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Reviewed by:
  • Witness to a Changing World
  • David L. Mack (bio)
Witness to a Changing World, by David D. Newsom. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2008. x + 357 pages. Notes to p. 366. Index to p. 372. $23.99.

This book is of value to three readerships —diplomats and their families, observers of international developments from the decline of global empires to the modern era, and scholars of the Middle East and Muslim world.

Witness to a Changing World is the personal memoir of a leading career diplomat of the US Foreign Service. The late David Newsom's nearly 34 years with the State Department was preceded by travel to Asia and Africa as a correspondent on the eve of World War II and wartime service as an intelligence officer in the US Navy. After he retired from the Foreign Service in February 1981, Newsom spent the following 27 years as an educator on the craft of foreign policy and international relations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Whether you knew Ambassador Newsom or not, it is hard to resist the charming manner in which he tells his story and that of his family. In assignments as varied as Karachi, Oslo, Baghdad, and London, the Newsoms experienced both hardships and joy against a background of momentous events. As US Ambassador to Libya, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, and as Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Newsom was a principal formulator and implementer of policy. He was also a trusted advisor to other senior officials who have constitutional responsibility for the foreign policy of the United States.

When Newsom first traveled abroad as a foreign correspondent in 1940, the dominant political institutions of Asia and Africa were the empires of Japan, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Portugal, and France. Inevitably, the struggles of decolonization and the emergence of assertive nation states and ambitious leaders of what used to be called the Third World constitute a major theme of the book. Looking back on the period, Newsom sums up some broad lessons for US policymakers in a final chapter entitled "Reflections."

Subscribers to The Middle East Journal are most likely to turn to the chapters where Newsom describes his time in newly independent Pakistan, Iraq under the Hashemite monarchy, the State Department Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs during the Suez Crisis and revolutions in both Lebanon and Iraq, the Office of North African Affairs in the early 1960s when Algeria gained independence, Libya in the four years preceding the September 1969 revolution, and as Undersecretary of State from March 1978 to February 1981.

Events during Newsom's tenure as Undersecretary included President Jimmy Carter's Camp David summit for peace between Israel and Egypt, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Developments following those momentous events have marked US foreign policy in the Middle East until the present day.

A warning is in order. Anyone expecting dramatic revelations regarding these events or juicy tales of intrigue is likely to be disappointed. Newsom tells some great stories, but they are more in the nature of wry footnotes to history. He was often preoccupied with the details of essential diplomatic work that only lead to headlines when diplomacy fails to curb the human instinct to excess.

It is clear that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his successor, Secretary Edmund Muskie, relied heavily on Newsom to cover for them on crises around the globe while they were focusing on matters they judged to require their direct involvement or that of Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher. Newsom's memoir successfully conveys this reality as it jumps from issue to issue, which some readers will find confusing. Based on my experience, it delivers a sobering dose of reality for those who want to grasp the complexity of conducting foreign policy on a global stage. The President and Secretary of State may decide to concentrate their personal attention on a few issues at a time, but they rely on people like Newsom to make sure that other issues do not become world crises due to their inattention.

The Arab-Israeli conflict was evidently [End Page 514] not at...


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pp. 514-515
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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