Who is the most dangerous man in the Middle East? Iran's fundamentalist leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? How about the shadowy terrorist Abu Nidal? Well, according to some State Department officials, he is none other than Sam H. Zakhem, U.S. ambassador to the tiny gulf sheikdom of Bahrain.
If his name sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, it is because Zakhem is Lebanese- born, not to mention Egyptian-educated. But the problem with Zakhem goes beyond the difficulties associated with sending an Arab-American to the region of his birth. After all, there is a tradition of sending political appointees "back home"--often to major embassy posts.
What the Reagan Administration has done is to take this to its logical, some say absurd, conclusion. As one State Department veteran puts it, "We are now sending 'Gong Show' types to what the White House obviously believes are funny, cute little countries."
These days, however, Bahrain is not a cute little country. It has become de facto headquarters for the biggest U.S. naval armada assembled since World War II. With the contrivance of Bahrain's rulers, the United States has expanded its once-modest presence. Despite reports of popular discontent (verified by U.S. intelligence), Bahrainis continue to allow use of their civilian airport by U.S. helicopter gunships and the stationing of a huge barge, in their territorial waters, that operates as a floating U.S. base.
With Zakhem suddenly in a crisis center, the posting of this amateur is, in the words of a former supervisor, "A case study why we shouldn't do these sort of things." Zakhem is a former Colorado politician whose State Department-supplied resume is devoid of foreign-policy citations. What Zakhem does have is a close political association with Colorado beer magnate Joseph Coors, a major fund-raiser for conservative causes in general and Ronald Reagan in particular. "What we are getting stuck with now," said one analyst at State, "are derivative political appointees. Not those with push, but their proteges."
In the old days, political appointees recognized their own limitations. They focused on the job's ceremonial aspects, leaving the nuts-and-bolts to a trained staff of Foreign Service officers. But in outposts like Bahrain, U.S. professionals are rare.
Zakhem's appointment predated the U.S. military buildup but he has embraced the effort as his own. At a recent embassy party he told startled guests, "Bahrain is America's best friend in the world." He then cited Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as having said, "I (Zakhem) am most responsible for the cooperation we are getting there." Then he expanded his theme: "If it was up to the State Department, we wouldn't get anything done there until 1989."
There may be something appealing about any political appointee who sees his job as "getting things done" while a bureaucracy is submerged in paper. And even Zakhem's most severe critics allow that he is a patriot.
There is a more worrisome side to the Zakhem phenomenon, however. In his zeal, Zakhem seems to have lost all sense of proportion. "Sam has a terminal case of 'clientitis,' " said one former Foreign Service officer who is aware that this charge has often been leveled against him and other State Department Arabists. Even at home, Zakhem's clientitis has led to Administration embarrassment.
The issue in Washington is the controversy over the Adminsitration's proposal to provide Bahrain with an advanced anti-aircraft missile, the Stinger. By all accounts, including his own, Zakhem is the leading U.S. salesman. At that same embassy party, Zakhem brought up the portable, shoulder-launched Stingers. "Bahrain should get the Stingers," he said, "because, as I tell everybody, Bahrain is the Israel of the gulf." He declared the Stingers to be of sufficient importance to require "the President to go on TV." Zakem's role in the sale has become a Washington controversy. State Department officials privately admit that Zakhem pressed Bahrain to ask for the missiles in the first place. Members of Congress are highly critical. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), House sponsor of a bill to ban the Stinger sale, said, "It wasn't the Bahrainis who dreamed up the importance of Stingers. It was U.S. officials out there who made Stingers an item of prestige."
Arguing that he is willing to meet Bahrain's "legitimate defense needs," but not to sell the Stinger which he considers "the ideal terrorist weapon," Levine has recruited enough like-minded congressmen to win a battle. Two weeks ago, despite personal lobbying by Crowe and Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci III, a key Senate committee voted Levine's way. As a result, said one White House official, "We have got a lot of embarrassed, angry and frustrated people running around here."
But Zakhem at his posting may be more dangerous than Zakhem at home because in the gulf there is not one but two of him. There is another inexperienced Arab-American political appointee posted to a small gulf state--Joseph Ghougassian, the Egyptian-born U.S. ambassador to Qatar. "If English is Zakhem's second language," said one State Department official, "then it's Ghougassian's fourth." His only previous claims to fame were California connections--as a law student of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
"Go-Go," as he is known to State Department insiders, is famous for his correspondence. One former official remembers his cables as "legendary. They are on the top of everyone's 'take' in the morning--with the good parts underlined."
But it was no laughing matter last year when Ghougassian cables began to hint darkly of a possible war between Qatar and Zakhem's Bahrain. Zakhem and Ghougassian are reported to dislike each other, and when a long-simmering dispute flared anew between Bahrain and Qatar over an obscure reef called Fasht ad-Dibal, the two ambassadors swung into action. They waged a "war of cables that almost turned into a real war," said one knowing State Department official.
Ghougassian, relying not on staff but on an Egyptian free-lancer named Kamal Hassan, and Zakhem, apparently getting advice from a Lebanese, did little to cool passions. Instead, according to State professionals, the ambassadors reported wild war scares as fact.
No thanks to either man, this mini-crisis returned to manageable levels. In any case, Ghougassian is not thought capable of doing much more damage in Qatar. As one foreign service professional said of Qatar's capital, "There is little you can break in Doha."
But many State Department veterans agree that Zakhem is a disaster waiting to happen. It came close earlier this year when, after the U.S. Navy seized the Iranian mine-laying ship Iran Ajar, Zakhem urged that the captured Iranians be held as hostages. This outburst brought an official recall to Washington and threat of dismissal. Yet after a brief lecture, Zakhem returned to Bahrain to push for Stingers.
Now State officials brace themselves for Zakhem's next indiscretion. "You have to remember we have a wilily, vindictive man out there in a small fragile society," said one department insider. "And Bahrain has become a very important place for us. You put this all together and it's hard not to imagine something truly egregious happening."