Bechtold: Diplomacy in limbo

Bechtold holds one of the numerous awards he has received for foreign service. By David Williard.To hear Peter Bechtold tell it, media reports that connect a “death-of-diplomacy” theory with recent foreign-policy initiatives undertaken by the United States are exaggerated.

“I wouldn’t call it the death of diplomacy,” he said. “The term I’ve been using for more than a decade is the de-professionalization of the foreign-affairs community.”

Bechtold, the chairman emeritus of the Near East-North Africa Area Studies for the Foreign Service Institute (U.S. Department of State), has trained more than 11,000 government officials who served in the U.S. foreign-affairs agencies. This year, as a visiting professor in the College’s government department, he has taught five courses dealing with Middle-Eastern affairs and has been approached by dozens of students who are interested in pursuing careers in the nation’s foreign diplomatic corps. Despite his concerns with the manner in which diplomats are being used, he encourages students to pursue the field.

“In this administration, it would be difficult to serve in the foreign service, but administrations change, and we have to turn this thing around,” he said.

Bechtold traced the change in the use of foreign-service intelligence to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who led the executive branch to take an “ideological” stance toward its foreign policy. That stance was maintained, in one form or another, by succeeding presidents, including William Clinton and George W. Bush, who subordinated foreign policy to domestic considerations.

Bechtold used the Iraq war as an example, calling it a myth that the U.S. government did not know what would happen. A 1,500-page study, prepared by officials within the U.S. Department of State, was sent to the White House. It went from President Bush to Donald Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense at the time, to Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense, according to Bechtold. “Wolfowitz put it in the round file,” Bechtold said. “It didn’t fit with what the ideologues wanted to hear.”

What the administration did not want to hear is that there was “no way out of Iraq,” according to Bechtold. “First the American military is going to clobber the Iraqi military, because we are the top-ranked team in Division I going up against a Division II team,” he said. “It’s just a question of the final score. The second part is where people raised their eyebrows. Having won a military victory, we will lose the war.”

There are approximately 800 Middle East specialists who are employed by the U.S. government; 200 of them are senior level people, according to Bechtold. “The last time they were used effectively was during the first half of the administration of President Jimmy Carter,” he said.

In terms of U.S. policy in the Middle East,
Bechtold joins other notable figures such as Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Gen. Anthony Zinni (USMC, ret.), who was in charge of the U.S. Central Command, who have come to the College as professors and suggested that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation should be at the heart of U.S. diplomatic concerns for the region.

“The number-1 problem is the Arab-Israel conflict,” Bechtold said. “The perception in the Middle East is that the whole reason we’re in Iraq is to protect Israel.”

When Bechtold looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he goes back to the Ottoman conquest of 1517, when outsiders established local rule for 400 years and the issue of colonization first surfaced. During the past 30 years, the building of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory has been viewed against that history. Today, when Israelis perform raids in the territories, those actions are filmed and broadcast by a proliferating network of Arab television stations. “When women and children in Israel are killed, it appears on U.S. television, as it should. When Arab women and children are killed by Israelis, it appears on Arab satellite stations continuously, but only rarely on U.S. stations,” Bechtold said. “Then the United States blocks every U.N. security council resolution that is critical of Israel, and it looks as if we are in cahoots.”

Bechtold offered a scenario he shared with Zinni. Although it never would have been considered seriously, it is instructive.

“I told him, you are from Pennsylvania. Israel is the size of Delaware, and the Palestinians are the size of Rhode Island, although they want to be the size of Delaware. I said, Pennsylvania can knock the stuffing out of Delaware and Rhode Island. Why can’t we solve this problem? The Ottoman’s would have solved this problem.”

He explained that if, on its way to Iraq, the U.S. military had stopped in Israel and insisted that settlers be pulled out of the West Bank, at least half of the Arab world would have joined the coalition forces in removing Saddam Hussein. “Saddam Hussein was an embarrassment to them,” he explained.

Some of the Arab countries did cooperate with the United States, but they did so behind the scenes, he said. “Even Iran cooperated with us, and what did they get, they got to be called the axis of evil because some people in this country wanted to hear it.”

“There is a death of diplomacy when foreign policy is subordinated to domestic considerations,” Bechtold admitted. At William and Mary, he has tried to impress upon students the necessity of bringing diplomacy out of limbo and of seeking adequate sources of information as they form their own opinions concerning foreign affairs. One extra-credit exercise he offered students involved “triangulating” their media habits. “I told them that the number-one problem with the Middle East is not the Middle East,” he explained. “That’s the number-two problem. The number-one problem is that in the United States information about the Middle East is phenomenally distorted.” The students were to study one issue using three media sources, including sources based outside the United States. In their papers, he said, they remarked about the “entertainment-” versus “news-” value evident in U.S. reports. Bechtold further suggested that U.S. policies have failed to the extent that they have not been based “on hard facts on the ground but on some illusionary images” that often are reflected in media coverage.

“Never believe it when somebody says A leads to B,” he advised. “It does in mathematics and in certain sciences, but we need to think more of the Mississippi River. If you’re down in New Orleans, and somebody asks, “Where does the water come from,” the answer is from many sources—the Missouri, the Ohio and many, many very small streams.”

The potential consequences of not utilizing “diplomatic” intelligence are severe. Bechtold fears a “backlash” in Palestine, Iraq and throughout the region. “People continue to suffer until we address the real issues. We can’t say the Palestinians are entitled to have a state while we make it impossible for them to have a state,” he said. The War in Iraq, he said, is setting back the American military by decades. “Also, the financial debt incurred in waging the war and within our economy is problematic because the People’s Republic of China controls huge amounts of U.S. foreign-exchange assets. It the Chinese were to call in their chips, we’d be in grave danger,” he continued.

Another negative consequence may involve damage to the nation’s psyche. Today, many people “do not believe the government; they do not believe the White House,” he said. At a time when political parties in the United States are in the process of vetting their potential candidates for president, Bechtold foresees that a strong leader could help turn the nation’s vision around. So far, those with effective global visions have not made it past the first round,” he observed.

“I see potential,” he said. “More and more Americans realize that global warming is a problem. More and more Americans see that we have to care about the rest of the world, and we do have the best colleges and universities in the world.”

Having taught at William and Mary for a full year, he counts the College among those capable of making a difference. He actually came here only after he heard Wilkerson speak positively about the atmosphere on campus during a lecture at the State Department Annex. On campus himself, Bechtold has been surprised at how many of his students have already traveled to the Middle East or who are planning to go, and how large the number is who are genuinely interested in learning about the region. “That makes a difference,” he said.

Although he will be leaving William and Mary at the end of the semester—“I was brought in to plug a temporary hole in the faculty,” he said—he hopes to see more graduates of the school ultimately serving as U.S. diplomats. He offers them the following advice: “If you have a liberal-arts degree, you had better have a coherent field. Language is one key that will open the door, but when you get in there, you need to show solid, complementary subjects.”