Terra Incognita: Ambassadors without borders

The British, in particular, have had a long spate of biased and strange political representatives in the Middle East.

The seemingly strange comments by Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon praising late Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah occur against the backdrop of the increasing politization of Western ambassadors in the Middle East.
Diplomats sometimes become completely beholden to their host society, to the point that they no longer represent the interests of the mother country. After retiring, many of them, like Eugene H.
Bird, former US consul in east Jerusalem turned member of the pro-Arab Council for the National Interest, become paid advocates on behalf of Arab interests in the West.
Throughout history, ambassadors have often represented their home countries zealously. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Spanish ambassador to London, Bernadino de Mendoza, was complicit in a plot to overthrow the queen.
But diplomats are susceptible to influence and they have their own opinions.
Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, was appointed ambassador to the UK in 1938. He turned out to be a deep advocate of appeasement, argued that democracy in Europe was “finished” and eventually submitted his resignation in 1940 due to disagreement with prevailing US policy.
In the 19th century, Western powers began appointing representatives in cities such as Jerusalem. Initially many of these people were colorful locals. For instance early American representatives included Jewish merchants, like David Darmon, who were considered knowledgeable about the region, and German- American Templars, like Jacob Schumacher, living in Haifa. These individuals tended to be overly biased toward their own financial interests, community or environment.
THE BRITISH particularly have had a long spate of biased and strange political representatives in the Middle East. These forerunners to Frances Guy were certainly more partisan than she is.
Harry St. John Philby was born to British parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), educated at Cambridge, became a socialist and was sent to work for the Indian civil service in 1908. In 1917 he was appointed an agent to Ibn Saud, the local Wahhabi sheikh then in power in central Arabia.
Philby almost immediately became a partisan of the Saud family. But his “going native” didn’t deter the British government from keeping him on after the war in Iraq and Palestine. He was only pushed out in 1924 when it became clear he was passing on secret correspondence to the Saudis. He converted to Islam in 1930, settled in Saudi Arabia and served as an adviser in the kingdom until his death in Lebanon in 1955.
Lawrence of Arabia also became overly biased toward his Middle Eastern friends, particularly King Faisal of Iraq, who he had supported during the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Lawrence was chosen to be a representative of Britain’s Foreign Office at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Here he proved overtly partisan again, working alongside Faisal to gain concessions for the Arab states that the British hoped to set up after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
To a minor extent the equivalents of Philby and Lawrence in the US have been the “Arabists,” State Department career diplomats who have specialized in Arabic language and culture, received numerous diplomatic appointments in the Middle East and become partisans on behalf of the Saudi lobby in West.
Robert Kaplan, Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes have all documented the problem of American diplomats sent to Arab countries who developed a “passionate attachment” – what former secretary of state Jim Baker called “clientitis” – and even ended up on the Saudi payroll after their ambassadorships ended.
Among the most notorious is James Akins, a career diplomat and ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1973 to 1976.
In 1989 Akins attempted to get the Federal Elections Commission to regulate AIPAC. With former ambassador to Qatar Andrew Killgore, he joined the pro-Palestinian organization If Americans Knew. In a 2001 article, “Why do they hate us,” he claimed that 9/11 was caused by “the anti-American feeling in the Middle East and South Asia [that] has everything to do with US policy.” Before the Arab- American Anti-Discrimination Committee he spoke of “Dar al-Islam” and of the Israel lobby which “controlled the American Congress,” concluding; “If the American public were ever to concentrate on America’s interests, then its onesided support of Israel and its alienation of Muslims would end.”
Charles Freeman (ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1989-1992) has spent the last decade advocating for the Arab world in the US. In a November 3, 2006 speech at the 15th annual U.S-Arab policy-makers conference, he advocated on behalf of the Saudi-sponsored peace initiative of 2002: “It would exchange Arab acceptance of Israel and a secure place for the Jewish state in the region for Israeli recognition of Palestinians as human beings with equal weight in the eyes of God.”
John West (ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1977-1981), according to Emerson, encouraged punishment of Israel for the strike on Iraq in 1981, facilitated Saudi business deals in the US after retirement and, as ambassador, helped lobby for the sale of F-15s to the kingdom.
Robert Jordan (ambassador 2001- 2003) spoke at the 17th annual Arab-US policy-makers conference and noted that “one of the great pleasures” he feels now is visiting Saudi Arabia six or seven times a year, but “I think it’s one thing to develop a warm friendship and sense of kindred with the country in which you serve, but you’re still there to serve American interests.”
His statement could serve as a good reminder to the UK’s current ambassador to Lebanon who claimed “you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person” in describing Fadlallah, who supported hostage-taking and suicide bombings in Lebanon.
THE MIDDLE East is adept at seducing outsiders. However Western ambassadors to Arab countries could learn from their peers in Israel who tend to be impartial or critical of that country. Belgian ambassador Wilfred Greens, British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles and French ambassadors Gerard Araud and Jacques Huntzinger were all critical of Israel. Former Australian ambassador Ross Burns called in the Sydney Morning Herald for a more “hard-nosed emphasis on Australian interests.”
Rather than becoming ambassadors without borders, akin to some human rights organization, these diplomats need to be hard-nosed vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah and other players in the region and stop drinking the belly-dancingcum- exotic sheikh with a beard Kool-Aid.
For too long the West’s representatives in the Middle East have become completely beholden to their host societies, converting to their political views and forgetting that they are supposed to represent their country’s interests abroad rather than supporting foreign interests at home.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.