By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"A posturing politician with a genius for transforming honest expressions of patriotism and morality into grotesque acts of political exhibitionism," fumed the Rocky Mountain Journal.
But Zakhem was unapologetic. His views may have been unpopular, but they were sincere, he insisted, and that won respect from his constituents. "Politicians in general have very low credibility," he remarked in a 1981 interview. "When you're being criticized by those who are less credible, then you must have some guts and something in you that makes you shine, that they hate, that they don't have."
Even today, Zakhem says, "I really haven't changed. My views on pornography, on drugs, on abortion are very, very strong. But the manner in which I would approach solutions would differ now. We all grow up."
During the 1992 campaign, though, it became apparent that Zakhem wasn't quite as thick with the anti-abortion camp as he'd once been. That, he says now, was a direct result of something that had happened at home.
"My wife and I had an experience in 1981 where we lost a child," he says. "It was a matter of the life of the woman or the child. If my bill in 1979 for the rights of the fetus had passed, I wouldn't have been able to tell the doctors, 'Please save my wife.' I'm still strongly opposed to the public funding of abortion. I'll never advocate it, but who am I to impose my morals on others?"
Zakhem dropped out of public life briefly in the early 1980s, only to resurface in 1986 as the Reagan administration's ambassador to Bahrain. The appointment was sharply criticized in foreign-policy circles. Bahrain may be a small country, but it's also a critical ally of the United States in the oil-rich Persian Gulf; such sensitive assignments usually go to career foreign-service types, not political patronage amateurs. True, Zakhem was the first Arab-born American to become an ambassador, but he was also a Lebanese Christian dispatched to a primarily Muslim country--an act of diplomacy not unlike sending Woody Allen to Germany because he was born with the name Konigsberg.
Yet here, too, Zakhem confounded his critics. His personable, hands-on, gimme-a-hug style--so disarming with voters, lobbyists and reporters--proved a hit with the royals in Bahrain. (Knowing Arabic and having more than a passing familiarity with Middle Eastern politics also helped.) He moved his residence out of a traditional European compound and into the city proper, and he made a point of attending every Bahrainian funeral he could, regardless of the status of the deceased. Before long, he was playing tennis with the foreign minister twice a week, visiting the crown prince once a week, having breakfast with the emir every Friday.
"There was no cultural barrier after the first week I was there," Zakhem says. "The Shiites on the street would come up and kiss Sam Zakhem, so help me God. State Department professionals were jealous that an outsider was so successful. They thought I was socializing too much.
"I said, 'You fools! Don't you realize that in the Arab world, if you don't personalize the relationship, you won't have access to the emir or the king?' Look what happened in Iraq to the woman [former U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie] who couldn't even say hello to [Saddam] Hussein. The relationship was terrible. But so much of what we needed, Bahrain delivered."
Zakhem's mettle was tested early and often during his four years in the Persian Gulf. He worked closely with the Bahrainian government to rescue survivors after the 1987 Iraqi missile attack on the U.S. frigate Stark. ("I convinced the government to help us, despite threats, to save our boys from the shark-infested waters," he says.) He tangled with the CIA over its assessments of the emirate's stability. His chumminess with the royals may have alarmed his superiors--at one point he was recalled from his post, reportedly for operating outside official channels--but it also earned him praise from Secretary of State George Shultz and Ronald Reagan himself, who said that on Zakhem's watch, Bahrain became "America's best friend in the world."
His trailblazing ambassadorship remains a source of tremendous pride to Zakhem. He still uses the honorific at every opportunity; it shows up on his plane tickets (this week Ambassador Zakhem jets to Washington to support Colorado developer Jim Nicholson's bid to lead the Republican National Committee), his business cards (Ambassador Sam H. Zakhem, vice-president for the Middle East region for Medlink International, a Denver-based hospital management and consulting firm), his campaign literature ("Ambassador Sam Zakhem, Ph.D."). Yet it was precisely this eagerness to exploit the valuable connections he made during his foreign service that landed the ex-ambassador in the fight of his life.
Zakhem came back from Bahrain just in time to capitalize on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. As a self-styled expert on Middle Eastern affairs--"With all due respect to the State Department, there is no man alive today who knows as much as Sam Zakhem knows about the Arab gulf," he claims--he was in great demand as a speaker and consultant.