Conversations With Diplomats

The events in Libya in the last week or so reminds of something that happened when I was working as a reporter at the United Nations in mid-2001.

I was an energy correspondent working for BridgeNews, and my job at the UN was to cover the Iraq Food-for-Oil Program (can I say Food-4-Oil?). At the time, before the attacks of September 11, there was some movement toward a “smart sanctions” arrangement to deal with Iraq, something similar to the technology controls that the Western nations had imposed on some imports to what was once the Warsaw Pact and its allies. I wasn’t at the UN often, but I was there for Security Council meetings (sat in on one once) about Iraq, and did get a couple of scoops by cornering Iraqi UN ambassador Mohammed al-Douri and chatting him up in Arabic, something no other American reporters seemed to be doing. In fact, few reporters seemed interested in the opinions of non-permanent members, and they were an interesting font of information.

(Al-Douri was a seedy little man with one bad eye who wore a shiny suit and a very bad comb-over, always fondling his prayer beads, and he reminded me a lot of Larry Storch.)

At any rate, one day, between sessions and stake outs outside the Security Council chamber, I decided to hang out in the diplomats lounge at the UN. The UN is a fascinating building, and it has that wonderful late 1940s feel of progress to it, with the grays and the wood and the frosted glass office doors. (All it needed was ductwork and it would be Brazil.) It was a bit run down, and CNN International was everywhere (this was about a year, I think, after Ted Turner committed his billion), and that’s where I learned that CNN International was as good as CNN was bad. I got an overpriced coffee and sat with my book. And watched people go by.

A junior Iraqi diplomat, someone I’d regularly seen with al-Douri as part of his entourage (I don’t remember his name, sorry), saw me, said hello in Arabic and asked if he could join me. We chit-chatted a bit — small talk, I think — where I learned Arabic and how long I’d been a reporter, how long he’d been at the UN. That kind of thing. Somehow, the conversation turned to medieval Islamic history, and as he and I were talking, we were joined by a man who identified himself as a member of the Libyan delegation. (Had a junior diplomat from Syria joined us, we’d of had our fourth for bridge.) The three of us talked for a bit, about Islamic history of course, but somehow, the discussion veered in the direction of government in the Arab world. The talk started, I think, with the problem of modern Arab governments and how they aren’t terribly representative of the will of their people. I responded something to the effect of, “yes, but that kind of thing is true here in the United States too.”

“Yes,” replied the Libyan a little more quietly. “But it is much, much worse in our countries.”

The Iraqi nodded his agreement and then the conversation got silent for a second as the two diplomats looked at each other. The talk then veered in another direction, toward small-talk, and then it became clear we all had places to go and things to do. I think an alarm may have sounded that the Security Council was going back into session.

I never saw the Libyan diplomat again. The Iraqi diplomat I saw later that summer after a member of the Iraqi delegation reportedly defected. He was dealing angrily with the the reporters following him around — including me — and not answering our questions. I stopped covering the UN in August, when BridgeNews ceased to be a real news agency. And after September 11, 2001, there was no talk of lifting sanctions on Iraq and replacing them something else.

That conversation stood out in my mind for a long time. I wonder what kind of courage it took for junior diplomats to say what they said about their own governments, given the kinds of governments they worked for? And I wonder what happened to both of them? Where are they now? What are they doing? I hope they are both okay. I hope they and their families are both well.

It doesn’t shock me that so many Libyan diplomats have abandoned their government, especially the junior ones. Both the Iraqi and the Libyan were bright, personable, professional, and well-educated. I suspect Libya’s current UN ambassador is probably tied up somewhere and locked in a closet.

Here’s to the people of Libya as they fight to overthrow their regime. Here’s to the Iraqis as they struggle with winning their independence from dictatorship and Americans. I hope that sometime, in the lifetime of both men who sat and shared a short conversation with at the United Nations almost 10 years ago, that it will stop being much, much worse in their countries. I pray and hope that soon it is better. Much, much better.