Ambassador William Eagleton, one of the State Department's foremost Middle East experts, has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs for more than fifty years. He entered the Foreign Service in 1949, after serving two years in the U.S. Navy. His overseas

Related Topics:

Ambassador William Eagleton, one of the State Department's foremost Middle East experts, has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs for more than fifty years. He entered the Foreign Service in 1949, after serving two years in the U.S. Navy. His overseas postings include Damascus (1951-53), Beirut (1953-54), Kirkuk (1954-55), and Tabriz (1959-61). He was in Mauritania in 1962, chargé d'affaires in Aden, South Yemen (1967-1969), and chief U.S. diplomat in Algeria (1969-74), Libya (1978-80), and Iraq (1980-84). Following a stint as ambassador to Syria (1984-88), he served six years as the deputy commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). He subsequently served in senior U.N. capacities in Bosnia and the western Sahara before returning to northern Iraq in 2003 as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense. A 1948 graduate of Yale University, he also attended the Institut des Sciences Politiques in Paris and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is the author of two books, The Kurdish Republic of 1946[1] and An Introduction to Kurdish Rugs.[2] Suzanne Gershowitz, research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, interviewed him by e-mail on March 25, 2005.

Iraq

Middle East Quarterly: You have had a lengthier involvement in Iraq than perhaps any other member of the Foreign Service. What was life like in Iraq when you first arrived in 1954?

Ambassador William Eagleton: Life in Iraq has changed considerably. Those who are old enough to look back to 1954 usually idealize the life of those simpler times. The monarchy was accepted but not always loved. When leftist parties tried to organize opposition in the street, the king called on the veteran prime minister Nuri Said who in turn appointed a no-nonsense Kurd, Sa'id Qazzaz, as minister of the interior. Qazzaz's 1954 crackdown on the opposition was certainly benign compared with the later crackdown that came after a series of military coups had eliminated the moderates. In the background were the broadcasts of [Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Voice of the Arab radio broadcasts, which were radicalizing the population while denouncing Hashemite monarchies [in Iraq and Jordan] as pawns of Britain and the United States.

MEQ: How had Iraqi society changed when you returned in 1980 after Saddam Hussein had come to power?

Eagleton: Saddam's policy of restricting contact between Iraqis and foreigners contributed to the most notable difference. Those Americans who experienced Iraq in the early 1950s recall the friendly hospitality and openness of the Iraqi people. When I'd be in the Kurdish north, I would go any place and see anyone I wanted. No permits were required. By 1980, though, the Iraqi government had totally isolated the embassies, including the Arab ones, from the Iraqi public. They accomplished this by having the mukhabarat [intelligence services] interview any Iraqis who had been seen with foreigners. Not all Iraqis were made to disappear, but the interview experience was usually enough to ensure future caution and compliance. Meanwhile, the impact of the oil income was evident, particularly in Baghdad where large ministries and hotels began to fill the skyline. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the Iraqi government was sitting on a surplus of something like [US]$40 billion. For at least the first years of the Iran-Iraq war, this enabled the Iraqi government to buy both guns and butter.

MEQ: Did you ever meet Saddam? What was he like?

Eagleton: I never had a one-on-one meeting with Saddam, but I was present during several official events and visits, including that of [then Reagan administration Middle East envoy and now secretary of defense Donald] Rumsfeld.[3] Of course, Saddam was visible every day on television. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam looked for support wherever available, and to get it, he could lay on the charm. He was physically imposing and, as the personality cult caught on and intensified, Saddam became an almost godlike figure. Some of his admirers in the diplomatic community claimed that he was really a modest man who did not welcome the statues and huge portraits. But, if that were the case, he could have put an end to them with a single command. I recall one friend of ours, a painter of Kurdish and Yezidi[4] folkloric scenes, who was driven to a mental breakdown by an assignment to paint gigantic portraits of Saddam Hussein.

MEQ: When did you first realize that the Iraqi invasion of Iran was more than a skirmish?

Eagleton: When I arrived in Baghdad in the summer of 1980, the Iraqi media made frequent mention of artillery exchanges at various points along the border with Iran. There was no way to verify these claims since foreign journalists and military attachés were not allowed near the action. Then in early September, starting in the north, the Iraqis attacked and overran small pockets of Iranian-occupied territory. We found with a little research that these had been awarded to Iraq in the 1975 [Algiers] agreement between the shah and Saddam. Each morning for a week, we were treated to a new conquest. When there were no more pieces of territory to be retrieved, the Iraqis officially renounced the part of the 1975 agreement that had given Iran its long sought half share of the Shatt al-Arab waterway [along the border at the mouth of the Persian Gulf]. It was at this point that it occurred to me and others that Iraqi enforcement of this claim would lead to war. I believe it was two days later that the war began with the Iraqi air force bombing of a number of Iranian airfields. Using U.S.-trained pilots and U.S.-supplied planes, the Iranians bombed Baghdad, Basra, and other centers early in the morning of the following day.

MEQ: How did Iraqi society react?

Eagleton: For most Iraqis, the war was initially a distant affair. At the start, there was wide support of the war, which both the leadership and Iraqi public believed would last only a few days. Of course, we were not tuned into the Shi'ite street or other opposition elements. I have always thought that Saddam's miscalculation was to believe that outside pressure would stop the war with Iran just as it had ended the Arab-Israeli encounters after only a few days. He apparently misunderstood that no one in the West had any interest in imposing peace on the two combatants.

MEQ: How was your homecoming in May 2003 when you returned to Iraq as part of an international property restitution fact-finding team?

Eagleton: My homecoming, two months after hostilities ended, was a very happy experience. I was able to visit many friends from the past, including government officials and tribal leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan. Once again, I could meet with anyone without fear that they would have to pay a price. Of course, the property issue, my reason to return, was a sensitive one. It will have a major effect on both the Kirkuk region and on the future, not only of Iraqi Kurdistan, but also on Iraq itself.

MEQ: President Bush has made Iraq the centerpiece of his democratization drive. Is democracy in the wider Middle East possible, or even wise?

Eagleton: A good question that deserves a more complete answer than I can give. As long as we use the term democracy in its largest sense—that is, not just as a copy of our system—there is much more to be done. The experience in the Middle East after World War II was that democratic processes were easily manipulated, or they soon broke down when it became clear that the military could easily take charge. There were times during the Cold War when too much democracy might have undermined U.S. friends and interests. A willingness to accommodate ourselves to a less than perfect "democratic" system might be the appropriate approach for the present.

Iran

MEQ: You've also had a long history in Iran. What was life like in Tabriz at the height of the Cold War? What was the atmosphere like in that city less than 100 miles from the Soviet border?

Eagleton: We justified the substantial resources we put into the consulate in Tabriz on the grounds that we should have a "listening post" near the Soviet frontier, less than 100 miles away. Our consulate was useful in 1945 when we monitored a Soviet attempt to increase their forces in Azerbaijan at a time when they should have been reduced.[5] However, by the time I got to Tabriz, the border was almost completely closed both to travelers and transported goods. There were no Russians in Tabriz, and there was nothing much to listen to at the border. I do remember that just inside the border the Russians had placed an upright medium range missile, apparently to impress someone, whether foreigners or the local people, I never knew. Neither the ethnic Persians nor the ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iranian Azerbaijan appeared to be too worried by the proximity of the Soviet Union, though.

MEQ: How had Iranian society changed when you returned during the 1990s?

Eagleton: During the 1990s, I made four brief trips to Iran. Once was to attend an international rug conference; on other occasions, I was seeking funds for UNRWA, and on another trip, I was attending a conference on Sarajevo where I was working at the time. For an adequate answer, you'd have to ask someone who has spent more time than me in post-revolution Iran. However, I am inclined to believe that the Iranian character remains much as it was before the revolution. Individuals are still hospitable and outgoing. It is ironic that the United States might be more popular now than it was under the shah when we were blamed for all perceived shortcomings. There are some changes that, while superficial, are nevertheless important. For example, Islamic dress for women, which I gather is now a bit less strict than it was in the 1990s. There is also something heavy and humorless about Islamic rule that is hard to define. By isolating themselves, the Iranians have been the losers.

MEQ: Were the Iranians aware of your past history with the State Department and the Kurds?

Eagleton: They weren't aware until my last visit in 1996 when the Iranian security people finally discovered my connection with my book, The Kurdish Republic. I was in Mahabad. The presence of my wife and me at a local hotel aroused the curiosity of Iranian security and led them to interrogate a rug dealer interpreter who was accompanying us. I was gathering information for a paper for an international rug conference in Germany, but he told them about my previous book. Since then, I have applied several times for visas but they were not granted. The situation might be changing a little, though. This February [2005], the Iranian government allowed several Iranian Kurds to attend a conference in Erbil, [Iraqi Kurdistan], on The Kurdish Republic. If I applied now, I think it likely that the Iranian authorities might be prepared to give me a visa.

The Kurds

MEQ: How did you come to write your book The Kurdish Republic of 1946?

Eagleton: When I was the American consul in Tabriz between 1959 and 1961, my consular district included all of Iranian Kurdistan, at the center of which is the town of Mahabad. Back in January 1946, when Mahabad was situated between the British and Russian [World War II] zones [of occupation] in Iran, Kurdish nationalists had proclaimed a Mahabad republic.[6] The republic neither included all of Iranian Kurdistan nor did it last long. By the end of 1946, Russian forces were moving out of [Iranian] Azerbaijan and the shah's army was moving in to crush the [Azeri and Kurdish] nationalists' governments in both Tabriz and Mahabad.

I had read an interesting article in the Middle East Journal[7] written by Lt. Col. Archie Roosevelt (army intelligence) who had visited Mahabad during the republic and had come away with a positive assessment of the Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad. My visits to Mahabad gave me a unique opportunity to interview participants in the republic, and I wrote a brief account of their history. No one subsequently had the opportunity to follow up with a new and more complete account, so my book still stands as the authority.

MEQ: How did your study of Kurdish carpets come about?

Eagleton: Despite the restrictions on ties between foreigners and Iraqis, somehow the door had been left open for diplomats and others to make and maintain contacts among the rug and other merchants in the Baghdad suq [market]. Shortly after my arrival in Baghdad, I let it be known that I was planning to write an article on Kurdish weavings, which had been neglected by the rug community. This not only explained my many pleasant afternoons with the carpet dealers, but it also provided something of an explanation for my many field trips into the Kurdish north [of Iraq]. I had to get written permission from the Iraqi government for trips out of Baghdad, but this did not mean that Kurdish friends could risk contacting me once I reached the north. I did, however, see quite a bit of several tribal families who did not mind the later attention from the secret police. When I returned to Erbil in 2003, I ran into one of my carpet dealers from my time as head of the U.S. Interest Section in the 1980s. He laughed when he recalled how the mukhabarat interrogated him after every visit I made to his shop but added that it was worth the hassle given the prices he got and the sales he produced.

Syria

MEQ: Let's shift back to the Arab world. You arrived in Syria soon after the 1951 coup?

Eagleton: Yes. Back then we reached our Middle East posts by ship. Word of the coup reached me in the daily news bulletin published on the American export line vessel. The coup was not unexpected, though, since the military strongman of the time, Adib Shishakli,[8] was already running most things behind a democratic façade.

MEQ: How did the U.S. embassy adjust to a military dictatorship?

Eagleton: The embassy staff was fairly unanimous in welcoming the coup, which many hoped would bring in a more stable and pragmatic regime. The Syrian postwar experiment in democracy had not been an entirely happy one. After the coup, optimists saw Shishakli as a possible Syrian Atatürk,[9] but his popularity gradually diminished. We initially found many things about him attractive, though. First and foremost, he was an enemy of radical Arab nationalism. Still, he wasn't any friend of the Hashemite kings in Iraq and Jordan [who were U.S. and British allies]. Following events from the embassy, we tended to be cynical, often with good reason.

MEQ: How palpable was Arab nationalism at the time?

Eagleton: Shortly after the Syrian coup, Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control in Egypt. The region divided between those who supported some form of Arab nationalism and those who opposed it. Among the latter were the conservative monarchies of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and most Lebanese Christians. For a while it seemed that nothing could stop Nasser and his supporters, but contravening forces eventually managed to contain the nationalist fervor. There were times, though, that it was a very close thing.

MEQ: For example?

Eagleton: After the [1958] regicide in Iraq, the U.S. and British governments rushed forces to Lebanon and Jordan in order to bolster those regimes and raise the morale of our allies in the area.

MEQ: You have referred quite a bit to the Arab "nationalist fervor." Where has Arab nationalist sentiment been greatest?

Eagleton: It would take a book to adequately address comparative Arab nationalism since each county has had different policies and attitudes at different times. For decades, though, Arab nationalism was centered in Cairo.

MEQ: Fast forward to your time as ambassador in Syria. What was Hafez al-Assad like as a person? As a negotiating adversary?

Eagleton: Most visitors and negotiating opponents of Assad were favorably impressed when they met him. He had the reputation of being firm but honest. He did not mislead adversaries. He found compromise difficult, but when he had given his word, he normally kept it.[10]

MEQ: Compare your experience in Syria with Hafez al-Assad to that with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Eagleton: Moving in 1984 from wartime Iraq to Assad's Syria was in some ways like coming out of the dark and into the light. Damascus was and remains relatively open to foreigners. There was little of the Iraq-type paranoia. Diplomatic representatives could become a part of the community. Assad appeared steady but somewhat weak. Saddam was the opposite, tough but not steady. There was also contrast between the modern, sometimes impressive, Iraqi government structures in Baghdad and the modest Syrian ministry buildings scattered around Damascus. But that was the difference between those who had oil money and those who did not. Although Syria under Assad had a number of competing security agencies, it was nothing like the over-controlled police state atmosphere of Baghdad.

MEQ: Looking across the region, which leaders did you feel had the best understanding of the West in general and the United States in particular? Which rulers had the least understanding of how the outside world worked?

Eagleton: It is almost impossible to know the extent of individual leaders' understanding of the West. But on the whole, those who traveled the most probably had the best understanding, and those who stayed at home, such as Saddam and Assad, probably had the least.

Libya

MEQ: Let's move to North Africa. What are your recollections of Libya's Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, at that time a young man?

Eagleton: During my year and a half in charge of the embassy in Tripoli, I never had a one-on-one meeting with the Libyan leader. Qadhafi gave the impression that he was everywhere, though: at rallies, patriotic meetings, conferences, and almost nightly on television. He favored dramatic settings where he could make theatrical entrances and lead the crowd chanting slogans for socialism and revolution and against "reaction." Qadhafi was and is a complex character. Some so-called experts have declared him a manic-depressive, but I was never convinced that anybody knew quite what animated him. Certainly during his youth as a member of a small tribe far removed from Tripoli, he developed a dislike for those he believed were exploiting the common people. Those he suspected included simple storeowners as well as goldsmiths. He took care of the latter by simply lowering the legal price at which gold could be sold to a point below the world market. Qadhafi was at his best in televised discussions with students in small seminars. His problem was that he wanted to bring about revolutionary change in Libya, but the Libyan people were basically conservative. His exhortations for workers to seize factories and act up in popular committees never engendered enthusiasm.

MEQ: How did Qadhafi interact with other Arab leaders?

Eagleton: On the international scene, he could be on the verge of achieving a spectacular success. But then he would spoil his game by insulting someone of importance. He liked to "tell it like it is" but always at someone else's expense. This would antagonize another chief of state, and his plans for union or whatever would fall apart.

MEQ: Washington's relations with Libya were strained after Qadhafi seized power and ordered the closure of Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli in September 1969. When you were there, did Qadhafi ever seek rapprochement with Washington?

Eagleton: During my time in Tripoli, Qadhafi initially made serious efforts to improve relations with the United States. His campaign achieved some minor successes but came apart when the Iranians staged a real revolution backed by large demonstrations. After first criticizing Iran's seizure of American diplomatic hostages, he later organized rallies in support of Iran that culminated in the attack on the U.S. embassy [in Tripoli] in December 1979. Though under certain conditions Washington probably would have been willing to maintain relations with Libya, nothing came of it when Qadhafi made himself unavailable to meet with me to discuss our conditions. When, in February 1980, Qadhafi organized an attack on the French embassy at a time when the French were selling him military equipment, it was decided to suspend relations and close the embassy.

MEQ: How much of a factor was Arab nationalism in Libya and the other countries you visited in North Africa?

Eagleton: Arab nationalism has lost much of its appeal over the years. It was never as strong in Mauritania, Algeria, or Morocco as in some of the countries closer to the Middle East conflict. Libya has moved back and forth depending on whether Qadhafi saw himself as an Arab, North African, or African.

South Yemen

MEQ: What was life like in the Arab world's only communist country?

Eagleton: I arrived as consul general in the summer of 1967 when the British were trying to find a secure way to turn over the government to a reliable successor. We all referred to that day as "The End," which for security reasons took place one day early.[11] At that time, the British had brought together offshore the largest British fleet to be assembled since Queen Elizabeth's coronation [in 1953].

On that night in November 1967 when the British had just departed, there suddenly were a number of Chinese in the hotel lobby [who started] pinning Mao badges on us. Newly endowed as a communist country, South Yemen was indeed surreal. During my remaining year and a half in Aden, I was obliged to endure many long-winded communist speeches. Meanwhile, a left wing of the party wanted a more radical revolution while many of those of the government were less interested in ideology than in trying to run the impoverished country. Nevertheless, the leadership had apparently all read the same books destined for the Third World full of words like "scientific socialism" and "comprador."

MEQ: Did Soviet rhetoric inflame anti-Americanism in Yemen?

Eagleton: Both the Soviets and the East Germans worked to undermine American and British influence in South Yemen. It took the South Yemeni government about a year and a half to decide to break relations with Washington, which merely put them in the same position as a number of other Arab states who had broken diplomatic ties at the time of the [1967 Arab-Israeli] Six-Day war.

MEQ: How did the South Yemenis view Egypt and Nasser, who had been combatants in the bloody civil war in north Yemen?

Eagleton: Because the party [the National Liberation Front] that had taken over in Aden was a rival of the Nasserite front, the South Yemeni government considered Egypt an enemy and did not allow the Egyptian government to have an office in Aden.

The Foreign Service

MEQ: How has the culture of the Foreign Service changed in the past fifty years? Do you feel new U.S. diplomats serving in the region have the same language skills that you and your colleagues had fifty years ago? Has the nature of diplomatic reporting changed?

Eagleton: The culture of the Foreign Service has changed much in the past fifty years. Perhaps there was more change in the fifties and sixties than thereafter. During those earlier years, most communications were in the form of dispatches and other written correspondence. Cables, written without articles and other nonessential words, were used only for urgent issues. Conversations were not recorded verbatim as became the case in the late 1960s under Henry Kissinger. We still have very high-class people in the service, and language skills are probably being better taught than before. However, with the closing of many consulates and the establishment of security perimeters around diplomatic missions, there are fewer opportunities to put those language skills to use. It is true that events are moving so rapidly that most Foreign Service officers don't have the time, nor is there the audience, for long analytical pieces. Those, however, are well supplied by foreign policy organizations and think tanks that are producing timely and useful analyses in contrast to some of the earlier academic material that was often out of date.

[1] New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
[2] New York: Interlink Books, 1988.
[3] The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 21, 1983.
[4] The Yezidis of Iraq practice a pre-Islamic religion centered upon a cult of angels.—Eds.
[5] See, for example, "Decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Politburo to Mir Bagirov, Central Committee Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, on 'Measures to Organize a Separatist Movement in Southern Azerbaijan and Other Provinces of Northern Iran,'" The Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
[6] The Mahabad Republic fell to the Iranian army in December 1946.—Eds.
[7] "The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad," July 1947, pp. 247-69.
[8] Adib ash-Shishakli (1909-64). In 1949, he overthrew Col. Muhammad Sami al-Hinnawi, who had seized power four years earlier. As defense minister, Shishakli dominated the civilian government, finally ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Fawzi Salu in November 1951. Overthrown in 1954, Shishakli spent his exile in Brazil.—Eds.
[9] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is considered the father of modern Turkey.—Eds.
[10] Daniel Pipes gives an alternate assessment in "The Word of Hafez al-Assad," Commentary, Oct. 1999.
[11] Nov. 30, 1967.