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The Politics of Water in the Middle East: U.S. “Good Offices” Mediation Between Jordan and Israel

For countries in the Jordan River Basin, water is a life-or-death matter. Disagreements and even armed skirmishes over water issues between Israel and Arab states played an important role in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War.  A decade later, USAID Foreign Service Officer Selig Taubenblatt found himself mediating long-standing water disagreements between Israel and Jordan.

In 1975, Jordan decided to build the Maqarin Dam, later named Al-Wehda Dam, on the Yarmouk River not far from the Golan Heights at the Jordan-Syria border.  The dam was to supply Jordan with water for human and agricultural use, and produce electricity. But nothing is simple in this region. Israel protested, claiming the dam would interfere with Israeli rights downstream on the Yarmouk, a major tributary to the Jordan River.  When both Jordan and Israel asked the United States to provide “good offices” in resolving water disputes, Taubenblatt emerged as a key player in thrashing out numerous technical details. Jordan refused to conclude a final agreement without the assent of an as-yet unformed and unrecognized Palestinian State.  Ultimately the Israel–Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 resolved outstanding water issues associated with the Maqarin/Al-Wehda Dam, which opened in 2011.

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Talking to Soviet Soldiers During the 1991 Coup Attempt: A U.S. Defense Attaché’s Tale

James Cox knew that Soviet officers would stonewall a foreigner like him, but there was a chance that regular soldiers might express their grievances to him. In the midst of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, Cox sought information to report to the U.S. Embassy. So when the officers were not looking, he launched into a tirade about the coup, hoping to solicit a congenial response from a startled group of Russian soldiers–and it worked. The soldiers said they had no idea where their officers were leading them, or why.  The information was invaluable to the U.S. Embassy team attempting to make sense of it all.

The leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt sought to remove reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev from power and preserve the Soviet Union. These hardliners confronted Gorbachev and isolated him under house arrest. On August 19, the coup leaders declared a state of emergency, sending military units into Moscow.  Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian component of the USSR, condemned the coup and called for a general strike. People responded by rallying around Yeltsin. As the coup lost momentum, its leaders fled Moscow, the military pulled back, and the coup collapsed. Though Gorbachev returned to power, the damage was done, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union followed in December of the same year.  

Lt. Col. James Cox came to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with extensive qualifications in the Russian language, having served as a Russian instructor at the U.S. Military Academy and a Soviet foreign area officer in East Germany. After his time in Moscow, Cox went on to serve as a defense attaché in Warsaw and worked with the Department of State as an arms control delegate at the representative for the United States in Europe.

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USAID Helps Sri Lanka Respond to 1996 Bombing of Central Bank–And Avert Financial Chaos

One of the deadliest terror acts in Sri Lanka’s long civil war was the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, which cost almost 100 lives–and threatened to unleash economic and financial chaos.  USAID was able to move quickly to replace the bank’s computer system, restoring its vital functions, and preventing panic from spreading through the country. Mission Director David Cohen recalls our response in this ADST oral history.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 1983-2009 civil war grew out of longstanding ethnic and religious disputes.  The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) developed into a formidable military and terrorist force, prompting an increasingly violent government response, culminating in the group’s destruction.  While it was active, the LTTE held significant amounts of Sri Lankan territory and carried out multiple high-profile operations, including the assassinations of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.  In the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, LTTE operatives crashed a truck carrying explosives through the main gate. The attack killed roughly 100 people and injured dozens more. By 2009, LTTE had been reduced to pockets of hard-core fighters. The government’s killing of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran effectively marked an end to the war.  

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Duty and Danger: An American Diplomat’s Service in Iraq on the Eve of 1991 Gulf War

American diplomat Stephen Thibeault watched as an airplane departed Iraq in 1990, carrying Rev. Jesse Jackson and American hostages liberated in the tense days following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — and before the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, the United Nations campaign that ultimately routed Saddam Hussein’s forces.  Thibeault was tempted to fly away with the hostages, but chose to remain and help other Americans in danger. “It was the equivalent of being in a fire,” Thibeault recalled in his ADST oral history. “You can quit the fire department when the fire is over; you can quit the Foreign Service when the crisis is over.”


On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, quickly defeating that country’s military forces. Iraq then annexed Kuwait, claiming that it was a part of Iraq.  The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned Iraq’s actions and demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal. The Council also imposed tough sanctions and other measures, prompting Iraq to detain and hold hostage large numbers of U.S. and western citizens working in the country.  Officers at the U.S. Embassy struggled to keep pace with unfolding events, helping U.S. citizens and others avoid becoming hostages and find ways out of the country. Stephen Thibeault played an important role in those efforts — and in briefing an international press corps hungry for information.


After Iraq, Stephen Thibeault served as public affairs officer in Thailand and information officer in Jordan. He also worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Media Reaction Office.

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