Roscoe S. ‘Rocky’ Suddarth, Foreign Service veteran and former ambassador to Jordan, dies at 77

July 15, 2013

Roscoe S. “Rocky” Suddarth, a veteran Foreign Service officer and specialist in Middle Eastern affairs who served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan during the period immediately preceding the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, died June 29 at Georgetown University Hospital. He was 77.

The cause was leukemia, said his wife, Michele Suddarth.

Mr. Suddarth, who spoke Arabic fluently, served in Mali, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. For three weeks in 1967, he was a “selected” hostage in Yemen to protect from execution USAID workers accused of plotting to overthrow the government. A few years later, he helped arrange the evacuation of Wheelus Air Base in Libya and helped deal with the spike in oil prices following the coup that brought young army officer Moammar Gaddafi to power there.

In a wide-ranging carer, Mr. Suddarth later became executive assistant to the undersecretary for political affairs and in that role was involved in the U.S. response to the Iranian revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the release in 1981 of U.S. hostages held in the embassy in Tehran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In September 1987, Mr. Suddarth was named ambassador to Jordan. He was in the final month of that assignment when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was making threatening gestures against Kuwait.


Roscoe S. “Rocky” Suddarth, a veteran Foreign Service officer and specialist in Middle Eastern affairs who served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan during the period immediately preceding the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, died June 29 at Georgetown University Hospital. He was 77. (Family Photo )

The State Department issued a circular cable of instructions to the effect that “the U.S. does not take positions on intra-Arab territorial disputes,” Mr. Suddarth wrote in a memoir on his career. He said he feared that “the thuggish Saddam would read that sentence . . . as a blinking green light,” and he wished he had cabled Washington to delete it from the circular. “But I didn’t and I regret it,” he wrote.

Roscoe Seldon Suddarth was born Aug. 5, 1935, in Louisville and grew up in Nashville, where his mother ran a boardinghouse.

He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1956, then studied for two years at New College at the University of Oxford in England, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in modern history. In 1972 he received a master’s degree in systems analysis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He joined the Foreign Service in 1961 and in 1963 met his future wife, Michele Lebas, who drew his attention by winning a singing contest aboard a steamboat on the Niger River.

They were married in Bamako, but not until Mr. Suddarth complied with Malian law by attesting that he had not paid more than two cows for his bride. “I told them, ‘In our system, you pay after rather than before the wedding,’ ” an oral biographer quoted him as having said.

Over the years, his wife would joke that her husband still owed her two cows.

As consul in Yemen in 1967, Mr. Suddarth was chosen as the U.S. officer to share confinement with two USAID officers who were accused of launching a bazooka attack on an ammunition dump in the town of Taiz.

If convicted, they faced the death penalty with the option “of choosing a firing squad or — as a more manly course — of decapitation with an Islamic sword,” Mr. Suddarth wrote in the Foreign Service Journal in 1971.

U.S. diplomats had reasoned that the likelihood of the workers being executed would be diminished if a U.S. embassy officer were with them at all times, and in fact the two were released after three weeks of confinement.

After serving as inspector general at the State Department and international affairs adviser at the Naval War College, Mr. Suddarth retired from the Foreign Service in 1995. He then was president for six years of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Later he was an independent director of mutual funds, while studying for a master’s degree in musicology at the University of Maryland, which he received in 2008.

In addition to his wife of 50 years, of Bethesda, Mr. Suddarth is survived by two children, Anne Suddarth of Nijmegen, Netherlands, and Mark Suddarth of St. Louis; a sister; and four grandchildren.

For the last 12 years of his life, Mr. Suddarth lived with leukemia but continued to go about his daily routine. Only a few days before he died, he played cards and dined with friends.

He took piano lessons from an old friend and Yale classmate, pianist John Eaton. “He understood music, intuitively and intellectually,” Eaton said.

“People quizzically often ask me, ‘what do you intend to do with your music?’ Mr. Suddarth wrote in a sketch for his 50th college reunion class book.

“What an American question! I intend to contemplate beauty!”