The Washington Diplomat
Washington, DC
January 2004

Special Adviser Maalouf
Occupies Unique Spot in Arab-American Relations

New York , from Sean O'Driscoll

Walid Maalouf was brimming with enthusiasm as he sat in the offices of the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations in a room overlooking the General Assembly Building in New York . The U.N. session he was witnessing was enormously important for the United States and the Bush administration, which was seeking to convince the world, and the Middle East in particular, that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was justified and that the United States is genuinely seeking global peace.

Maalouf, who still speaks in a distinct Lebanese accent, recently made history while addressing a U.N. meeting as an official U.S. representative. He spoke in English and Arabic, a signal of change within the U.S. government and a first, he said, in U.S. relations with the United Nations.

Maalouf was recently appointed to be a special adviser to John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he will soon be appointed as an alternative ambassador to Negroponte along with several other individuals nominated by President Bush for the post, including Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), the former chair of the House International Relations Committee.

Although Maalouf's appointment has not made major headlines in the United States, it is a major step for Arab Americans-intended to show that the U.S. government is beginning to listen to critics such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman, who argues that if the administration really wants to win over the Arab world, it must first show that it understands the culture.

Maalouf, a successful Washington banker and fundraiser for charities in the Middle East, lived in Lebanon for 20 years before moving to the United States for most of his adult life.

According to his friends, Maalouf understands the Washington machine inside and out, a product of years spent as a banker for embassies and political groups. Ambassador of Grenada Denis Antoine, for instance, described Maalouf as "a gentleman and an amazing communicator in a world of automation."

Antoine added, "He gave a personal touch to business that set him apart. You felt immediately that this was someone you could trust and who wanted to work for you."

However, winning over the Arab members of the United Nations might not be as easy as winning over Washington 's diplomatic corps. As terrorist attacks escalate in Iraq , Arab nations that initially welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might not be so amenable if the instability spreads.

Maalouf spoke to The Washington Diplomat soon after 15 U.S. servicemen were killed when their transport helicopter was shot down in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad . He has read the newspaper accounts and is dismayed by the intolerance of those who would seek to destroy the emerging Iraqi democracy.

"I read that there must be some Syrians crossing the border to shoot this helicopter in Fallujah. What is this?" Maalouf asked emphatically. "We are trying to fix the situation in Iraq . As an Arab American, I think the president did the right thing [by going to war] because the Middle East is like an old oak tree that is so big and so rooted that you have to shake it up to change. The change is not going to come from within. The Arab populations have been living for so long under theocracies and the regular kingdoms."

Maalouf made a quick adjustment to his comments about Middle Eastern kingdoms. "Of course, I am not saying anything about our friends, but there is no democracies. So you have to shake it," he added.

The problem of communicating Western goodwill toward the Arab world is one Maalouf hopes to address. He is reminded of an influential contemporary report by Arab intellectuals, which found that there are only about 100 English language books that have been translated into Arabic. This lack of education, he said, is widespread throughout the Arab world.

"This is something in the Arab world in general. I think that there are more avid readers in this country and in the West than in the whole of the Middle East . I think the only way to reach the mass of people is to be always on TV, speaking on behalf of what we are doing and be visible," Maalouf explained. "There should be people speaking on our behalf in the Arab [communication] outlets.. There are always people who understand and who know how the United States acts and what we think. Little by little, I think we can change this opinion to our favor."

Maalouf said he is annoyed with media comparisons between the upsurge in violence in Iraq and the worsening situation in Vietnam in the late 1960s. "I never think this is like the war in Vietnam . Vietnam is being used by the opposition to undermine our goodwill in Iraq . We are there to help the Iraqi people. All those who use the word Vietnam know that it affects the American people very much because of our large losses in that war. But Iraq is in no way close to what happened in Vietnam . So it is just a public relations attack on us, not less and not more."

The overthrow of Hussein should be seen, he said, as the start of a broad U.S. campaign for democracy in the Middle East . " Iraq happened to be the start because of the brutality of Saddam Hussein," Maalouf said, pointing to recently released tapes documenting the torture and death of Hussein's opponents. "That video would convince me that this regime needed to be removed, forget about anything else."

Maalouf was asked about advertisements for a human rights group displayed in Washington , D.C. , Metro trains that showed a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands in the 1980s with Hussein, who was then leading one of the world's most brutal dictatorships but was still considered a U.S. ally.

Maalouf did not flinch at the question but responded calmly. "Listen, when you say 'OK, we shook hands with Saddam Hussein,' you have to [remember that] things have changed between then and now. When he shook hands with him, Iraq was not in Kuwait . [Hussein] was not doing terrorist activities, which everyone knows now he was involved in. When he changed, of course, we had to consider our position. We waited nearly a year before we took action against him."

Despite the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, Maalouf said he believes that a democratic government similar to the one enjoyed in Lebanon up until the 1980s can flourish in Iraq -and it is just such a model that he wishes to advocate within the United Nations.

"I give them the example of the Lebanese democracy," he said. " Lebanon is a pluralistic society with many different groups of Christians and Muslims. There were 17 religions that coexisted in Lebanon before the [Syrian] occupation and they lived for 50 years beautifully. Lebanon 's democracy is the perfect example for Iraq , and Iraq should get over these differences between the religions and take the constitution of Lebanon ."

However, because of Syrian interference, Maalouf said Lebanese democracy is in "big trouble." When asked about a recent opinion article in the Lebanon Today newspaper that called the Lebanese assembly "a parliament of apparatchiks" for the Syrian government, Maalouf said, "You know what the Lebanese deputies do when they go to visit [Syrian President] Bashar Assad? They have to stop and bow to the commissioner of Lebanon , like the French used to have a commissioner in Lebanon . It is exactly like this. Those deputies do not represent the Lebanese people. They have been sent to represent the Syrian occupation of Lebanon , so they will call it 'existence' or 'friendship.'"

The Lebanese Parliament is a sham, Maalouf continued, and is a long way from the genuine democracy that once flourished despite outside pressures. He explained the situation in a characteristically colorful way: "Democracy was working until 1980s even with all the bad neighbors Lebanon has. And it's a bad neighborhood."

Overall though, Maalouf sees great hope for the Middle East and believes that the dark threat of fundamentalism can be defeated by economic prosperity, saying that the people who ultimately turn to the fundamentalists do so because they are desperate and powerless. " With a better economy and a better life, fundamentalism will go away by itself - we don't even have to fight it," he said. "Things are changing for the Iraqis, and they are seeing it, but unfortunately the media is not covering those feelings of the Iraqi people. When they see a bad news story, they go and cover it. But incomes have changed for the Iraqi people. This is how we can overcome the fundamentalists who are very desperate. They don't have money, then they listen to those mullahs [Muslim clerics], and then they go out and make hoseactions.

"Maalouf insists that political extremists have done nothing for the Arab people. "Where are the Arab people today? They have plenty of oil but they have no education, no good life, no prosperity. So I hope that this is an example for them that when we removed Saddam Hussein, it is the people who are benefiting, not the henchmen who surrounded him." Maalouf is eager to reach out to Arab nations, and he does not think that his deeply Christian beliefs will interfere with his mission to win over Muslim populations.

"I was once with an [Arab] ambassador and we were talking and he refused this distinction. He didn't look at me as a Christian-he looked at me through the culture. I know the culture. I have lived in Lebanon for 20 years and in the United States for 24, so I have the experience," Maalouf said.

"Arabism is a kin, it's not a religion," he added. "A Jew can be an Arab, a Christian can be an Arab. What you will see is that it's the culture that really matters here, not the religion."