Think Tank Leader Seeks to Explain Middle East to American Audiences

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Wendy J. Chamberlin began her professional career teaching English in Laos. She would like to end her career teaching the Middle East to Americans and explaining the United States to the peoples of the Middle East. In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Chamberlin said she eagerly accepted the presidency of the Middle East Institute (MEI) because of its broad-ranging commitment to cultural and political education.

“Our mission is to educate the people of the United States about the Middle East. At no time in the post-Cold War period has it been more important for the citizens of the United States to understand what the issues are in the Middle East, what the people there are thinking, what Islam is really about, and what the impact of our policies in the region are,” Chamberlin said. “At MEI we try to give an accurate and balanced presentation of the facts about the Middle East. More than ever, this is needed. People need to know that what they are reading about the Middle East is accurate and written by experts with no agenda.”

Chamberlin was named president of the Middle East Institute last December and assumed the post in March of this year, succeeding Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (see September 2006 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Like Walker, Chamberlin came to MEI after a long career in American diplomacy, having served in the U.S. Foreign Service for nearly 30 years from 1975 until 2004. During that time, she was the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (2001-02) and Laos (1996-99), as well as deputy chief of mission in Malaysia (1993-96).

She also served as director of press and public affairs for the Near East Bureau, director of global affairs and counter-terrorism at the National Security Council, and deputy chief at the Bureau of International Counter-Narcotics and Law Programs. In addition, Chamberlin has had postings in Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan and Zaire.

In her final assignment as a U.S. diplomat, Chamberlin was assistant administrator in the Asia-Near East Bureau with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2002 to 2004. She led USAID reconstruction projects in Iraq and developed private-public sector partnerships to support Islamic education in the Middle East and South Asia.

She retired from the U.S. Foreign Service to become the deputy high commissioner for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Based in Geneva, Chamberlin oversaw humanitarian missions during several emergencies, including the crisis in Darfur and southern Sudan.

Chamberlin said her career in diplomacy was deeply rewarding and challenging. She recalled taking over as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan just a month before Sept. 11, 2001, inheriting a difficult, tense, even troubled relationship between the United States and her host country. However, after 9/11, the Pakistani government decided to reverse its longstanding policy of support for the Taliban, reoriented many of its policies, and participated in the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda.

“It’s extraordinary for a policy to turn around so fast, but there was a real sense of urgency. My job as ambassador was to ask President [Pervez] Musharraf, ‘What can we do to help you achieve your vision for your country regarding education, economic development, jobs and foreign investment? How can we help you succeed?’”

At USAID, Chamberlin was frustrated by the United States’ lack of planning for the aftermath of the war in Iraq. She said that her bureau did detailed planning with clear benchmarks, but this discipline was not encouraged by key officials in the Bush administration.

“There was a very strong view from the Pentagon and the vice president’s office that we didn’t need to do reconstruction at all because, after some short-term humanitarian assistance, everything in Iraq would fall back into place. I never agreed with that.”

Chamberlin said her decision to accept a senior position with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was, in part, a statement about her belief in multilateralism. “I wanted to make a point about multilateralism as part of the solution and I couldn’t just say it. So I went to work for the high commissioner.”

When the presidency of MEI opened up in 2006, Chamberlin decided to apply. She said she was deeply impressed by the mission and history of MEI, which was founded in 1946 by Middle East scholar George Camp Keiser and former Secretary of State Christian Herter. For decades, it has been an important conduit of information between Middle Eastern nations and U.S. policymakers, organizations and the public. In fact, MEI’s George Camp Keiser Library has the largest English-language collection on the Middle East outside the Library of Congress. Each quarter, MEI also publishes its prestigious Middle East Journal.

In addition, MEI’s Department of Languages and Regional Studies offers courses in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish and organizes seminars highlighting the history, literature and culture of the Middle East. MEI has more than 1,600 members, including policymakers, journalists, academics, retired Foreign Service officers, business executives, students, libraries and universities. The think tank is funded by a mixture of individual and corporate memberships, library members, language classes and subscriptions to the Middle East Journal.

Soft spoken and steely, Chamberlin said she spent her first months as president of MEI conferring with board members, diplomats and other think tank leaders, during which time her belief in MEI’s mission and niche deepened. “We have a very valuable brand. We are the only NGO [nongovernmental organization] in Washington with its own library, its own journal, its own cultural center. We have assets here that are unique,” she said.

Chamberlin developed a strategic plan for MEI that has two main components: to ensure that it remains the source of accurate, balanced information about the Middle East, and to reach out to audiences that haven’t traditionally had easy access to perspectives about the Middle East.

Although MEI does not have official views on policy, Chamberlin offers personal views based on her years of working in the region—and she argues that finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to building a foundation of stability and peace in the region.

“I think the aspirations of the Palestinian people must be addressed if the Middle East is to calm down,” she said. “For too many decades, the Palestinians have been driven to despair, and from despair, they do what people do—they turn sometimes to religion, sometimes to violence.

“I don’t think you restore hope by building walls and putting up checkpoints that prevent people from seeing family and living their normal lives,” she added. “You build hope by jobs, by health care, by a good quality of life, by compassion. And that’s not bad advice for Iraq. That’s what I argued at USAID from the beginning: to make sure that the Iraqi people understand within the first six months that their lives are better than they were before.”

Chamberlin also believes that the United States must engage Iran diplomatically as part of a broader regional strategy. “Iran is operating in completely predictable ways. If anyone entered the Iraq war and didn’t think Iran would try to exploit the situation to advance its interests, they were crazy. Why were we surprised? What was Plan B? I happen to think that the Iraq Study Group was wise. They had a reasonable prescription for Iran: Talk to them. You never lose anything when you talk to people,” she said.

Chamberlin continues to keep a close eye on developments in Pakistan and believes that Americans and others should consider events and challenges there from the perspective of that country’s citizens. “Pakistan is one of the most complicated societies in the world, but too often we lose our focus on people,” she said. “We talk about terrorism and borders and instability. How much do we talk about feudalism, about unemployment, about incredible rural poverty so that we can understand why it is Musharraf is operating in such a fragile structure?”

Chamberlin enjoys the freedom of think tank life to explore issues and to speak her mind—albeit diplomatically. She spends her workweeks traveling, speaking about the Middle East, raising money for MEI, and managing her staff. Looking forward, Chamberlin noted that MEI will host an important conference this fall on radicalism and Palestinian refugees that will convene scholars from around the world.

Chamberlin said she wants MEI to find innovative ways of reaching out to people starving for balanced and clear information about the Middle East. She hopes to use technology such as interactive links, Web casts, podcasts and other Internet-based resources to reach a wider audience in both the United States and Middle East.

“Our audience is not here in Washington. Our purpose is to move out to smaller markets, to smaller cities,” she explained. “We would rather get our speakers out to World Affairs Councils, Rotary Clubs, university audiences, teachers’ conventions and corporate retreats—audiences that are very interested in the Middle East but don’t have access to the same resources we have in Washington.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999