You don't have to be a Redskins fan to understand this town. But when it comes to appreciating the role played here over a decade and a half by Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal, it helps. In Redskin-speak, he would be a Smurf among the Hogs; small but quick, the scouts would say, mentally tough, good moves, soft hands, takes a solid hit, a consensus All-Pro.
From 1968 to 1972 (the years right after Israel's stunning triumph in the Six Day War, when the United States and Egypt had no formal diplomatic relations), he was a bench-warmer as head of the "interest section." He returned as a full-fledged ambassador in December 1973, right after the Yom Kippur War.
He has served through the years of the oil shock; the breakdown of an effort to reach a comprehensive negotiation that would have included the Soviet Union; the Sadat breakthrough in Jerusalem; the Camp David Accords and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; and finally Lebanon. His departure this week will remove the only constant element in Egyptian-U.S. relations over a span when the American presidency was changing hands four times and Egypt was going through violent transition from Anwar Sadat to Hosni Mubarak.
Ghorbal is one of those rare people who come to Washington every so often and stay long enough not only to figure it out but also to advance their side of intense and heated arguments by carefully studying and understanding the viewpoint of the opposition.
In the course of a long, eve-of- departure interview, it was a relief but no surprise to find that Ambassador Ghorbal, for all his long experience and wide connections, has no real idea of when peace might come to the Middle East or how, precisely, it can be brought about. He simply begins with a fundamental first principle: Momentum is everything. "The Middle East is like a river," is the way he puts it. "When the current slows down, the weeds grow up on you, and only when you get the current flowing will you have a navigable course."
A nice image, but what's the lesson? Ghorbal's lesson, born of his role in recent history, is that the United States must take responsibility for maintaining the momentum for as long as it refuses to allow the Soviets into the act.
It was the Nixon administration's refusal to take Sadat seriously that drove Sadat to war against Israel in 1973, he believes. An absence of any clear U.S. policy also prompted Sadat's Jerusalem initiative in 1977 with no more specific purpose than to "whip up the world into forcing the parties to come to an agreement -- to put everyone under pressure."
Finally, it was the failure of the United States (under both Carter and Reagan) to follow up that part of the Camp David accords that dealt with autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and an ultimate resolution of the Palestinian issue that set the stage for the war in Lebanon and Israel's relentless consolidation of its hold on the occupied territories.
Ghorbal does not labor his denunciation of Israeli intransigence. Still less does he labor his defense of the Arabs. On the contrary, he has "a reprimand, so to speak, for the Arab world." Egypt, he argues, has tried in vain to persuade other Arab countries to take more initiative.
But he insists that the Arab countries are entitled to a greater "degree of hope" that "once the United States comes up with a proposal, you put your steam behind it . . . that you do not take no for an answer . . . you cannot afford, as a superpower that tells the other superpower to stay out of it, simply to do nothing or be upset that neither side has shown full interest."
This is an Arab reading of the view of fellow Arabs. But it is also the view of an Arab diplomat who was deeply volved in Camp David. So he has a firsthand sense of what can or cannot be accomplished when the United States does or does not hold Israel to undertakings that the United States has publicly argued the Israelis have agreed to -- a moratorium on West Bank settlements, for one example.
In any event, you do not have to buy his theory of the case to respect his ability over the years to remain faithful to his cause while earning the friendship and respect of those on the other side of the argument. Somewhere in the secret of his success lies the key to success in resolving the conflicts that threaten American security interests in the Middle East.