A not so quiet American

Patrice de Beer
13 July 2007

"There is no solution to the crisis in Lebanon without a solution to the Palestinian state question, period! Those who are still living in the Palestinian refugees camps, you can't keep them there forever after two or three generations, fed like animals by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). As for the Lebanese themselves, they have to see themselves as Lebanese first and members of their religious community second. The problem is that the Lebanese have let themselves being divided very easily by so many different players: Israeli, Syrians, Saudi, French, Americans. The sad part is that Lebanon, which was an example of cohabitation between eighteen different communities, is torn apart by one or another group trying to divide a country which has been a bridge between the Islamic world and the modern world."

These words come from the mouth of a former United States diplomat, a great figure of American diplomacy who served as ambassador in five countries under four presidents. Today, almost twenty years after his retirement - or, more accurately, after having been forced to retire by his political leaders - he is speaking out against the current of American foreign policy. In this he joins other former colleagues, veteran middle-east experts appalled by the state of affairs in the region, many of whom (such as former secretary of state James A Baker and former ambassador to Syria, Edward P Djerejian) served under the first President Bush. They scorn the second Bush administration's responsibility for the Iraqi "fiasco" (to quote the Washington Post correspondent, Thomas E Ricks's bestseller).

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)

"Why is the left so gauche?"
(26 February 2007)

"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality"
(2 April 2007)

"France's intellectual election"
(16 April 2007)

"France's choice: the Bayrou factor"
(24 April 2007)

"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"
(8 May 2007)

"Le Monde's democratic coup"
(30 May 2007)A diplomat's voice

John Gunther Dean's public career is too little known. He is the son of a prominent Jewish family from Breslau who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in 1938, changing their name from Dienstfertig. After brief service with the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) during the second world war, he entered the diplomatic service and held various postings in Europe, ex-colonial francophone Africa, Asia and the middle east. He was involved in the Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968-69 before a deeper engagement with southeast Asia: mediating in war-torn Laos and attempting unsuccessfully to do the same in Cambodia, where he was forced to evacuate Phnom Penh (where I first met him) before the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975.

In Beirut (1978-81) he acted as the discreet link between Washington and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of Yasser Arafat. His predecessor-but-one Francis E Meloy had been assassinated in 1976, and Dean too was targeted in a botched attempt in which terrorists used American weapons that had been delivered by the Pentagon to Israel (he believes that the attack was sponsored by the Israeli secret services).

As ambassador in New Delhi (1985-88) during the war in Afghanistan, his warnings to the Ronald Reagan administration against excessive reliance on Pakistan's military rulers and their Islamic fundamentalist protégés (among them Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, "then the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist in the whole world", and a obscure Saudi called Osama bin Laden) led to his forced resignation in 1988 as "mentally deranged". He is now retired in Paris.

John Gunther Dean was well known for his strong personal opinions and his physical courage: far from the image of the spineless bureaucrat. But he was no gung-ho maverick, more a classical diplomat whose obsession was to make peace, solve conflicts in order to save as many lives as possible (as he did in Laos and tried in Cambodia, Lebanon or Afghanistan). This won him respect among American presidents, both Republican and Democrats (in Beirut, his secret contacts with the PLO were okayed by Jimmy Carter as well as by Reagan) that enabled him to survive tense relationships, for example with Henry Kissinger about southeast Asia.

Dean now considers that his age and experience have won him the right to speak up about what he sees as the wrong course taken by United States foreign policy in the middle east, including its unabashed support for Israel; and that his Jewish identity too (rooted in a family history of surviving the holocaust) helps him to understand the urgency of Israel's need to save itself from the danger of self-destruction (because, he says, "time is not on its side").

Dean is shocked - as have been so many veteran middle-east diplomats - by the path George W Bush and his neo-conservative mentors have chosen, in particular by the catastrophic consequences of an unprepared and ideologically driven war in Iraq. He has been vocal in airing such views on various public platforms. On 7 September 2002, I was the first to publish (in Le Monde) his criticism of the Bush administration's refusal to recognise Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner; in the article he recalled the way that his own secret contacts had helped the PLO leader obtain from Ayatollah Khomeini the first liberation of US hostages from Tehran.

He also spoke of the botched attempt against his life (and that of his wife and
daughter) in Beirut by would-be assassins sponsored - he believes - by the Israeli secret services (see also here). He always insisted that his role was to serve his own country, the United States of America, and that this meant consistency of principle; thus, for example, he never failed to send an official protest every time Israeli planes flew over Lebanon. In Lebanon, he sought to maintain good relations with all the confessional communities.

This background and mentality reinforce his view that the current middle-east crisis must be seen as a whole and not as a collection of unrelated problems. Thus, the situation in Lebanon a year after the outbreak of the war between Hizbollah and Israel on 12 July 2006 is closely linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in turn has deeply influenced both the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dominant image the Arab Muslim world now has of the United States.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the middle east:

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh"
(11 May 2007)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report"
(21 May 2007)

Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out"
(5 June 2007)

Hazem Saghieh, "The Arab defeat"
(11 June 2007)

Omar Al-Qattan, "The secret visitations of memory"
(14 June 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "Hamas's shortsighted manoeuvre"
(18 June 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007) A dissident voice

In conversation, John Gunther Dean draws a quietly devastating picture of the Bush administration's highhandedness, partisanship and lack of understanding in relation to the middle east. He expresses "alarm" about America's "consistent, unequivocal support of Israeli actions and its policy on Palestine", and the major negative impact on this strategy in the region. "The result is that the Bush administration is no longer perceived by the Arab and Muslim world as an honest broker. It has alienated almost the entire world."

Dean gently scorns the partisan diplomacy of President Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. "Diplomacy doesn't only mean negotiating with countries we agree with, it means sitting down with friends and foes in order to find a realistic solution which would stop killing." This leads him to pin his hope on a European initiative towards Israel-Palestine: "Palestinians have a right to a state. Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Saudis, all make a linkage with US policy towards Palestine. If we want to improve the situation there we have to tackle this number-one problem." The lack of a solution endangers Israel. Dean is convinced that it is in Israel's long-term interest to make peace; otherwise "it risks disappearing as a state."

Israel's "blank cheque" with the Americans allows Israel to act without regard for the consequences. But "this is not to say that the Israelis are to blame; Americans are more at fault. The Israelis are merely acting rationally as they see their interests. It is America that is acting irrationally."

The emphasis on dialogue extends to Iran: "If we want to improve relations with Iran, why not talk with them, including about the $8.5 billion which belong to them and that we have blocked since the hostage crisis?" As for Iraq, his views are realistic and sobering: "How to get out of this situation? The occupier is always wrong."

None of these words are sweet for the Bush administration. They are also characteristic: John Gunther Dean's strength and credibility emanate from a particular combination of qualities: an exceptional personality with deep knowledge of the middle east, and the ability to speak directly yet with delightful old-style politeness in a way that cuts though politically-correct diplomatic jargon. The documents and memories of two decades of service (India and Afghanistan apart) are embodied in archives available to all in a number of institutions: the US national archives, the "oral history" section of the state department, and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. All this will be a valuable resource for historians seeking to tell the story of the second half of the 20th century. But John Gunther Dean himself is not history yet.

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