Gerald Feierstein, a Philadelphia native who completed degrees at Point Park and Duquesne universities and later served as a diplomat in Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Oman and Lebanon, returned to Pittsburgh for a talk titled “The Crisis in U.S. Middle East Policy.”
The Nov. 5 presentation by Feierstein, who’s now vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., was hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. During his talk, and in a subsequent conversation with the Chronicle, Feierstein noted that in the past 15 years, the United States has demonstrated a waning influence in the Middle East.
“Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have made clear that they would like to reduce U.S. presence certainly on the military side and then, even more broadly, that they don’t see the necessity necessarily of close U.S. engagement or strong U.S. presence, and they’d like to reduce our commitments,” said Feierstein. “Obama talked about the pivot to Asia. Trump has also talked about ending the endless wars and doing other things.”
The result of such actions, along with “other dynamics,” has led many in the region to seek partnerships elsewhere, such as with Russia or China. “If we look at situations like Libya, Sudan, Yemen, these are clear instances where the regional governments have decided that they’re going to pursue their own interests as they perceive them, even in those instances where the U.S. policy is something quite different.”
During his 41 years in the State Department, Feierstein wasn’t often able to share such personal views. Now that he works in the private sector, however, he has the luxury of offering his own perspective on foreign affairs.
“When you’re working for the government, when you’re a diplomat, you have a responsibility to do your best to reflect the policy. I mean, you’re speaking on behalf of the government, not on behalf of yourself, and so even if you’re in a situation where you perhaps don’t necessarily agree personally with some of the decisions that are being made, you still have an obligation to do your best to explain them and defend them,” he said.
Suppressing his own views wasn’t particularly challenging, he explained.
“That’s the job,” he said. “If you want to be a career professional diplomat then you have an obligation to represent the administration’s policies, whatever they are. Whether you agree or disagree, that’s the oath you take: to speak on behalf of the government.”
Feierstein’s decades in public service afforded extended travel and an opportunity to see the world, but they also presented danger. While he was serving as U.S. ambassador in Yemen, a position he held from 2010-2013, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen offered 3 kilograms of gold, then worth approximately $160,000, to anyone willing to kill Feierstein or an American soldier in Yemen, reported the Times of Israel.
Media outlets identified Feierstein as Jewish, but the desire to kill him had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, he explained.
“I saw it as a response to U.S. policy,” said Feierstein. “I think it was a reflection of the fact that we were being very effective in our anti-terrorism campaign, and they saw me — and I was happy that they saw me — as somebody who was threatening them. So I saw it in terms of my role in implementing a U.S. policy that was very aggressive against terrorists groups.”
As an ambassador, or representative of the United States government, other aspects of life abroad were less stressful. In particular, Feierstein was regularly tasked with accepting and giving gifts, a charge that revealed certain trends and patterns.
Some foreign leaders would “try to look at the personal interest of the president and give a gift that they thought would be special and well received,” he said. “So for example, people always wanted to give horses to Ronald Reagan because they knew he loved to ride horses, and with Bill Clinton everyone was always giving a saxophone.” The funny part was at “a certain point we were given very explicit instructions that Bill Clinton does not want any more saxophones as a gift.”
Occasionally, the gifts would be a bit more unique.
When Hillary Clinton traveled to Yemen as secretary of state, she received an elaborate piece of jewelry. Another time, Feierstein said, “I remember getting a portrait of I think it was George Bush that had been done in some kind of mosaic.”
“Sometimes they are really nice, sometimes they can be quite spectacular and, of course, generally they end up in the presidential library or some museum.”
As interesting as it was to receive gifts and pass them back to Washington, being a gift giver was something different, explained Feierstein.
“We tended to give things that were quite ordinary,” such as crystal eagles or coffee table books about the United States, he said. “Nobody would become a friend of the United States because they got wonderful gifts from us.”
Because of his responsibilities abroad, last week’s visit was Feierstein’s first return to the Steel City in decades. Though he noticed all the construction downtown, “it’s also nice to see that a lot of the wonderful old buildings are still here,” he said. “We’re staying at the William Penn Hotel, which I remember, when I was a student here 50 years ago, was a great hotel, and it’s still a wonderful place. So we’ve been happy with the continuity as well as the change.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.