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The Elevation of Jeffrey Feltman

A blog visited mainly by UN insiders announces that US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is up for a very important UN job. Former UN Assistant Secretary General for Public Information Samir Sanbar’s blog, UN Forum, notes that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to replace B. Lynn Pascoe with Feltman in the post of UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs. The office was created in 1992 to help identify and resolve political conflicts around the world. Pascoe ran at least a dozen missions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, notably in Burundi, Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. The longest running mission is in Somalia (since 1995) and the most recent is in Libya (since September 2011). With a budget of $250 million and funds for special political missions that amount, this year, to $1 billion, the post allows its leader to intervene in political crises around the world.

When Secretary General Ban began his second term in January, he promised to reshuffle some of his senior staff. Pascoe’s replacement is part of this process.

Of the proposed new appointment Sanbar writes, “Designating someone with varied field experience, though controversial, and from a substantially senior post, may mean that more issues could be referred to the Security Council.” The UN Security Council’s Secretariat is handled by the Department of Political Affairs, which would be able to have some sway on its agenda. The post is central to the UN bureaucracy.

News of Feltman’s resignation from the State Department next week simply confirmed all the rumors. Another rumor suggests that the UN will announce the appointment on Monday, May 28.

Is Jeffrey Feltman the best person to run such an influential office in the UN? Why did Sanbar believe that this appointment is “controversial.”

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me that Feltman is “an accomplished and respected American diplomat.” He has been involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, and other hot spots. These bring up “inevitably controversial issues,” Telhami continued. “Feltman would have his share of detractors, including in the Middle East,” he said.

But why would Feltman have these “detractors” and how did he come off on the “controversial issues”?

On one issue Feltman is remarkably consistent. When it comes to the Middle East, Feltman has been outspoken about the threats posed by Iran in the region. Whether in Beirut or Manama, he has publically denounced Iranian “interference” outside its own boundaries. At the same time, Feltman has generously offered US assistance to these same regimes. In other words, US interference is quite acceptable, but Iranian interference is utterly unacceptable. This might be adequate behavior for the diplomat of a country, but it is hardly the temperament for a senior UN official. It raises doubts about Feltman’s ability to be even-handed in his deliberations as a steward of the world’s political dilemmas.

Feltman’s intemperate logic was not of the distant past. It was on display in March 2012 at a Lebanese American Organization’s meeting at the Cannon Office Building in Washington, DC (as Franklin Lamb reported on this site this week). At this meeting, the former US Ambassador to Lebanon, instructed the Lebanese people as to what they must do in their next election, “The Lebanese people must join together to tell Hezbollah and its allies that the Lebanese state will no longer be hijacked for an Iranian-Syrian agenda.” The people must “use the 2013 parliamentary elections to defeat the remnants of the Syrian occupation, the pillar of which is Hezbollah.”

Indeed, interference by speeches is not the limit of Feltman’s ambitions. On May 3, 2012, he was back in Beirut, meeting former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, Future Movement leader Nader Hariri and others at Hariri’s residence. In the transcript of their meeting (leaked through Al-Akhbar), an older side of US policy making emerges. US Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly is heard saying that the government is “Hezbollah dominated,” to which Feltman says to the Lebanese politicians in the room, “You can bring down the government if Walid [Jumblatt] is with you in the parliament or if Najib [Mikati, the PM] resigns right?” To Siniora, Feltman says, “Would it help if this government is brought down before the elections,” and then he mentions that he is seeing the Prime Minister Najib Mikati later that evening. “This place is very, very weird,” he notes, “weirder than when I left.” This is not a trivial statement. A glance at Feltman’s cables when he was ambassador to Lebanon reveals a fulsome appetite for the weird. The cables betray an obsession with the social lives of the Lebanese elite, their peccadillos and their foibles.

Feltman’s “non-interference” to prevent Iranian “interference” in Lebanon brings to mind another episode in his recent career. When the people’s protest broke out in Bahrain, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent him there at least four, perhaps six, times. He was there on the eve of the Saudi-led invasion into Manama to smash the protests in March 2011. In a visit to Manama on March 3, 2011, just before the crackdown, Feltman praised the King for his “initiatives” and urged him to “include the full spectrum of Bahraini society, without exception.” In the Shia quarters, and amongst the al-Wefaq party activists, this sounded like Feltman was urging the King to take them seriously. In language similar to what he used in Lebanon, Feltman noted that the US wants a “Bahraini process” and urges others “to refrain, as we are, from interference or trying to impose a non-Bahraini solution from outside Bahrain.” The crucial phrase here is as we are, which implies that the US is not intervening in Bahrain. The fact of the 5th Fleet stationed in Manama and of the close cooperation between the Saudi monarch, the Bahraini King and Feltman’s bosses was to be ignored. “We are not naïve,” Feltman said, pointing across the waters at Iran. They cannot be permitted to intervene, but the US, a “critical partner” of the Kingdom, and the Gulf Arab monarchs, “will support Bahrain.”

When events heated up in Bahrain, Feltman and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen went on a tour of the emirates’ capitals, declaring their unconditional support. The US stands for “universal human rights,” Feltman told the emirs, but of course since “every country is unique” these rights would emerge in their own way. Mullen was at hand to “reassure, discuss and understand what’s going on.” The key word here is reassure.

A clear-eyed assessment comes from Karim Makdisi, who teaches at the American University of Beirut. Makdisi recalls Feltman’s role as Ambassador in the area, where he made himself an extremely divisive figure. Feltman pushed for UN Resolution 1559 from 2004, to disarm the Lebanese resistance, he supported the Israeli invasion in 2006, and he provided assistance to the March 14 political party against Hezbollah. In other words, Feltman actively took sides in a divided political landscape. Feltman’s appointment “would be a disaster and send exactly the wrong signal for the UN” to the region. Having recognized its weakness, the US knows that it will be the UN that takes the lead in Syria and elsewhere for the foreseeable future. Makdisi believes that in “anticipating a larger role for the UN,” the US wishes Feltman to be well-placed to “ensure that US interests are maintained as much as possible.” Whatever credibility remains with the UN will whittle in the region with this appointment.

It is likely that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon picked Feltman for an unearned reputation. He is known around the Beltway for his work on the Arab Spring. But in the totality of the Arab world Feltman will not be seen as an open-minded professional. He has already thrown his hat into the camp of the Saudis and their satellites (the Gulf Arabs and the Hariri clan of Lebanon). This will limit Feltman’s ability to move an agenda in the region, least of all on the Arab-Israeli conflict where sober diplomacy is necessary from the UN. When I asked several people who watch the UN’s work in the Arab world carefully about this appointment, most offered me three words, “very bad news” (these words are from Noam Chomsky). Not bad news for the Saudis or the US neoconservatives, but certainly bad for the people of the Arab world, whose Spring had them longing not so much for this kind of venal diplomacy but for honesty and good-will.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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