Interview with David Mack (AM 1964)

David MackFrom Baghdad to Tripoli, from Beirut to Foggy Bottom, Ambassador David Mack has been at the forefront of events in the Middle East and helped to shape US policy in the region for over thirty years. In an interview with AM candidate Kyle McEneaney, Ambassador Mack, now Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute (, discusses how determined observation, adventuresome curiosity, and his training at CMES supported him throughout a distinguished career as a diplomat and educator.

K: Ambassador Mack, tell us how it all started for you at Harvard. What sparked your interest in the Middle East?

D: I was an affirmative action student, which meant something different then than it does now. I come from a little dinky community in Oregon called Sams Valley, which is not much more than a wide spot in the road with a grade school and a grange hall. I went to high school about 15 miles from there, where I was a Future Farmer of America. I had studied vocational agriculture for four years; I was basically trained to be a farmer. During the 1950s, a lot of the Ivy League schools were trying to find kids not only from the big city ghettoes but also people like me from around the country and mix them up with the old prep school, eastern establishment students. I had a four-year scholarship from Harvard as part of this experiment. They put me in a dorm room with the grandson of a Boston mayor, and then they sat back and let it happen. The idea from my family’s point of view was that I would become a lawyer. But around about the beginning of my senior year I knew there wasn’t going to be a scholarship to Law School, so I looked around. It was the post-Sputnik period, and we were trying to catch up with the Russians. And as part of the Department of Defense budget, there were graduate scholarships for physics, chemistry, mathematics, Chinese, Russian, Japanese… and Arabic, and I decided to try for that one. I had the very good fortune of being there for the last year that Sir Hamilton Gibb lectured for the Islamic history course, and it just blew me away. I said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I took the basic area studies course, and applied for the fellowship, and I got it. Since I had very limited preparation for university I had a long way to come, but I ended up strongly, so I got the scholarship and then I ended up getting the Fulbright as well. So I had seven years of free higher education, which was pretty unheard of at the time.

K: And this is where you met your wife?

D: Yes. She was studying at the Boylston Hall language laboratory to pass the PhD requirement for reading German; I was trying to learn how to speak Arabic, so of course I was practicing out loud. At one point she reached over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Would you keep it down?!?” and I looked at her and said, “well, she made the first move, and she’s pretty nice.” When she started to leave, I put my stuff away, followed her out, and asked her for coffee. We said “goodbye forever” twice, once when I went off to Cairo on a Fulbright, once when I went to Baghdad with the Foreign Service, but in the end, fate proved stronger than my fickleness.

K: And she also is a student of the Middle East?

D: My wife traces different media in the Italian artistic renaissance and how they were affected by trade with the Islamic world, especially Andalusia, Mamluk Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. She studied to be an Italian Renaissance art historian and spent a lot of time wondering what the heck she was doing with me in places like Baghdad and Libya. But she gradually discovered that there was a way in which her interests were relevant to the life we were living, and so she came up with this idea, which was realized in her book (Rosamond Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600, Univ. of California Press: Berkeley, 2001), which really goes against the grain of the way people study the Italian renaissance which tends to be very flattering to Italians. She’s absolutely making a lot of difference, and people are now beginning to see the way in which the earlier cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, the cultures of the Islamic world in the 1300s enriched the Renaissance. I always say she would never have gotten outside renaissance Italy if she had not married me – as she says in the foreword of her book, I took her east of Venice!

K: What was your time in Egypt like?

D: When I left for Cairo on the Fulbright, I hadn’t been out of the country very much. I was still an Oregon farm boy with a little bit of Harvard gloss on me at this point. I did everything; I learned Egyptian colloquial; I marched in demonstrations for the re-election of Gamal Abd al Nasser. I hitchhiked down the Red Sea with an Egyptian student and went on second-class railway trains and buses, and traveled really all over Egypt.

K: It sounds like you really made the effort to get off the beaten path. Do you think this had an impact on your abilities as a diplomat?

D: Yes, definitely. I had a sense of what was really meaningful to people living on the street, on the margin. I felt as though I knew what it was like to be a poor student. And I ate like an Egyptian; as a result I had one terrific first month followed by eight months of serious diarrhea. My weight went down to below 130 and I was really in bad shape. But that was part of paying my dues, part of learning about the Middle East.

K: You and your wife recently made a gift to Center of membership to the Middle East Institute for every PhD and AM student. What was it that inspired you to make this gift?

D: When I was up at the 50th anniversary, I was talking to your director and I told him I really wish we could help out. So we thought it over and decided to give a targeted gift last year—and intend to do so long as we are financially able to do so—that would basically pay for MEI associate memberships for every new student, both AM and PhD candidates. And we recognize that some of you will be MEI members already, but as long as the money is used for the students and their enrichment, that’s ok. Part of what motivated me is that I noticed when I was up there for the 50th anniversary that students did not seem interested in going into public service. The emphasis had shifted away from any controversial contemporary political or economic subjects – and perhaps there are practical reasons why they are doing so. But my wife and I concluded that giving an associate membership to MEI would be a good way to make sure that students aren’t totally isolated in the ivory tower up there.

K: With the continuing unrest in Iraq and the increasing hostility toward Syria and Iran, the prospect of public service certainly remains a pressing question for current students of the Middle East. How did you get your start in the Foreign Service?

D: As I was into my second year at CMES, A.J. Meyer, who was the acting director and my mentor on things economic, called me in and said, “ David, you’ve been doing well here, what do you plan on doing after you finish the master’s program?” I said, “Well, I’ve taken the foreign service exam.” And he looked at me with a combination of what I would have to call pity and contempt and said, “Oh David! You don’t have to do that! I can get you a job with a bank or an oil company or something like that!” Well again, this was the Cold War. My fellowship put no obligation on me to work for the government, but I had President Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you…” ringing in my ears. Our whole generation coming out of universities was very public-spirited. Right-wing, left-wing; it was not ideological, it was a strong patriotic urge, and I would say that at least half of the CMES class were strongly considering working in public service. And that seems to have changed, which is one of the reasons for our gift.

I got a year’s leave without pay to do the Fulbright. When I returned they eventually purged the parasites out of my system from Cairo and I took the preliminary courses and headed off to Baghdad. This was in 1965, and there were not so many people then coming in with Arabic. My assignment in Baghdad was very interesting. We had as good relations with Iraq as we had ever had. I was able to meet young Iraqis and mix with them. I was even sent down to Basra for a month to be the vice-consul when someone was gone. My assignment was broken after only nine months in Iraq because they needed a consular officer in Amman, Jordan. I had already decided at that point to propose to my wife, and she agreed to come out.

K: And you proposed in Amman?

D: No, I proposed the old-fashioned way: by letter. Not by email, not by Instant Messaging; I proposed very formally in a letter. We got married in St. George’s church in Jerusalem and honeymooned in the American Colony Hotel and in Ramallah. When the June 1967 war started we lost most of our consular business so I was reassigned to Jerusalem to open part of the consular office there. By then I would say I was speaking a fluent pidgin Arabic. I had a classical base plus Egyptian colloquial and bits and pieces of Iraqi and Palestinian dialect, and a little bit of Jordanian bedu. I could do the visa work, but my Arabic was at a very rough level. I had a total of two years combined in Amman and Jerusalem and then went to Beirut to finish my Arabic training.

K: Not a bad place to be at that time.

D: I was a little different, because most of the people were entering with little to no Arabic. My Arabic needed repair work. It was a bit like coming to Harvard from Oregon, you know: “bright kid, has potential, but wow!” You can’t go into a foreign ministry speaking Arabic that way. So I had 10 months of Arabic training in Beirut. There I turned my Arabic into a more polished version of MSA.

After that assignment I was off to Libya to be the Ambassador’s interpreter. It was a huge embassy, the Ambassador, CIA Station Chief, and military attaché were all old enough to be my father. I arrived in the middle of July, six weeks before the September 1969 revolution. I initially thought it would be a dull three years. But six weeks into the job, all my training in all the palace protocols and how to bow to the king, all that became totally irrelevant. I was the first person in the US government that became aware of the revolution because I’m a light sleeper, and at two o’clock in the morning I heard the first gunshots outside my window. And then I was in the middle of everything, because whether or not they wanted to bring me to the meetings, they had to because I was the interpreter. Qaddafi and the others made it very clear that they would only deal with us in Arabic and did not want the locally hired Palestinian interpreters, whom they associated with the old regime.

K: That’s quite a pressure situation.

D: Oh, I was having a wonderful time. Everyone else was having a miserable time, but I was having a great time. These new guys, they were my age. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that they should be running the country! I remember having a disagreement with the Charge d'Affaires, who said (referring to Qaddafi), “No, he’s too young. He can’t be one of the leaders.” I said, “I’m pretty sure he’s one of the leaders.” “No! Can’t be. There must be a colonel behind all this.” So they trotted out one of the colonels to meet with us. He was trained in the US, speaks English. I said, “No I don’t think he’s the one. He’s speaking English with us, which is against their general practice, and he’s too old.” The deputy Ambassador stormed into my office and said, “You’re enjoying this and I don’t think it’s funny. This is serious!” Really, my Arabic training was really so invaluable in Libya.

K: You mean, as a translator?

D: As a translator, interpreter, but also understanding the culture. I mean, I understood immediately what was motivating Qaddafi – it was the June 1967 War, it was what they’d heard growing up listening to Radio Cairo. I understood all that automatically, it just seemed totally normal to me. It seemed very abnormal that we would have an airbase in Libya, and that we would be dealing with all these old conservative folks that had run the monarchy. And this seemed very real and very much what I would anticipate based on my training at Harvard and my Fulbright in Egypt.

K: Having worked in various capacities in Washington, would you say that policymakers are more receptive than before to views coming from academic centers like CMES or less so?

D: Less than they were. Let’s face it; we had no Middle Eastern studies in this country prior to the end of WWII. We (MEI) were established in 1946, and then you probably couldn’t find one American in a thousand that knew difference between Iran and Iraq. But (fmr. Secretary of State) Christian Herter Jr., one of the founders of MEI, thought it was important that Americans learn something about the modern Middle East. When we were established there were no university centers for Middle Eastern studies, only Biblical studies and ancient archaeology. For a while, we were a funding channel to set up Middle Eastern Studies centers. The government had put some effort into these programs, so yes, they recognized that they needed to have people with this training, and therefore they were interested in what was coming out of the universities. These think tanks that have proliferated now tend to monopolize the policy dialogue on the Middle East. They didn’t exist back then – I think there was more attention paid to what was coming out of the universities than there is now.

K: So think tanks have usurped a role formerly played by universities?

D: They’re viewed as being more relevant. Many people have decided that it is far more relevant to become an “analyst”, whatever an “analyst” means, and that you don’t need to have a background in languages and cultures and so on. Although it’s not a view shared by everybody, I think that’s a lot of the reason why we have gone astray.

But we’re beginning to see a return, we’re beginning to put some money back into language training, which they hadn’t done for years. They really weren’t providing an incentive for that kind of thing, so I think that’s a good sign. We require everyone studying Arabic at MEI become members, and many don’t want to do it. They’re sent here by the Pentagon or the CIA and they ask why they have to pay for the membership as well. But the way I see it, we’re sending a lot of these people to Iraq: I don’t want them to arrive there with their ‘survival Arabic,’ an M-16, and no knowledge about Islam or Middle Eastern history. We want them to read a few books in our library, to come to some of our lectures and conferences and receive The Middle East Journal so that they can do their jobs with greater understanding. And I think this idea is catching on a bit, I think we’re going to see a return to university training.

K: So where did you go from Libya?

D: I was the Tunisian desk officer in Washington, and then became what is called the ‘Senior Watch Officer’ working in the secretariat when Kissinger became Secretary. He had been one of my professors as an undergraduate and it was very interesting to see the Harvard Kissinger and how he had changed into the Washington Kissinger. It’s fair to say that Kissinger appreciated area expertise, though not as much as we would have liked. He tended to rely upon people who were more Cold War-oriented. Watch officers have a job that’s around the clock: 16 hours on, 8 hours off, in shifts. It’s a crazy life. At one point, a message came in that somebody who had been assigned to go out to Lebanon during the middle of the civil war had backed out. You’ll remember Ambassador Malloy and the embassy counselor and their driver were killed trying to cross the Green Line from East into West Beirut. So I offered to replace this guy and ended up going to Lebanon in 1976 on a couple of trips. I met many of the fathers and grandfathers of this current generation of leaders; Pierre Gemayel, Suleiman Franjieh, Camille Chamoun; the continuity is eerie, really. In doing that I had more meetings with the Secretary because he wanted to be briefed, so I got a pretty good sense of how to deal with those issues in that job. Then I returned to Baghdad for my second assignment there, this time with my wife and a baby, and I was there from 1977-1979 as Saddam was consolidating his power there.

K: Your timing is uncanny!

D: By then it was a real police state. My wife and I were both under 24-hour surveillance. During my first tour I had so much contact with Iraqis, but now I might see one of my friends from my earlier assignment at a reception and they would say, “I really would like to have you over to my house, David, but you know I just can’t do it now,” and they would go off before they were spotted talking to me. So I had some surreptitious meetings with some people, which was intellectually very interesting. They had the Arab Summit in Baghdad when they expelled the Egyptians because of the ‘horrible crimes’ of Anwar Sadat, and one of the Arab ambassadors showed me the documents of the final decisions and said, “You might be interested in this… I’ll leave the room.” So I did one of the fastest Arabic translations that I have ever done in order to take down what I could from the summit meeting. So I used my Arabic a lot there as I had in Libya, and for the second time I felt fluent in the language.

After a stint in Tunis I came back to Washington to be the director for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. I was there shortly after the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and was involved with all of the diplomacy connected to Lebanon for the next three years as well as the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war and some Peace Process stuff also. I made lots of trips out to the region, sometimes with Phil Habib, one of my foreign service mentors, sometimes with Richard Murphy, the Asst. Secretary for Near East Affairs, sometimes with Donald Rumsfeld who was brought back to be a presidential emissary after Habib.

In 1986 I was appointed Ambassador to the UAE, and this is the third time my Arabic became really good. It was really an advantage to speak Arabic at the top level because many of the senior leadership, were not as good in English or preferred to work in Arabic. So my Arabic got quite good and I was giving interviews in Arabic, TV interviews and so on.

K: It sounds like every so often during your career you were “tested” on what you had learned, inside and outside of school.

D: Well I’ll tell you about my toughest examination. The first two years I was Ambassador in the UAE were during the Iran-Iraq war. If you remember, on July 1st, 1988, a US Aegis class Navy cruiser—supposedly one of our most advanced weapons platform—shot down an Iranian Airbus. About 187 people were killed; among them were five family members of the Dubai police colonel who arranged security for our ship visits into ports there. Washington stood by the Captain’s story that he was under attack from an Iranian military aircraft. But I had a political back channel to the people in our fleet and I knew something was wrong. I sent a message to Washington that you don’t send very often because it’s the kind of message that can get you into trouble. I said, “Here’s what I have done so far. I have canceled the 4th of July celebrations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I’ve been in communication with the fleet commander and the ship that was in the port has been pulled out and we will not be sending any more US ships into Dubai until the situation is resolved. And here’s what I intend to do unless otherwise instructed,” and these are the key words – ‘unless otherwise instructed’ – because I had been on the phone with Washington and couldn’t get anyone to tell me anything. Sometimes they micromanage you and sometimes they just let you drift. “Unless otherwise instructed, I will pay a condolence call to Col. Abdel Aziz in the Dubai police. I will seek an appointment with the senior Dubai sheikh available. And I will meet with leaders of the American community. Then I will report back with my recommendations.” My regional security officer opposed this, tried to block it. I told him, “Look, you’re responsible for my butt; I’m responsible for the US-UAE relationship. So this is what I’m going to do. You can protest it to Washington if you want.” In fact, we never heard from Washington.

So I went to the home of the colonel. He spoke some English, but under these conditions we were, of course, in Arabic. And we were sitting on the floor. I found out I don’t have an Arab stomach in Cairo. I discovered here that I also don’t have Arab knees – I was almost crippled after sitting on the floor for 45 minutes. But I was there speaking with him about family, religion, philosophy, and literally thousands of people were coming and going to pay condolences. The next morning I met with the sheikh, who happened to be Mohammad bin Rashed, the new ruler of Dubai and then and now the Defense minister. Without me saying a thing he said, “Mr. Ambassador I know you feel terrible. Don’t worry. Things like this happen in war. Tell your ships to come back.” I said, “Thank you very much, your highness. I’ll do that. We have 1500 Americans in Dubai and the other northern Emirates – what should I tell them?” He said, “Tell them we’ll provide full protection.” So I went to the leaders of the American community and told them about the conversation and that in my opinion there will be some tough times here but, given the attitude of Col. Abdel Aziz, I don’t think there’s going to be retaliation by family members, and you can count on the protection of the government of Dubai. And we’ll just hope this whole thing gets resolved. And in the end it did.

So that was my final examination in Arabic. In this situation I drew upon everything I had learned about the Middle East to that point, little bits of Arabic proverbs, verses of the Qur’an – I drew on all that in my condolence call to the Colonel.

K: And since you left the State Dept., in recent years you’ve devoted yourself to making this knowledge available to others.

D: Yes. I had a couple more assignments; the one that was most meaningful was being the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, where I dealt with 13 Arab countries plus Iran.

Then I spent a couple of years at the National Defense University where I was the civilian deputy to the commandant and taught military officers and senior civilians there. My mission statement was that if any of you hoped to be admirals or generals, I want you to be more like Colin Powell than Curtis LeMay. I devised a course on the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, starting with Islam and geography, all those things you learn at CMES, and going on to security issues and so on. And it’s been great to see some of these guys go on to senior command positions and have had the exposure that I could give them. And when I see a guy like (Gen.) John Abizaid who has that kind of training in Middle Eastern Studies, I know it pays off.

Then I was three years in private business and I decided to go non-profit, and I’m an educator now with MEI and have been doing this since 1998.

K: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those considering careers in diplomacy?

D: First of all, entering the Foreign Service is very rigorous, selective process. People coming out of universities do very well on the written test, but they often do not do so well on the oral test. Actual work experience is terribly important, far more important than academic credentials. Someone who has been three years in the military, two years in the Peace Corps, been working in private business somewhere or even teaching school in Des Moines for five years: they’ve all shown they can do something, and they’re going to have an advantage. More than anything else, a track record of performance on the job gives people confidence. And so the average age of entry has risen to about 30. For those in Master’s programs who are considering a career in the Foreign Service and are deciding between a PhD and work experience, I would say to go for the job. And it can be anywhere; private business, actual legal practice (as opposed to a just law degree) – these experiences are important.

If you’re asking me what helps you get in, it’s the job experience. If you’re asking me what helps you be more than just adequate, it’s the background in languages, a feel for the culture and history. If I’m working as an Ambassador and a political officer does a report on something, I want it to relate to the history of the country, to bring something out that you wouldn’t necessarily read in an AP news item. Otherwise why have the reporting? People could just rely on the daily news. I want to see something extra. And that’s what the people with the kind of background you get at a Middle Eastern program can bring to it.

From the MEI website: “Since 1946 the Middle East Institute has been an important conduit of information between Middle Eastern nations and American policymakers, organizations and the public. We strive to increase knowledge of the Middle East among our own citizens and to promote understanding between the peoples of the Middle East and America. Today we play a vital and unique role in expanding the dialogue beyond Washington, DC, and actively with organizations in the Middle East. Our Public Policy Center and Department of Programs present programs with top regional experts and officials from the US and foreign governments. The George Camp Keiser Library has the largest English-language collection on the Middle East outside of the Library of Congress. We publish quarterly one of the most prestigious journals on the Middle East, The Middle East Journal. MEI's Department of Language and Regional Studies offers courses in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish and seminars highlighting the history, literature and culture of the Middle East.”

Kyle McEneaney is an AM Candidate at CMES.