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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1990, Page 27

Behind the Podium

Ambassador Talcott W. Seelye

By Janet McMahon

When Talcott Seelye says his daughter represents the fifth generation of his family to serve in the Middle East, it's easy to assume the former ambassador, born in Beirut, never doubted that he would carry on the family tradition. In fact, as a youth he had no intention of doing so, and ended up in the Middle East almost in spite of himself.

Ambassador Seelye's great-grandfather was a Congregational missionary in the Ottoman Empire in the 1840s. The family's next two generations owed their continued presence in the Middle East to the "inveigling" of Seelye's grandmother and mother, who persuaded their husbands to live in eastern Turkey and Lebanon, respectively. The future diplomat's mother, having herself earned a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at New York's Columbia University, encouraged her husband to accept a teaching assignment at the American University in Beirut.

Learning Arabic the Hard Way

The young Seelye, much to his later regret (one can almost see him wince), did not learn Arabic as a child living in Beirut. The family's servants were Armenian and he attended an American school, where he was determined to be "100 percent American"—a determination he did not outgrow in time to avoid having to learn Arabic the hard way (one winces in sympathy). To his further chagrin, when he finally did become proficient in the language, fellow diplomats would dismiss his accomplishment with a "Well, after all, he grew up there."

It was not until after World War II, part of which he spent as an army officer in Iran, that he began to consider, and ultimately adopted the Foreign Service as a career. In 1952, his second assignment found him posted as a junior officer to Amman, Jordan, where he soon discovered that half of the cabinet members were his father's former students.

With this assignment, Seelye made the decision to become a Middle East specialist, not only to acquire "a more in-depth knowledge and understanding" of that particular part of the world, but to gain a head start in being posted there. As was indeed the case: his subsequent overseas assignments were to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia and Syria, the latter two as ambassador.

Within the world of the US State Department, however, Seelye became known as one of a small group of "Arabists," a term to which the Israel lobby in the US worked hard to attach pejorative overtones. The "objectivity" of an Arabist—as opposed, say, to a Soviet specialist—was questioned.

As a result, in order to maintain credibility, those Foreign Service officers concerned with or sympathetic to the Middle East felt constrained to "soft pedal" their views to a certain degree. Within the confines of the State Department, however, Seelye maintains that those with "the courage of their convictions" can make their points, albeit carefully. It is in the public arena that US policy must be iterated with one voice.

Challenges Can Be Fun

In response to the question of what it is like to represent the United States in a country which is held in disfavor by the US, Seelye, ambassador to Syria when he retired in 1981, replies, "Challenges can be fun." He adds that, particularly in the Middle East, good personal relations can have an effect. Although he insists that his successes in that regard were modest, he does admit that his efforts paid off "a couple of times."

It was as he was leaving Syria for retirement in Washington that Ambassador Seelye inadvertently became a media figure. Granting a final interview as ambassador to The Washington Post and Associated Press, he agreed to speak on the record (such interviews are usually "on background") and, since he was about to leave the Foreign Service, to accede to his staffs urgings to speak out. Not until he arrived in Athens and was pursued around the city by American reporters and television crews did he realize what a furor he had created.

He appears frequently on television news shows and on the lecture circuit, where he speaks to college audiences, world affairs councils and civic organizations, As a "media expert" who presents a relatively rare perspective, he speaks carefully, aware of "a high degree of sensitivity." As a lecturer, however, there are "no holds barred."

Seelye finds his audiences interested in hearing a new perspective. What does disconcert him, though, are the people who come up to him to say how much they admire his "courage." He clearly is distressed by the pervasive aura of intimidation such remarks imply.

For most of his career, the ambassador felt that the US was moving in the right direction, making constructive peace initiatives in the Middle East. Historically, Americans have tended to have an "innate, but not political" sympathy with Israel. It is only with the growth and influence of the Israel lobby that Arabs have come to be negatively, and dangerously, stereotyped, to the point where "Arab" has often become synonymous with "terrorist."

Seelye believes that it's important for America to learn to view the rest of the world other than through its own prism. For example, although most Arab countries have not adopted American-style democracy, Seelye points out that there are at least 10 "enlightened regimes" in the Arab world which are well-received by their citizens. He cites Saudi Arabia's grassroots system where everyone can be heard, and where there is good vertical communication between the ruled and their rulers.

He is adamant that any real change has to happen here in the US.

A tall, reserved man, Ambassador Seelye is at the same time eminently straightforward. He says what he thinks, even if it's not what his audience—or he, himself—wants to hear. In particular, he is not optimistic about the current peace plans being bandied about in the US and Israel.

The Substance of the issue

Negotiations, he maintains, will not get us anywhere, merely bogging the parties down in procedure, without even approaching the substance of the issue, which is the fate of the Palestinians.

The ambassador is adamant that any real change has to happen here in the US. The PLO has already made a commitment to peace; only the US can get the Israelis to move. For this to happen, the influence of the Israel lobby must be overcome, and the president has to have the "guts" to do what is best for the US. and, ultimately, for Israel.

Nor is this an impossible dream, Seelye asserts. Twice within the past 15 years, the US has said "either ... or. . ." to Israel and been able to effect a change.

One tends to want to end an interview or conversation on a positive, if possible uplifting, note. As I said good-bye to Talcott Seelye, I had the same urge, but it willingly took second place to an appreciation of his commitment to realism and his insistence on describing things as he sees them.

Janet McMahon directs the AET Speakers Bureau and is associate editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.