Talcott W. Seelye; Ambassador Developed Middle East Expertise

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Talcott W. Seelye, 84, a Foreign Service officer who became ambassador to Tunisia and Syria and was considered one of the State Department's most experienced Middle East hands in the 1970s and 1980s, died of pancreatic cancer June 8 at his home in Bethesda.

Mr. Seelye served as ambassador to Tunisia from 1972 to 1976 and envoy to Syria from 1978 to 1981.

President Gerald R. Ford named him a special presidential emissary to Lebanon in 1976 after the assassination of Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr. In that assignment, he oversaw the evacuation of almost 200 Americans from Beirut by the 6th Fleet.

Mr. Seelye, as a long-standing diplomat with firm opinions on contentious Middle East issues, did not escape controversy himself. He was criticized for using a Palestine Liberation Organization security detail for protection when he was sent to Lebanon in 1976. And as he left his ambassadorship and federal career in 1981, he said peace in the Middle East was unlikely while Israel's prime minister was Menachem Begin, whom he termed "totally blind" to the Palestinian problem. The State Department disavowed those comments the next day.

Mr. Seelye further urged the Reagan administration to abandon the late 1970s Camp David peace accords. "Whatever new initiative we embark on, it must be removed or separated from Camp David, which is too much of a red flag in the area," he said. "It is necessary to develop a formula that is effective based on what I consider the twin essentials of a settlement: Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, including the removal of settlements, and Palestinian self-determination."

For the next 20 years, Mr. Seelye operated his own consultancy on matters involving the Middle East. He was director of Middle East Research Services for the Boston-based investment bank Advest, published a bimonthly newsletter for U.S. firms operating in the region and conducted orientation trips for U.S. businesspeople and oil analysts. He was a familiar face on television news programs and wrote op-ed articles for major newspapers on Middle East topics.

Mr. Seelye, who was born in Beirut and was the son of a professor at the American University of Beirut, graduated from Amherst College after he interrupted his education to enlist in the Army during World War II. He served in Iran with the Persian Gulf Command and in Italy with the Allied Force Headquarters.

After college, he taught at his Massachusetts prep school for a year. He entered the Foreign Service, serving first in postwar Germany, then choosing a specialty in the Middle East. Mr. Seelye learned Arabic and worked as a political officer in Jordan, consul in Kuwait and deputy chief of mission and charge d'affaires in Saudi Arabia. He also had three assignments at the State Department as director of Arabian peninsular affairs, director of Arabian north affairs and senior deputy assistant secretary for African affairs.

In 1963, he accompanied diplomat Ellsworth Bunker to negotiate an end to the Saudi-Egyptian confrontation over Yemen. In September 1970, he served on a task force that tried to negotiate when Palestinian hijackers forced three U.S.-bound planes to the Jordanian desert and held 400 passengers hostage. The hijackers blew up the empty plane after releasing most of the hostages, exchanging the remaining ones for seven Palestinian prisoners.

"It was an extremely stark moment. It was something that caught us completely unaware. We never thought that would happen, and it was the first time it had happened," he said on a PBS program on hijackings.

Author Robert Kaplan, in a 1992 Atlantic Monthly article, said Mr. Seelye attempted in 1973 to persuade Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger not to send arms for Israel's defense after the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. His later cables to the State Department "would cause Francis Fukuyama to scrawl in the margins, 'Talcott Seelye is the Syrian Ambassador to Washington, not the American Ambassador to Syria,' " Kaplan wrote.

Mr. Seelye served on the board of trustees of Amherst College from 1982 to 1986. He was a member of the Cosmos and Kenwood clubs, the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, the Middle East Institute, the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the American Foreign Service Association. He served on the board of AMIDEAST and Americans for Middle East Understanding and was a founder and past president of the American Tunisian Association.

Mr. Seelye was an avid tennis player and loved to dance.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Joan Hazeltine Seelye of Bethesda; four children, Lauren Seelye Harris of Washington, Ammanda Salzman of Riverside, Conn., Talcott Seelye Jr. of New York City and Kate Seelye of Beirut; two sisters, Mary Avrett Seelye and Muriel Heineman, both of Washington; and three grandchildren.

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