By Taylor Markey

Ambassador David Satterfield spoke at this university on his experiences in the State Department and his thoughts on challenges involving the Middle East and the U.S. during an event April 19.

The Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences hosted an event titled “The Sadat Forum: A Conversation with America’s Top Diplomat for the Middle East” in the Atrium of Stamp.  

“The Sadat Forum is one of the best venues at the university for the discussion of major foreign policy issues,” Dr. Gregory Ball, the dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, said during the opening remarks.

The conversation also included Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development, as the moderator, and the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Telhami started off the event by saying Satterfield was asked to join a meeting that afternoon at the White House, but sent an assistant to be there instead so he could come to the event.

He asked Satterfield, who graduated from this university in 1976, to compare what he went through and what he sees now at the university.

Satterfield said when he came in the fall of 1972, he was a commuter from Ellicott City and “tuition for an academic year was $405.” He said he was happy to be back and has nothing but fond memories.

“This was an outstanding institution then as it is an outstanding institution now and what made it so was by the fact of its size, by the specialization of its faculty; you could take your interest anywhere you wished to go,” Satterfield said. “And it was a quite common experience … to find that what you really wanted to study … was different than your thoughts when you came in.”

Telhami asked Satterfield how the State Department has changed over the past four decades.

“The quality of the work of the U.S. government’s foreign affairs national security community across all the agencies involved … is better today, done at a higher level of proficiency, than anything I’ve seen in 40 years,” Satterfield said.

Satterfield said the quality of the staff and the incoming foreign service officers for the State Department have a more structured quality of writing and precision than at “any point in my experience.”

“Coming back in as head of this bureau for the second time — I was last acting assistant secretary 12 years ago — I was impressed by how much better the written product was,” Satterfield said.

He said it is “a product of the extraordinary demands placed on an officer’s time,” but that it is also a product of the educational system.

“Focus on the liberal arts, on reading, writing, exposure to style, rubs off and carries through in whatever you do in your professions,” Satterfield said.

Telhami referenced how he served on a State Department commission as an outside member “on what was called ‘public diplomacy’” around the time of the Iraq War.

“I co-drafted the report actually on public diplomacy,” Telhami said. “And we did kind of an evaluation of the State Department staff, particularly those who focused on the Middle East, and we found, I recall, in our report there were only a handful of people who were fluent enough in Arabic to engage the media and other people in a conversation.”

Telhami said this was in 2004 or 2005 and asked if this has changed or if it is still an issue.

“I was a U.S.-Iraq coordinator during much of that time,” Satterfield said. “And one of the things we had to grapple with was, ‘How can you have a truly functional expeditionary, Condi Rice’s term, ‘diplomatic corps’ when you weren’t language proficient, when you weren’t able to function completely comfortably in an external environment where English was not a language that you could rely upon and where translators were really not a suitable way of carrying on a dialogue?’”

Satterfield went on to say there are many “tainted fruits of the entire Iraq experience,” but there are also positive outcomes in “terms of structures,” with one of them being a greater focus on language skills.

“It has meant changes completely in the way we teach languages … instead of a rigid structure … now we integrate into communities throughout the world,” Satterfield said.

Telhami talked about the reported use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria and the use of chemical weapons in general. He asked Satterfield, “To be able to carry out something on that scale, do we need to persuade people that we have evidence?”

“It’s always best, when military force or forces are used, to have as clear and compelling a case, not within policymakers’ circles in the U.S. or abroad but at the popular level, the public level,” Satterfield said.

Satterfield said chemical weapons are “viewed as an instrument of war and violence that globally, not just in Syria, has to be responded to.”

“If you show tolerance, acceptance, for [chemical weapon] usage in one place you tacitly approve its use or show you won’t respond to its use elsewhere,” Satterfield said. “Should we respond to all barbaric killing? In an absolute moral sense of course, but in the world we live in, have lived in, you have to draw priorities.”

Telhami said there have been worries about confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel and “certainly if there’s direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.” He asked Satterfield for his evaluation on this, and if it is something he worries about.

Telhami said “the Israeli press often talks about is as the inevitable war” and asked Satterfield if he saw it this way.

“I don’t speak of about any conflict as inevitable, but if you continue aggressive, accelerated proliferation of threatening systems,” Satterfield said. “If you act with those systems in threatening fashion, you increase the odds that conflict can result despite the strategic intentions of all sides.”

Fabio Niyonkuru, a junior information science and government and politics double major, said he came to this event because he recently picked up the government and politics major and thought the information would be good insight to have for his classes in the fall.

“Today on campus was Israel Fest, celebrating the anniversary of Israel, obviously there was some protests with some of the Palestinian students with everything going on between Palestine and Israel,” Niyonkuru said. “So, having an ambassador who represents the government who is working on issues that these other kids are protesting about, it’s important to hear what steps are being taken to find a solution or calm tensions down.”

Niyonkuru also said he thinks events like this open up students’ minds, “as opposed to being stuck in the echochamber where it’s just them and their friends and they all have the same views.”

The event can be viewed here.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Army’s website.

Taylor Markey is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at tmarkey@terpmail.umd.edu.

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