HELP WANTED -- Embassy Row host; full-time; tremendous opportunity for charming, gregarious, persuasive diplomat; needs elegant residence, grenerous entertainment allowance, highly placed and well-connected friends, and U.S. aid.
Washington has been without a host-with-the-most ever since Ardeshir Zahedi slipped out of the Embassy of Iran here last winter, leaving Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's men to dump what remained of the decadence and vintage wine he had been serving highly placed and well-connected friends since 1973.
Ambassador Ali Bengelloun of Morocco may not get the title, but at the moment there are those who think he is a leading contender.
Hardly a week has passed in the 31 months since he arrived that Bengelloun, every bit as charming, gregarious and persuasive as Zahedi, has not welcomed his own highly placed and well-connected friends into the elegant Cleveland Park residence Morocco provides him. Guest From the Senate
The idea of questioning why Ambassador Ali Bengelloun invited them to dinner would hardly have occurred to the sophisticated crowd seated like desert royalty amidst the exotic surroundings of the Moroccan Embassy that April night almost a year ago.
The invitation, with its embossed coat of arms, had informed the dozen or so recipients -- including a Supreme Court justice, a former U.S. senator and a State Department official: "In honor of Senator and Mrs. Richard Stone."
After all, as any one of them might have pointed out, Stone was a member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of 15 senators whose opinions weigh heavily with the remaining 85 when it comes to such manners as, say, the sale of U.S. arms to Third World countries such as Morocco.
So it was merely Bengelloun's little joke during toasts following the pigeon pie and roast lamb when he raised the question: "Somebody may be wondering why an ambassador of Morocco would develop his relationship with a senator from Florida.
"I think it is perfectly natural," said Bengelloun, gallantly lifting his champagne glass in Stone's direction. "Morocco and Florida have many similarities: the same sky, the same ocean, the same beach."
Associate Justice Potter Stewart sounded skeptical -- "Sonofabtich," he muttered under his breath. But the rest of the distinguished crowed joined Sen. Stone in polite laughter. And Stone structured his response artfully by putting Bengelloun's diplomatic fluff into some historical perspective.
Morocco and Florida had more than palm trees, climate and friendship in common, he said. It also had David Yulee Levi, who left Morocco in the 1840s when he fell into disfavor with the sultan. In Florida, Levi stayed out of trouble and as a reward was elected to Congress.
"He was one of our great U.S. senators," said Stone, "and I hope to complete the cycle by returning to Morocco for a visit."
Stone never did go to Morocco, although as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee's Mideast subcommittee there might have been some justification for a trip. Washington officialdom has been making fact-finding pilgrimages there for years, more recently to get Morocco's side of the $1 million-a-day war King Hassan II is waging against a Libyan-supported guerrilla force over the phosphate-rich western Sahara, which the Moroccans have takenover.
"Morocco is a very significant place led by a very significant person who so frequently has shown the way to peace by his courage and his initiative," Stone said, lifting his goblet. "There is no greater ambition any king could have than to serve the cause of peace."
A few weeks later Stone proposed that Congress amend the international security assistance act to boost military sales credits for Morocco. Not long after, DGA International, headed by former senator Charles Goodell and hired by Hassan months earlier to help in his campaign to buy U.S. weapons, drew up a report using the foreign relations subcommittee vote as evidence of growing congressional support for the sale. And in a letter to the State Department, DGA offered a program on how to go about generating Hill backing.
In the meantime, Bengelloun gave two more black-tie dinners. One honored Rep. Clement Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committe; the other was for the State Department's director of North African affairs, James Bishop, on the eve of his departure for Chad as ambassador.
By mid-July, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders was testifying at a closed-door meeting of a foreign affairs subcommittee that the administration was reconsidering a 19-year-old policy on the sale of weapons to Morocco.
By late October, the policy shift was official.
By the end of this month, Morocco's battlefield will move to Capitol Hill. As events in Afghanistan, Iran and other Islamic nations command world headlines, moderate Morocco's request for $140 million in arms sales is expected to receive special attention. Enovy of the '80s
Ali bengelloun is the ambassador for the '80s, genial and suave in the traditional pin-stripe role of a diplomat but supported by high-priced, high-powered public relations advice.
"The role of an ambassador today is public relations," says Bengelloun, his speech imperfect with the traces of his French and Arabic roots.
From a wealthy Moroccan family, the aristocratic looking Bengelloun studied law in France. With his wife, Jackie, who is from a similar background, they move easily in the sophisticated French-Arabic culture that marks the former French protectorate. It was the aura accompanying them that caught the fancy of diplomatic observers during an earlier tour as well as on their present one.
Bengelloun claims he harbors no deepseated ambition to copy Zahedi, who also believed in the primacy of public relations but went about achieving it in somewhat more flamboyant ways.
Even so, there are some in town who see Bengelloun's stakes as high as those of Zahedi. Problems with strikes, inflation, a costly and unpopular war, King Hassan's record on human rights, social reforms and holding down palace corruption added significance last winter to a burst of protests scrawled across Moroccan walls when the deposed shah of Iran took refuge there:
"One shah in Morocco is enough." Creating the Image
For Bengelloun, coming to Washington had almost been like coming home. In 1962, the then-fledgling monarch had plucked him from a promising legal career as No. 2 in Morocco's ministry of justice to send him to Washington as ambassador.
Here, beneath Hassan's discarded brocaded tents, Begelloun and his wife served roast lamb and pigeon pie to an earlier cast of Washington power elite. Languishing among oversized pillows, their guests, on a few occasions were amused to find genuine belly dancers imported to entertain them. o
Before the Bengellouns knew it, they were "those trend-setting North African," reputations forever cast in couscous for introducing "nationalism" into Embassy Row night life.
An off-hand remark by John Kennedy in 1963 added to their luster. Hassan, here on a state visit, hosted a stag luncheon for Kennedy at the embassy. As Kennedy was leaving, he called out to Bengelloun: "Give my compliments to the chef."
"With pleasure," Bengelloun replied. "The chef is my wife."
"I see you're very 'in' -- you're always at the Moroccans'," Arthur Krock, the late New York Times columnist, remarked to a fellow journalist during that period.
Back in Rabat, if he could believe Bengelloun's press clippings, Hassan could only congratulate himself on his choice of ambassadors. In 1965, Hassan summoned him home to become his minister of phosphate, a position as important in Moroccan economic affairs (40 percent of the world's supply came from there) as oil is to some of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
Life in Hassan's court was extravagant, dazzling, demanding and competitive. Insiders were elegant, polished, ambitious -- and sycophantic.
But by the late 1960s, Bengelloun had dropped out of sight amid dark rumors of a house arrest. American friends passing through who tried to make contact met only with ominous silence.
Bengelloun says he was never under house arrest, never guilty of any illegal act. While powerful friends back in Rabat worked to clear Bengelloun's name, he sat out his exile in Switzerland.
"When you are too close to the king there are jealousies," says Bengelloun. "People told him things about me were wrong. Eventually he realized they were lying."
Hassan's apology took several forms. One was an invitation to rejoin the government; another, friends says, was a gold and diamond necklace for Jackie Bengelloun, for whom the ordeal had been especially difficult.
"It was hard on the family," acknowledges Bengelloun of the effect on his son and daughter as well. As for himself: "When you are honest with yourself, it is very easy to be patient."
A friend of Jackie Bengelloun's sees "an enromous sense of la travail now where once she was so joyous" in her work as Ali's hostess. But of Ali, this same friend has the impression of a self-confidence that wasn't there before.
"He's a man who knows he has the ear of the king," says the friend. "My gut feeling is that Ali must be doing very well, that the arms deal was an enormous personal triumph for him." Charity & Chitchat
"For the king," says Bengelloun, "it is much more important to be the ambassador to the United States than a member of our cabinet."
Fastidious in his European-cut suit, formal in manner, the 50-year-old Bengelloun sits amid the trappings of his daytime life in a large, slightly impersonal office. The rooms are chandeliered but otherwise modestly furnished, dominated by the ubiquitous Moroccan carpets which are found on floors from Foggy Bottom and the White House to the Pentagon and Capitol -- all gifts of Bengelloun or Hassan.
"Parties," he says, "are a good way to have an exchange of points of view in a relaxed atmosphere. When you spend two or three hours with people you have the opportunity to understand them better and for them to understand you."
Entertaining helps get the message across. He and his wife have been generous on that score, hosting cocktail parties and after-theater suppers for such Washington charities and institutions as Project Hope, Meridian House, Arena Stage, the American Film Institute.
On a smaller scale are the dinners and luncheons, sometimes two or three a week, for American and visiting Moroccan officials. They often take the Moroccan form, with guests seated on soft banquettes and cushions at round tables where everyone is invited to dip into the North African cuisine with fingers.
If the Bengelloun's style their first time around in the early 1960s was avant-garde, today friends describe it as "cozy."
"They are not racy or jet-setty," says a friend. "I don't see them sitting around smoking pot or that hard stuff."
Though the king has been known to throw money around, the Bengellouns do not.
"Jackie is always talking to me about the price of things, how they have doubled since last year," says Bengelloun. "I may have to ask for an increase."
Guest lists follow the acceptable Washington formula: at least one each from the House, Senate, Supreme Court, diplomatic corps, Pentagon, White House, State Department, or other appropriate agencies. Then there is the "glue," names from the media, the legal, academic and financial communities and always, of course, residential society known for their sparkling wit or pithy observations.
Whether dinners are for 40 or for 20 ("More intimate if there's a specific problem to be discussed," he says), there is always a guest of honor. Recent ones included Secretary of Treasury G. William Miller, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Angier Biddle Duke, Saudi Arabian Amabassador Faisal Alhegelan and Washington Star editor Murray Gart.
"The king knows what we do," says Bengelloun. "Like any head of state it's important for him to know that his ambassador has contact with important people."
For all his diplomatic smoothness, Bengelloun grows emotional on the subject of his homeland.
"The problem in Morocco is not a problem of the king. His majesty is only reflecting the feelings of the people. In Iran it was a student manifestation, the people, the bazaar. In Morocco, the people are behind the king, pushing him to go to war against Algeria.
"The root of the problem," he says, leaning toward, "is that the Algerians want access to the Atlantic." The Moroccans claim that the guerrilla forces supported by the Algerians are supplied Soviet weapons by Libya.
"We cannot accept Marxism in the Sahara," he says. The Dogged Explainers
"Despite what the Moroccans think," says a source, "there is no Algerian counter-lobby in Washington."
Unlike Bengelloun's parties, those of the Algerian ambassador go unnoticed and unreported if, indeed, he entertains at all. His country, however, figures prominently in U.S. energy needs, providing 16 percent of the East Coast's oil imports and 2 percent of our natural gas.
The Moroccans, on the other hand, have paid public relations firms more than $1 million in the past year to promote its arms cause. Of that figure, about $900,000 went to DGA International, (which recently hired lawyer and sociality Steve Martindale as a consultant).
"Where Bengelloun is effective s in the frequency of his contacts with people on the Hill," says one who has watched him work. "He is a very social guy, entertains well, has interesting people to his parties."
Operating at another level is DGA, doggedly explaining Morocco's viewpoint and needs "in high and low places but usually to staffs because there's been as much un-information as there has been misinformation," says Lloyd Preslar, a DGA vice president.
He says DGA's relationship with Bengelloun is consultative and informational -- but "we certainly haven't gotten into who to invite to dinner," says Preslar. "He's capable of that and it's the sort of thing he does well."
Where Bengelloun shines is in ceremonial roles, "not without substantive significance," Preslar continues. "He's closer to his head of state than we are. We've never felt we were a substitute or that we were competing with him."
DGA would not hesitate, however, to warn Bengelloun of possible consequences if his style of entertaining began to resemble Zahedi's.
"Basically," says a former administration official, "Bengelloun has done a good job in making contacts on the Hill and in generating sympathy for Morocco's position."
If DGA is always looking over one shoulder, Hassan II always looking over Bengelloun's other shoulder. Bengelloun insists this does not hamper his effectiveness. Plea & Sympathy
Basically, the $140-million arms saleissue boils down to a question of whether the situation in Iran and in Afghanistan will outweigh the concerns some people voice about the U.S. becoming involved in a war in the Sahara.
With Capitol Hill coming up as the next major front for Morocco's fight against the guerrillas, Ali Bengelloun's investment of couscous, carpets and charm for this project would seem at an end.
Not so, says Bengelloun. Relations between the United States and Moroco are "very important, especially now when we must work to preserve the Moslem countries from the Communists.
"I'm not here only for arms.'"