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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Interview: U.S. Foreign Diplomacy in the Middle East with Ambassador Edward S. Walker Jr.

JMEPP Levant Editor Kelsey Wise sat down with Former U.S. Ambassador Edward S. Walker Jr., who served in the State Department as Ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. The discussion covered U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the changes it has undergone over the decades of Amb. Walker’s service. Amb. Walker also discussed notable incidents from his long career as a U.S. representative in the Middle East, including his work in Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Libya, and Morocco. 


Q1. What are the major changes you’ve seen in U.S. foreign policy in the MENA region since your time in government? How do you assess the current administration’s priorities in the region?

A. I entered the Foreign Service in 1969 and went to Israel to learn Hebrew. Under the guiding hand of Henry Kissinger, the priority of the newly-elected Nixon administration was stabilizing the situation in the Sinai peninsula following Israel’s defeat of the combined Arab armies in 1967. During the the ’73 war when I was in Israel, we came close to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, who were supporting both Syria and Egypt. The Nixon administration was, therefore, focused on blocking and turning back Soviet advances in the region. Oil was a factor in our calculation at that time given our dependance on Middle East oil and the Arab boycott in the wake of the ’67 war. Egypt was newly destabilized by the death of Nasser in September 1970 and the ascendancy of an unknown quantity, Anwar Sadat, to the presidency. North Africa had come under threat in Libya from Qaddafi, who had just ousted the monarchy there and posed a potential threat to two of our allies, Tunisia and Morocco. In addition, he had expelled the largest U.S. military base in Africa, Wheelus Air Force Base, from Libya. Still, Iran was not yet on the verge of collapse and Israel’s close ally, the Shah, ruled for another decade. Terrorism was an issue in Israel but had not assumed international proportions aside from aircraft hijacking. In short, the challenges were profound, but it was the Soviet-U.S. conflict that dominated decision making.  

The changes since 1967 have been massive: Israel, with U.S. support and supply of weapons has gone from a brittle local power to a regional superpower that can stand alone against regional threats. The Russians, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are only now attempting, with some success, to reestablish their position in the region, particularly in Syria. This is not yet a challenge to the U.S. posture, but that may change as Moscow enhances its position in Syria, the Black Sea, and the North Atlantic. Further, the Trump administration’s decision to  withdraw U.S. forces from Syria may also strengthen Russia’s influence. Finally, China was not on our horizon in Israel in 1969. Today, the Middle East serves as a source of over 50 percent of China’s oil imports and as a key link in the Chinese leadership’s Belt and Road Initiative. This suggests that China will have a larger profile in U.S. Middle East policy calculations in the future.

It is not entirely clear what the current administration’s policies are toward the region. They say they want an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis while doing everything possible to undercut the U.S. credibility as an advocate for the peace process. National Security Advisor John Bolton makes no secret of his desire to pursue regime change in Iran. Trump’s withdrawal pledge from Syria suggests that the U.S. will not challenge Russian inroads there. Meanwhile, U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which stalled Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, has placed the initiative in the region into Iranian hands. Continued allied support for the plan is resulting in European workarounds to evade stronger or new U.S. sanctions, calling into question the viability of our ability to use sanctions as a lever.


Q2. We are currently seeing a dearth of confirmed Ambassadors across the Middle East and North Africa, including in countries such as Qatar, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. How does this impact U.S. diplomacy in the region?

A. When a U.S. ambassador’s position is left vacant (as was the case last April in 38 countries out of 193), the embassy continues its work under the direction of the Deputy Chief of Mission and the country team, which is the basic interagency management group.  Most of our embassies are staffed by a competent multi-agency staff. The embassy goes on with its work and its reporting back to Washington, regardless of gaps in top management. In many cases, there is little damage to bilateral relations from a gap in ambassadorial appointments.  However, intended or not, a significant gap can send a message to host governments that something is amiss. Symbols are important to foreign regimes, so when we send a negative message by leaving an extended gap, the result can be reduced or tentative cooperation. Withdrawing an ambassador is a time-tested diplomatic signal of displeasure for a foreign government. These holes can be filled to large extent through the foreign ambassador in Washington as well as by the personal diplomacy of the Secretary of State and senior State Department and NSC officials. But such senior Washington-based officials are not able to engage personally with more than a limited number of key states. As Assistant Secretary of State, I did not have enough hours in the day to deal personally with all nineteen of the countries that were in my charge. The only senior U.S. official that deals 24/7 with a single country is the ambassador.

Less clear is the impact on our diplomatic service itself. When a third of our senior positions are left vacant, senior officers are blocked from promotion until the administration decides to fill vacancies from within. The impact on morale and recruitment can be profound. Meanwhile, the stasis and the president’s disparagement of the so called “deep state” creates little incentive for top candidates to enter the service from the bottom. When I chose to join the Foreign Service as a career, it was in part based on an attraction to President Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you.” Trump is no JFK.  


Q3. What is the current status of the Israeli Palestinian peace process? Do you see any potential strategies in the works that will be effective for starting a dialogue for peace? How has the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem impacted the peace process

A. The current status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is that there is neither process nor peace. It is hard to understand the posture of the Trump administration. We are perhaps further away from a deal then we have ever been thanks to the administration’s tight-knit relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. If the plan was to adopt positions that would provide confidence to the Israelis, who could then afford to make concessions (a legitimate approach), then that policy has failed. Today, Israelis are talking seriously for the first time about annexing a significant chunk of the West Bank. The idea that is gaining popularity is that Israel can annex the bulk of lightly populated Area C on the West Bank, as delineated in the Oslo agreement, leaving the Palestinians confined to tightly constricted and non-contiguous population centers in Areas A and B. Under this vision, the Palestinians would have to make do with self-rule absent sovereignty or contiguity. The two state solution has apparently disappeared from Netanyahu’s agenda with the help of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Thus, we are moving ever closer to an Israeli-imposed solution, which could be a disaster for the Jewish state. The cost to Israel of sustaining a long term occupation of a majority Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza would likely be, at a minimum, an economic and security struggle for Israel and would do nothing to enhance Israel’s democracy.


Q4. How do you think Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince bin Salman will recover after the CIA concluded that the Crown Prince authorized the killing of Jamal Khashoggi? Further, what do you see as the future of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia given the split between the Trump administration and the intelligence community on the death of Khashoggi?

A. I doubt seriously that Crown Prince Salman will voluntarily relinquish his primary position in directing Saudi policy or his prospect of taking the crown upon his father’s death. Nor does there appear to be anyone in the family structure who is prepared or able to challenge his succession. His perceived progressive stance was largely superficial and was not all that popular in conservative circles in Saudi. He claimed he would let women drive, but they would not be freed from the constraint of having to have a male relative sign off on any key decision, including any travel. Meanwhile, he had women who protested too much arrested, along with scores of potential family and business opponents. We have always highlighted the right to drive as a key indicator of liberalization when, in fact, it was nothing more than a false flag symbol hiding the legal suppression of women and male entitlement that has pervaded the Saudi society and continues to do so.

Trump and his advisors do not appear to see past the transactional relationship with the Saudis based on arms sales, investments, and mutual antipathy toward Iran. That posture is based on basic animosity toward Iran, the desire for moderated energy costs, and joint efforts to counter Islamist terrorism. These components of U.S. policy are not likely to change even after the 2020 U.S. election.


Q5. Egypt seems to be facing a shift towards an increasingly authoritarian government under President al-Sisi. Do you see this continuing, or do you expect an intervention to address the growing authoritarianism in Egypt? Do you see any similarities between Sisi’s regime and the repressive policies of the National Democratic Party that took place while you were serving as Ambassador?  

A. In the years that I have been engaged with Egypt, I was never under the illusion that Egypt was a democracy, or that it was a likely candidate to become a democracy any time soon. From the time of Nassar until today, Egypt has been under the thumb of the military establishment. It is a system that rewards military officers and their families with a good middle class lifestyle and punishes those who waiver in their support of the regime. It would be a mistake to assume that the Arab Spring ushered in revolutionary changes in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak, during his almost thirty years of control, oversaw the construction of an entrenched establishment of the military, the police, and security services designed to reward and protect the existing ruling class. Sisi has continued this legacy.

Mubarak lost the support of the military because of his supposed plan to anoint his son Gamal as successor. Gamal had never served in the military, had few allies there, and had relied on corrupt practices to accumulate his wealth. That was a profound violation of the premise of the officer corps dictating promotion and leadership from within. The military was not about to trust a civilian who might untangle the web of benefits the officer corps enjoyed. In addition, in his final years, I had detected in Mubarak a man who was increasingly rigid and becoming tired, with a decreasing number of advisors who could speak truth to power.


Q6. You joined more than 50 former senior officials and national security experts in signing a critique of the Trump Administration’s Iran strategy, particularly focused on the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. What impact do you think pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will have on US Iranian relations, and what policies do you advocate the Trump Administration pursues moving forward?

A. Pulling out of the JCPOA was a colossally miscalculated move if our objective was to curtail Iran’s progress toward nuclear state status  What we accomplished by this move was the following: 1) we pulled the rug out from under our JCPOA partners, the Security Council P5 plus Germany, and pushed them toward coordinated action that will reduce the impact of our individual sanctions on Iran; 2) we strengthened the hand of the Revolutionary Guard and nationalist clergy in Iran; 3) we increased the incentive for Iran to engage in a clandestine program to develop nuclear arms and the means for their delivery; and 4) we undermined our credibility when it comes to making good on the promises we make as a country.  

The Trump administration has done damage to our alliances, to our credibility, and to our efforts to constrain Iranian bad behavior. The way I see the chips falling, we are entering a phase in history where the U.S. is not the sole superpower able to dictate the path for the world to follow. In fact, the U.S. is in the process of diluting its power by undermining its credibility as a principled leader and guarantor of fair play, freedom, and democracy. Soft power is real power, whether Trump recognizes it or not, because it allows us to partner with like minded states and magnify our power to resolve problems and confront our enemies.  


Q7. Throughout your career, you have engaged in negotiations ranging from issues surrounding disputed territory in Western Sahara to Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program. In your experience, what have you found are the necessary circumstances to come to a sustainable, effective agreement?

A. There is no one answer to your question. Every negotiation is a separate endeavor with separate influences, personalities, and requirements. One thing is certain, we depend on the help of others in this interconnected world. Our negotiations with Qaddafi in Libya in 1999 and 2000 were supported by the Saudis and Egyptians, without whom there would have been no path to achieve justice for the families of the victims after the Libyan-perpetrated terrorist attack on Pan Am 103. Nor could the talks with Qaddafi on the resolution of that disaster have been successful had the talks been publicized. Martin Indyk, as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in 1999, started the secret negotiations in London at the Saudi Ambassador’s residence with Qaddafi’s intelligence chief, Musa Kusa. When Martin returned to Israel and I was confirmed as the Middle East Bureau Assistant Secretary, we exchanged roles and I inherited the back channel talks with Libya. The political sensitivity of talking to Qaddafi’s intelligence chief, who was clearly implicated in the bombing of the Pan Am aircraft, was so politically charged among the families and within the American public that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told me to cut out all other offices at the State Department, including those nominally responsible for dealing with terrorist events.

With a CIA team, I flew to London where the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Bandar, lent us one of his houses for secret talks with Kusa, Libyan Ambassador to Rome Abdul-Ali al-Obeidi, and Libyan Ambassador to London Muhammad al-Zwai. Those talks laid the groundwork for future successful negotiations by the new Bush administration. Secrecy was one element of the ultimate success of those talks. Another factor was that we were dealing with a Libyan team that had the confidence of Qaddafi and could make decisions on his behalf that would stick. Kusa had blood on his hands, but we had no choice but to work with him if we wanted to reach a settlement. You cannot choose who you negotiate with. Finally, we had the backroom support of Egyptian President Mubarak in pushing Qaddafi to act rationally. When I was Ambassador to Egypt, Mubarak told me that he sought to act as Qaddafi’s psychoanalyst to keep him from derailing stable relations in the region. His advice to Qaddafi, along with Saudi support, clearly had a positive impact on our negotiations.  

The Western Sahara was an unsuccessful negotiation undertaken by James Baker on behalf of the UN Secretary General. Despite the participation of Baker, who I considered to be an extraordinary negotiator, the discussions that I held with the Moroccans and Algerians leading up to his efforts suggested to me that his efforts were destined to fail: the parties had little to gain from a solution, and a great deal to lose with their home constituencies if they compromised their positions. For a successful negotiation, either both sides must view a solution as enhancing their position, or at least one side must believe that the status quo will seriously harm them. In the case of the Western Sahara, Morocco was sitting pretty, Algeria could only lose, and the Polisario had no other powerful advocates. We would have had to put a finger on the scales to tip it away from the Moroccans if we wanted to reach a settlement, but we were not prepared to do that to the Moroccan king.