Baltimore-born man takes reins of embassy in Lebanon Satterfield long active in Mideast peace efforts

October 02, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For six years, Baltimore native David Satterfield has been one of the least visible members of a determinedly low-key corps of U.S. diplomats trying to broker a Middle East peace.

Now, at 43, Satterfield is abandoning anonymity for the regional spotlight.

As the new U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, he is in charge of a relationship that is regaining a normal texture after nearly two decades of strains over war and terrorism.

If Israel and the Palestinians were ever to overcome obstacles to an interim agreement, U.S. officials would shift focus quickly to Lebanon and Syria in trying to forge a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

This would be a satisfying moment for Satterfield, who says he was inspired to pursue a career in Middle East diplomacy by watching from afar as President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David accords in 1978, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt.

"The peace process has dominated my actions for quite some years now," he says.

Satterfield's Maryland roots go back to the late 17th century, when his forebears settled on the Eastern Shore.

After the Civil War, in which his great-great-grandfather died at Gettysburg fighting on the Union side, the family moved to Baltimore.

He grew up behind Edmondson Village in West Baltimore.

When his family moved to Ellicott City, he went to Mount Hebron High School and graduated from the University of Maryland, where he studied medieval history.

He attended Georgetown University's law school but didn't stay long enough to get a law degree.

Instead, he went to work as a legislative analyst for the Congressional Research Service. He joined the Foreign Service in 1980.

Trained in Arabic, Satterfield has served in Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia and also had a posting at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut during the late 1980s.

Speaks with authority

He presents the image of a modest civil servant with his slight build, bland face, loose brown hair, glasses and gray suits.

But he speaks with authority, in clipped and precise sentences. Even when not talking for attribution, he has a tendency to deliver what sound like prepared statements.

During Clinton's first term, Satterfield served as a National Security Council staffer specializing in the Middle East and the peace process.

He was one of the small group that traveled and worked closely with Dennis Ross, the administration's top Mideast envoy, in trying to put flesh on the bones of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Satterfield's help in nailing down the Hebron accords in 1997 brought him a Superior Honor award, one of four such commendations he has received from the State Department.

That attention was fleeting, however.

Laboring in obscurity

The next year he assumed one of the State Department's important but obscure midlevel administrative jobs as director of the office of Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs.

In this role, he has handled U.S. relations with Israel at a time of considerable stress and paid close attention to Israel's dealings with the Arab world.

Now, he's the top U.S. official in a country where caution is the watchword for Americans.

Even as it rebuilds from decades of invasion and communal violence, Lebanon surges with the region's destructive hatreds.

Relations between Washington and Beirut have deep roots tended by a strong Lebanese-American community, but they are strained by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the dominant role that Syria continues to play in Lebanon.

L U.S. policy imposes a tall order on any diplomat in Lebanon.

Satterfield must try to find a way to improve Lebanon's stability, and thereby strengthen its business and cultural ties with the United States.

He must also work to advance the regional peace process and ease tension between Israel and Lebanon, while contending with the influence both Syria and Iran wield in Lebanon.

He has to try to accomplish this while being barred from dealing with Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite Muslim guerrilla group that retains pariah status in Washington.

He is also operating against a perception in Lebanon that its interests and hunger for independence could get short shrift in a U.S.-brokered deal between Syria and Israel.

"We want to see a comprehensive settlement that assists the Lebanese and Lebanon in the achievement of what is, for them as well as for us, the ultimate goal of a sovereign, independent state free of all foreign forces," he said.

Security concerns

The United States only recently lifted travel restrictions to Lebanon, after two decades in which Americans were periodic targets of bombers and kidnappers linked to Hezbollah.

The Beirut embassy has been closed twice in the past decade for security reasons.

Whenever Satterfield leaves his fortified compound, he will move around Beirut and the countryside in a guarded, armored convoy.

"As the security situation in Lebanon has improved, has stabilized, we're trying to improve our ability to function as a normal embassy," he said.

"We'd like to be present in all those areas where Lebanese themselves would like to see us -- in the cultural field, economic field, business field; and we'll do that when we believe we're able to take those steps."

But in a sign of the continued threat against U.S. diplomats, dependents have not been allowed to accompany them since 1985.

Satterfield's 16-year-old son, Alex, and 13-year-old daughter, Victoria, will remain in Virginia with their mother.

Outside of visits, he will stay in touch with his kids on the Internet.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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