A Conversation with Ambassador Robert Jordan

In case you missed the November 12th lecture, please enjoy the following interview between Duke Political Review and Ambassador Robert Jordan as he briefly discusses some of his experiences as the ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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Robert Jordan is the former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, serving from 2001 until 2003. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University.DPR: This is Sam Skinner here, the Chief of Staff for DPR. I am here with Ambassador Robert Jordan. We are very lucky to have him spend time with us today.DPR: Ambassador Jordan, you graduated from Duke in what year? 67’?RJ: Yes, 67.

DPR: How did that experience at Duke as a young man, in your view, really influence your career? Did it help you in the long run as far as your professional career goes?

RJ: Well, my experience here at Duke had a tremendous influence on me. I was a Political Science major. We didn’t have a Public Policy program at the time, but I focused a lot on domestic and international affairs. I took courses with some of the giants in the faculty at the time. I then left Duke, graduated, and went straight into the navy, and was stationed in Washington D.C. So I had a lot of occasions to run into some of my classmates, some who graduated a long time ahead of me. But there was a large Duke contingent there at the time. One of the things that really influenced me at Duke was my experience as the Head of the Student Union. Part of my job was to recruit major entertainment and we would have people like Bob Hope and the Smothers Brothers. But we would also have major speakers, so I would go to Washington and recruit senators, administration officials, and a Duke network of contacts was really helpful to me in performing that job, which also gave me a focus in public policy and an interest in law. I later went to law school and got a Masters in Political Science.

DPR: You were appointed Ambassador of the United States to Saudi Arabia in a post 9-11 world by George W. Bush. In light of recent events in Saudi Arabia, the passing away of King Abdullah, and political turmoil in the area, how have you seen that change since your time as Ambassador and what can Americans learn about fostering a great relationship with Saudi Arabia?

RJ: The United States and Saudi Arabia have very few values in common. But we have a lot of common interests, such as fighting terrorism, maintaining trade, and maintaining a viable source of oil for the rest of the world, and maintaining some sort of traction with the Muslim world. So these interests I think do converge…. The relationship drifted somewhat, then we had 9/11, and I think that threw us back together. When I arrived at a month after 9/11, there was a question as to the Saudis were friend or foe, and we had a lot of bumps on the road, but they ultimately really jumped in and helped us fight terrorism, and fight the Al-Qaeda and we were very engaged in that process. Now that the immediate threats have subsided a little bit, I think it is less clear as to what is out there that will unite us going forward. I think we have had different agendas. We have got more constraints on American resources, so we cannot be the policemen of the Middle East as we used to be. I think Saudis feel that we don’t have their backs as much as we used to. They see us siding with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. They see us perhaps not being as reliable of an ally as we used to be. But then of course they are definitely afraid of our relationship with Iran right now. So there are strains on the relationship that I think King Abdullah didn’t have to deal with quite as much as King Salman does. King Abdullah wasn’t very happy with America’s decisions to support the Muslim Brotherhood and to start negotiations with Iran, but he had enough understanding of our historical relationship that carried us through, this is less certain with King Salman. The pressure is now on the Saudis to take more responsibility for their own neighborhood. I think we are going to see the Saudis see things like they are doing in Yemen, which wasn’t done with full consultation with the United States. We have been assisting them to some degree logistically, but this is a campaign that the Americans would just assume they would bring to a conclusion at some point.

DPR: What should the United States’ role be in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Where do you think the United States could fit in in an ideal situation?

RJ: I think we must remember our common interests. We certainly have an interest in the free flow of goods, freedom of the seas, freedom of commerce, and fighting terrorism. The Iranians thus far have shown completely opposite interests. So if we had to choose sides right now, we would side with the Saudis. But it is a dynamic and ever-changing situation, and it is certainly conceivable somewhere down the line Iran would have a regime change and policy change, in which case we need to understand that and see where we go. We had in a way a more palatable situation when the Shah of Iran was in office, and we had relationships with both. We have to ensure that we maintain the viability of the Gulf monarchies, especially the Saudis, as they try to navigate what they see as an existential threat.

DPR: The United States is really pushing to be more of an exporter of oil than an importer of oil. How does the United States’ decreased reliance on OPEC affect its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

RJ: I think it has changed a lot of attitudes toward the Saudis, but it doesn’t mean that these attitudes are exactly correct. One thing we have to keep in mind is we still import somewhere around 10% of our crude oil from the Saudis, partly because of the nature of the calibration of our refineries here in the United States. Many of them are geared to process Arab oil. That is not what American oil wells are producing by and large. So until our refining capacities change, we still going to have some need for crude oil. At the same time, I think it does show that we have to keep American interests in mind and not simply look at them as an oil pump. If their interests cease to be aligned with ours, then that is an occasion for modification in our policy. But the last thing we want right now is for the Saudi royal family to be overthrown, the last we would want for the price of oil even in the Middle East to go to 200 dollars a barrel, that affects the rest of the world, it creates a world wide recession in which the purchase of American goods and services would be dramatically affected, even if we produced every drop of oil on our own.

DPR: You have worn many different hats in your career in office, an author, a professor, a lawyer, and a diplomat. How have these roles worked together in informing your different knowledge bases and learning experiences?

RJ: I have always had an academic interest in Political Science. When I was in the navy, I went to the University of Maryland about three nights a week and got my Masters degree in Government. I then went onto law school and I have always been involved in public policy issues, helping with political campaigns. I did find when I became Ambassador (of course I was not a career Ambassador–I was a political appointee, so I had no background in diplomacy), but I found the skills of the lawyer were in many ways transferrable to the job that I then had. If you are getting ready to try a lawsuit, you have to be quick and steady, you have to sort enormous amounts of information and be able to process them, then you have to be able to articulate to your audience what your pitch is. So 40 years as a lawyer was helpful to me in doing that. I also find that the legal training helps me now as a professor at Southern Methodist University to organize facts and it helps me in discussion courses to be able to cross-examine my students to some degree. It makes a more interactive experience.

DPR: What were some of the central challenges you faced personally as ambassador?

RJ: The first obstacle was on day one of my tenure there, and that was to figure out if the Saudis were friend or foe, in light of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. So I went to see the Governor of Riyadh, who was Prince Salman at the time (he is now the King). He said this could not have been Saudi hijackers, this had to have been an Israeli plot and that Mossad must have done this. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Several other cabinet ministers told me the same thing. Finally, the minister of foreign affairs, Prince Saud, who went to Princeton, a really bright guy, he understood that they had to start doing something about it. There was a huge challenge to get the Saudis to even acknowledge and admit that Saudis were the hijackers. The second tremendous challenge I had was dealing with culture. They had a culture where at the working level guy on the ground doing a job was a Saudi would not share with his American counterpart. So if we were trying to do an intelligence operation, they wouldn’t share, they would simply have to send it to their Saudi boss, who would send it to his American counterpart, and then back down to the American at the working level. And that simply didn’t work.

We had tremendous anger at the U.S. inaction, as they saw it, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They wanted President Bush to do more. So every time I would ask them for something, they would then say in return, why don’t you do more to bring the Israelis into line, as if we could snap our finger and make that happen. There was a lot of that going on. Human rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom were also great challenges for me.

DPR: Lastly, do you have any favorite stories involving your experience with the Saudi royal family?

RJ: I have to tell you a story that doesn’t really involve the royal family, but does involve a USO show that I attended shortly after I became Ambassador. This was Drew Currie and his improv crew. They came out to entertain our military. They pulled me up on stage, and they would always make up a song based on something you would tell them. They say, what do you like to do, I say I like to play golf. What else? I like to watch football. So they made up a song the golfing badassador. That name apparently stuck because about 18 months later, I was getting ready to go on an air force mission on AWAC’s up to the Iraqi border right before we did the invasion. That was about a 12-hour mission and they gave me a flight suit. Everybody has his or her name on the flight suit. The name they put on my flight suit was Badassador Jordan.

Second story is we had planned a presidential summit at Crawford, with President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah. April 2002, this was at a time during the regime when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was infuriating Abdullah, he was really unhappy with Bush, and he almost threatened to not come to the meeting. They go ahead and schedule the meeting. Colin Powell and I meet Abdullah at this airstrip outside of Waco, Texas. Typically, a guest would fly in a helicopter to the ranch, but Abdullah didn’t believe in flying in helicopters. So he had chartered a tour bus to take us, and Powell says to me before Abdullah arrives, “Bob, I am going with you in the bus, but I want you to know, this is going to be a terrible summit meeting. I think it is going to break up, but whatever happens, I am not coming back on the bus with you, I am staying with the President to do a press conference.” I said I got it. So we get on the bus, and by the way, this bus is decked out with decals and stripes and things that looked like it was Dolly Parton going on tour. We go to the country side, go to the summit meeting, and it starts out badly, but it ends up well because the President took the Crown Prince in his pickup truck around the ranch, and they came back and they were just best buddies after that. This is a great example of the power of personal diplomacy. I get back on the bus with Saul, the foreign minister, the Prince Bandar, and we all breath this collective sigh of relief because nothing terrible has happened. Prince Saul and Bandar were just giddy with relief, so they start singing Broadway show tunes from My Fair Lady, so they are singing The Rain in Spain, I’m an Ordinary Man… You can’t make this stuff up.

That’s all the time we have. Again, thank you so much, Ambassador Jordan; it was really great spending time with you.

Check out the original Duke Political Review interview here.