.

    But what make it ironic here, the sole superpower driven by these a minority view.! just like inside US as norm now saying all that AIPAC influences or lobbying they are a minority view but they are also the driven force of the sole superpower.

    Comment by Salah — November 24, 2009 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  2. If the US diplomatic corps is oblivious to the spectrum of opinion in the US, their own country, how can we have any assurance that they have any clue about what is happening in the country they’re posted to? Or do they simply limit themselves to representing official positions back to Washington? (Wow! A sinecure! Where do I apply?)

    I realize that there is probably a range of competence in the diplomatic corps. But my own experience abroad suggests that foreign service people are more comfortable hanging out with the expat crowd and with hospitable, usually wealthy, locals. Language competence tends to be concentrated in European, diplomatic languages, not in major local languages, such as Arabic.

    My second major data point is what happened in Tehran, when the Shah fell. The failure to conceive of such a possibility was described, if I recall, as group think…

    Comment by JohnH — November 24, 2009 @ 11:05 pm | Reply

  3. “Lebanon is fortunate (or, is that unfortunate?) to have such a wide political spectrum.”

    Yep, very fortunate. It is such model place there are lines of Mexicans trying to enter Lebanon illegally. Actually they do have their
    illegal aliens, they are called Palestinians, and I am sure they feel very fortunate to live in Lebanon. I wonder
    why they want out.

    Comment by Titus — November 25, 2009 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  4. The danger for the U.S. is that, especially over the past 16 years, it seems to have been developing a diplomatic corps that reflexively defends whatever position is adopted by the government in power in Israel</i

    No worries ADD more three years…. will be 19 years not 16

    In fact US support Israel for the last 60 years Helena not 16 years.

    Btw, Why US oppose the Palestinian wish to announce their state? can you give us your though while you talking about US diplomatic relations and understanding the region complexity?

    US hints it will oppose proposed Libyan draft resolution on settlements

    US Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Alejandro Wolff on Tuesday hinted that his delegation will veto a proposed Libyan draft resolution in the Security Council that would call on Israel to freeze all settlements in the occupied territory.
    “He has lots of ideas,” Wolff told reporters with a big smile, in reference to Libyan UN Ambassador Abderrahman Shalgham’s move to have the council adopt a resolution in this regard.
    Speaking to reporters following the council monthly briefing on the situation in the Middle East earlier in the day, Shalgham expressed hope that agreement on the proposed draft would take place before the Eid Holiday this Friday, stressing that his delegation will not accept a presidential statement on the issue.

    Comment by Salah — November 25, 2009 @ 6:49 am | Reply

  5. The making of the president’s foreign policy
    The decider

    Nov 26th 2009 | WASHINGTON, DC
    From The Economist print edition

    Comment by Salah — November 27, 2009 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

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