AS IRAQ'S ambassador to Washington during the past four years, I had to deal with a number of sticky issues. But none of them was more difficult than the accidental Iraqi attack on the USS Stark.
I first heard that the Stark had been attacked from the State Department, several hours before the news was announced to the public. I called the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad immediately, and they said they weren't sure what had happened. But they said the Iraqi Air Force operations room was reporting an Iraqi attack on an Iranian target at the same given time.
Based on our experience with Washington during the previous three years, we at the Embassy and my government in Baghdad thought that a quick and honest apology for the incident would be the best thing to do and would be in character with our policy. The next day, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent a letter of apology and condolences, taking responsibility for the accident.
The day after the attack, I was interviewed on television 15 different times. There was very little that I could say in the first few hours, since Iraqi authorities hadn't yet gathered the facts. Yet it seemed important to be visible, to take questions, and to answer them as honestly as I could. Over the next few days, I probably appeared on television 50 times.
The Stark incident was the sort of unforeseen tragedy that is every ambassador's nightmare. But it confirmed some of the lessons I learned during four years as Iraq's chief diplomat here. Above all, it showed the importance of establishing credibility in Washington, based on your personal honesty and the soundness of your government's policies. Now, as I prepare to return home to Baghdad, perhaps I can share one Arab ambassador's impressions about how Washington works from a foreign representative's point of view:
Washington is driven by crises and the expectation of crises. For a diplomat, influencing events is a matter of seizing opportunities that arise during these unusual periods, rather than just making plans. When something is happening -- like the Iran-Contra revelations or the Stark disaster -- you get your chance to influence public opinion. If you miss it, it's gone. That is why it is important, from the beginning, to give full access to the news media and to establish contacts with them. They shape public opinion, and public opinion is what matters in this country, especially at the time of a crisis; that's when you need them most.
You should make plans, of course. You can decide that you will visit ten states during the next six months and give speeches in 15 cities. But, because of this country's sensitivity to events, you have to be ready to jump when the opportunity arises.
Don't ignore the bureaucracy. A diplomat needs to keep an eye on the internal debates among middle-level policymakers, not just on public statements from thetop officials. Because by the time things finally begin to surface publicly, it's often too late to lobby for or against them. So, one has to listen to rumors and even gossip about what's going on in the bureaucracy, and keep one's contacts going.
A few weeks ago, for example, there were signs that some members of the administration were considering proposing a ceasefire that would be confined to the tanker war in the Gulf. I was tipped off by an article in The Wall Street Journal by their diplomatic correspondent, Frederick Kempe, and by the general trend of news coverage. For us, such a truce would be the worst thing that could happen, because it would help the Iranians increase their oil exports and continue the war indefintely. We immediately began contacting officials at the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council and key Congressional figures. After four or five days, these officials began to change their minds. They usually appreciate your updating them in a cooperative manner.
Don't deal with just the top officials. At the State Department, most things start with the desk officer. Unless you have his sympathy and conviction, you won't get good memos to the secretary of state on important issues, and you won't get good decisions. The same is true with Congress. Unless you have good relations with the staff, you won't get to the boss, even if you have direct contact with him. At the Iraqi Embassy, we try to give a working lunch or dinner for Congressional staff people every six weeks or so. And we keep a good day-to-day presence on the Hill.
Never sit back and feel secure about any issue, whatever success you have achieved. Congress, the executive branch and trends in the media need constant watching. Things can happen suddenly and you have to be ready for immediate action. You are better off if you know something about the trends in thinking on the policymaking levels.
Take the long-range view of issues and don't succumb to the lure of quick gains. When the story of America's secret arms sales to Iran first emerged, nobody could quite believe it. I thought at first that it might be a ploy, but by mid-November, it was obvious that it was true. It was quite embarrassing for me, this news that while America had publicly seemed friendly to Iraq, it had secretly been shipping weapons to our enemy. My superiors in Baghdad wondered what had gone wrong. I hadn't had any hint of the secret policy. I hadn't seen anything that would have made me suspicious. Later, it turned out that even the secretary of state hadn't known all that was going on.
The question for us was what Iraq should say about the Iran arms shipments, and I felt that it would be best if we said nothing for a while, at least until American national opposition materialized. I advised Baghdad on that, and their first public statement was ten days after the story broke. We didn't scream and shout they way some other government might have done. The Iraqi response, when it came, was quiet and analytical. I think that made it easier for us to talk to the American public, to criticize effectively the whole affair and, later, to be effective when the Stark was attacked. This also reflects the thoughtful way my government deals with its ambassadors. It takes into consideration their recommendations and they, in their turn, implement its strategies. It's a very enjoyable relationship.
Don't be afraid of the news media. I had no experience in dealing with American journalists before I came to Washington in late 1983. My only experience had been with the Iraqi media, which isn't the same thing at all. Maybe that was helpful because it made my response fresher.
I don't think it's difficult to deal with the media if you are honest and consistent in presenting your positions and your government's policies. Relationships with reporters are a matter of give and take. If you give journalists access and are honest with them, they will reciprocate. Once you know the ground rules -- off the record and all of that -- you can develop a relationship of trust with most of them.
The news media vary in the quality of their Middle East coverage. Among the networks, I found that the ABC people in Washington were the best. The Nightline show, I think, is the best forum in America. Ted Koppel is a perceptive man who does his homework very efficiently. He gives you the comfortable feeling you need, and he bases his success on your success in delivering your point of view. Of the newspapers, I think The Washington Post does the best job of covering the Middle East. But the best individual writer, I think, is Karen Elliot House, the foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal. Her knowledge of the Middle East is deep, she has an excellent sense of foreign-policy issues, and she writes conceptually. It is difficult in this country to be a conceptual writer, because people are so preoccupied with successive events.
Many ambassadors in Washington complain that they don't get enough media attention. But then, when a reporter or televison producer calls, the response is that they are busy or unavailable. I don't think it's fair to blame the media on that. When the chance comes, you have to take it. But before that you should establish a two-way relationship based on understanding and mutual benefits.
Reach out to all Americans. The existence of a powerful Israeli lobby in Washington has always been discouraging for Arabs working here. I am not trying to underestimate the power of this lobby, which has worked hard to achieve such influence. I don't consider that a reason to be discouraged, but a challenge to be more active in reaching out to various American groups.
During my years in Washington, I spared no effort -- and faced no obstacles -- in meeting a variety of people, regardless of their intellectual or political background. Every American is a potential target for our work, no matter what he or she thinks or believes in. That is why Americans influenced by the Israeli position should not be excluded from our circle of contacts. Dialogue with them always has some positive results: first, in making clear that Arabs are prepared to engage in rational debates; second, in affirming the justice of the Arab argument regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict; and third, in refuting the unfair stereotypes of Arabs that were built up in this country over the years.
Get away from Washington. In the Washington community, everyone has a particular interest or program he or she is trying to advance. And if you stick too long in the capital, you begin to think that America is a nation of opportunists, and that nobody cares about you unless you are a power broker in a business suit.
But that isn't what America is really like. You can't understand how America works unless you get out in the country and talk to people. For me, travelling was a kind of school. When you travel and get to mix with the American people, you begin to understand which questions really matter to them, and which ones are merely diversions.
People outside Washington and the other big cities have deeper and longer memories than people in Washington have. And they aren't so influenced by the news media. You can even understand Washington politics better by keeping up with the grassroots of the country, by reaching out to the states and smaller cities.
The American people in general, whatever their appearance of sophistication, are in most ways down to earth. They are ready to meet you halfway if they feel that you are honest. In the end, what most Americans really care about in foreign policy is very limited, and the system reflects that. That's why you can go through so much political turmoil in this country without having problems.
The Stark incident was very limited in that sense. It didn't change the fundamentals. It lasted a week -- very dangerous week -- but then it was over.
Washington isn't like any other capital. It's easier, in a sense, for a diplomat to deal with Moscow, Paris or London. In all those capitals there are central governments in full charge of foreign policy, and you can deal with them comfortably without looking over your shoulder for surprises -- the way you have to in Washington. There are no checks and balances over there.
Here, it's different. You can go to the State Department and see Richard Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, and he can give you the official position of the United States at that time. But you cannot be guaranteed that the Congress is not going to undermine that same policy the next week, or that other departments and agencies are not going to shift the trend of that policy. Here you should keep up with all of the relevant decisionmakers in all branches of government at the same time.
The flip side is that because policy is so changeable in Washington, you can affect it only if you work hard and comprehensively. That doesn't happen in Moscow. You can't twist the arm of the Soviet Union. You can't lobby them. You can't appeal through different channels. You can't try to influence public opinion. But in Washington, an ambassador -- even the Soviet envoy -- can try all those things, and he can achieve some success.
Nothing is ever final in Washington. Everything is always developing. Every policy triggers its own opposition. Everything and everyone is workable, depending on how you approach them and how much time you spend.
Nizar Hamdoon will return to Baghdad next month to become a deputy foreign minister.