In more than 30 years of working for the U.S. State Department, former-ambassador-turned-GW-professor Edward “Skip” Gnehm has not had very good timing.
In the 1960s, his semester in Cairo was cut short by the Six Day War between Israel and several Arab states. While working to open up U.S. relations with Syria, a bomb went off at a pavilion he set up. In 1990, he was selected to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait the same summer it was invaded by Iraq. But his most recent stroke of bad timing came when he was picked to head America’s embassy in Jordan.
“I arrived in Jordan on September 10, 2001 … and I invited all my friends to come back for a reception the next day,” he said.
The next day, after terrorists crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Gnehm found himself in one of the world’s hot spots. Gnehm, GW’s J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro visiting professor of international affairs, said he did not see his situation as a misfortune, but rather as a positive experience.
“It was a great three years for me, but not a great three years in history,” said Gnehm, who is a recipient of the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, two Presidential Meritorious Service Awards and numerous other State Department honors.
Earlier this month, the former ambassador was selected to serve as executive vice chairman of the board of directors for the American-Kuwaiti Alliance, a non-profit think tank devoted to furthering ties between the United States and the Gulf state. Gnehm said he welcomes the opportunity to further America’s bond with the Middle East.
“It’s a way I can continue to build an understanding between the U.S. and that region, especially Kuwait,” he said.
There may be only a few others more qualified to build such an understanding. Gnehm received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international affairs from GW in 1966 and 1968, respectively, and immediately signed up for the foreign service in 1969.
“My career started off on a bad note,” said Gnehm, whose office is decorated with an award in Arabic characters from the Kuwaiti government and a personal note of thanks from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “We were told we weren’t going to Vietnam, and of course that’s where everyone was going at the time … sure enough, I got picked.”
Gnehm said he was not in the war-torn country for long and was moved to Nepal. In 1974, he was sent to Syria to open the country to U.S. diplomacy following cool relations after the formation of Israel.
The Middle East guru expanded his knowledge of the region as he was moved to numerous locales. He expanded his diplomatic skills and learned Arabic, which proved useful when he was handpicked by President George H.W. Bush to run the embassy in Kuwait shortly before war broke out in the region.
“I lived with the Kuwaiti government in exile. It was incredible,” Gnehm said. “I ate at the table with the crown prince and all leaders. We would all watch CNN together and after they were done talking they would all turn to me and ask, ‘Mr. Ambassador, what does this mean?'”
Following the liberation of their country by a U.S.-led coalition, the Kuwaitis were extremely grateful, Gnehm said. He added that he was overseeing the reconstruction of the country until he was reassigned to work with the United Nations in New York and later in Australia as America’s ambassador down under.
In 2004, during his work in Jordan, Gnehm chose to leave the State Department, after he began to speak out about the way the Bush administration handled the war in Iraq and Middle East policy.
“My criticism is that the administration is not taking advantage of the exceptional talent there and never tried to understand the region,” said Gnehm.
Gnehm said he came back to GW after serving on the Board of Trustees and speaking with GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. Gnehm has also spoken out in the classroom against the way America has executed its war with Iraq.
“I try, in teaching, to bring my experience into the course … I try to make it alive,” said Gnehm, a former student government president at GW. “Real life is unpredictable and there are many factors that can change that you need to adapt to.”