New U.S. Envoy Is Without a Country--for Now : Kuwait: Diplomatic whiz kid takes oath as ambassador and predicts the captive nation will soon be free.
More than 30 years ago, a high school teacher in southern Georgia suggested that Edward W. Gnehm Jr. consider going into the Foreign Service. At the time, Gnehm later conceded: “I had no idea what the Foreign Service was.”
On Thursday, in front of a crowd of Cabinet members and ranking U.S. officials packed into the State Department’s cavernous eighth-floor ballroom, Gnehm was formally sworn in to what has become the most challenging job in the U.S. diplomatic corps--ambassador to Kuwait.
Gnehm, whose friends call him Skip, succeeds W. Nathaniel Howell III, who kept the American mission in Kuwait open from Aug. 2 until Dec. 13, even though Iraqi troops cut off water, electricity and food supplies.
A cherubic and diminutive figure, Gnehm, 46, has been widely known within Washington power circles for 20 years as a diplomatic whiz kid called on to mediate Middle East crises that would, in the words of a long-time colleague, “break the average envoy. He’s tireless.”
After Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Gnehm was named director of the State Department’s Kuwait Task Force. Every day he came in before 4 a.m. and left after midnight. He has also been dispatched on six missions to the Persian Gulf as President Bush’s personal envoy since the crisis began. He is scheduled to begin his seventh trip this weekend.
“If there was ever a man who was made for this pivotal juncture in United States-Kuwaiti relations, the President and I believe it’s Skip Gnehm,” said Secretary of State James A. Baker III at Thursday’s ceremony. Although he is an ambassador without a country, Gnehm predicted after he was sworn in: “I have no doubt that I will soon take up my position in Kuwait as the next American ambassador. I know that Kuwait shall be free soon.”
A former deputy assistant secretary at both the State and Defense departments, Gnehm was the Pentagon’s point man on the five-man interagency coordinating committee during the 1987-88 deployment of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf at the bloody end of the Iran-Iraq War.
After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Gnehm ran the two-man U.S. Interests Section in Damascus during then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria that led to restoration of U.S. diplomatic relations with Syria.
He also has served with the Foreign Service in Vietnam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia and Nepal.
“He tends to get the hot spots,” said Jim Callahan, a U.S. Information Agency official who served with Gnehm in the Middle East.
More important to his rapid rise in the Foreign Service, however, is his personal style, say State Department colleagues. Gnehm personally knows all but one of the sheiks, sultans, princes and presidents in Middle East nations with which the United States has relations. He speaks Arabic and French and knows the culture well enough to write poetry about countries where he has served.
“He’s one of our best public diplomacy people,” said a State Department spokesman.
The personal touch was demonstrated during the military build-up in the gulf last fall. In a Worldnet broadcast from Washington in October, Gnehm was called with a question from an 8-year-old Kuwaiti boy named Khalid living in exile in Abu Dhabi. “He asked me when he would go back to school at home, and I said, ‘You’re going to go back soon,’ ” Gnehm recalled in an interview Thursday.
“On my next trip to the gulf, I asked that we find him. We did, and Khalid came and gave me a gift from his family. It was a model of a typical old Kuwaiti door, the kind with studs. He said, ‘You promised I could go back, and I want to give this to you to remind you that you’re welcome in our house when we all go back to Kuwait.’ ”
Gnehm promised to bring a cake to the boy’s school to celebrate their homecoming.
“What makes Skip different is his loyalty to the people, not just the system,” Callahan recalled.
“He even managed to penetrate Yemeni society--something it usually takes foreigners years to do. They’re a cantankerous mountain people. But shortly after he arrived, he was being invited around to talk and chew qat “--a leafy stimulant that is part of the Yemeni social ritual.
Among the Washington notables invited to the swearing-in ceremony was Gnehm’s childhood scoutmaster from Georgia.
In an emotional speech after his swearing-in, Gnehm stressed the human dimension of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. “The rape of Kuwait is not something abstract against sand and concrete. The rape is against men and women and children,” he said.
“The land is not murdered but the young men. (They) were picked up by Iraqi patrols in the night, shot on the front steps of their homes in full view of their families and their neighbors, who were forcibly collected to watch the execution.”
He also described Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a man “driven by greed and power” with such disregard of human rights that he spent 100,000 Iraqi lives during the eight-year war with Iran. “People are but fodder for the trenches. . . . He can’t bring back the dead and he doesn’t seem to care,” Gnehm said.
“This crisis is about people and how people will live in the world in the years to come. That world cannot be a place for brutal aggressors, but it must be a place for those who wish to live in peace.”
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