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A Tale of Two Diplomats: Joseph Sisco '41 & Ismat Kittani '51

By Peter Bailley '74

Joseph Sisco and Ismat Kittani both came from very modest backgrounds. Sisco's frequent characterization of his own heritage, recorded in an interview in the New York Times -- "I come from a very good, tough peasant stock" -- would have applied to Kittani as well.

Both graduated from Knox College, some 10 years apart, and both taught briefly at the high school level before going on to achieve renown in the field of diplomacy. Each worked under one of the most controversial figures in modern history -- Sisco, a diplomat who studied the Soviet Union but made his biggest impact with Henry Kissinger in the Middle East; Kittani, a diplomat from the Middle East who capped his career, most of it under Saddam Hussein, working everywhere but the Middle East.

Their approaches to their craft could not have been more different. Sisco was an insider -- skilled at close combat, so to speak, talking tough to both foreign leaders and to his own superiors. Kittani was an outsider -- delicately negotiating treacherous waters, both internationally and at home.

A stand-up guy who stood up to you
Joseph Sisco was born in Chicago in 1929. The New York Times later reported that his mother died when he was nine and his father, a tailor, "raised five children in exceedingly modest circumstances. Sisco paid for his schooling by working as a newspaper reporter, Sears-Roebuck salesman, bartender, and laborer in a steel mill."

Majoring in history, Sisco would graduate from Knox in 1941 magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. His legendary candor and intelligence were already in evidence.

"A local businessman wanted his son to get better grades, and the man asked Joe to tutor him," recalled Russell "Bucky" Swise '42. "Joe said he would, but the fellow's grades never did improve. One day the businessman came back and said to Joe, 'I'm paying you good money to help my son.' And Joe told him, 'No one can help your son.'"

In his career as well, Sisco "didn't feel bound by diplomatic niceties, if a more direct or a more personal approach would get results," wrote The Washington Post. "Tough and resourceful, he was sometimes known as 'Jumping Joe' for his drive and intensity."

"Intensity" is putting it mildly. Sisco "started every discussion by yelling at me," said former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in an interview with the New York Times. Sisco "was probably the only State Department official who managed to shout down his truculent boss," wrote The Washington Post. "He was not intimidated by me," Kissinger told The Post. "His preferred method was to shout me down. That's where we started and went on from there."

Attempting to head off a battle between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus in 1958, Sisco resorted to "most undiplomatic language," wrote columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. According to The Guardian newspaper in Manchester, England, Sisco "abandoned any pretence of diplomacy [with Greece's military leaders,] and bluntly pointed out the strength of the Turkish military forces. Were Athens to deploy its troops, [Sisco] shouted, Washington would not move a muscle to help as the men faced inevitable disaster. There was no way his message could be misunderstood, and the [Greek] colonels gave way."

Between Knox graduation and Pearl Harbor, Sisco taught high school. He served in the U.S. Army from 1941-1945, then completed master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago. He joined the State Department in 1951, advancing to assistant secretary of state, first for international organization affairs, and later for Middle Eastern affairs. The Washington Post said his 1969 "policy paper on the Middle East became the basis for [President Richard Nixon's] Middle East policy." In the 1970s, as undersecretary of state, Sisco was a key player in Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" between the United States, Egypt, Israel, and the Soviet Union.

Sisco retired from the State Department in 1976, when he accepted the presidency of American University. From 1981 until his death in 2004, he operated his own international management consulting firm, Sisco Associates.

The envoy who came in from the old
Ismat Kittani was born into an impoverished village in Kurdish Iraq in 1929. His homeland in the Zagros Mountains is "one of the most forbidding terrains in the world," says Robert Seibert '63, Murphy Professor of Political Science, who met with Kittani several times during Kittani's visits to Knox. "It was so rugged that people had to walk or use horses. He told us that, growing up, he never saw a wheeled vehicle and didn't see an electric light until the age of 12."

Kittani came to Knox on the recommendation of his brother, who was studying at the University of California at Berkeley. "He took to Knox like a duck to water," says Seibert. "He learned and honed his leadership skills here."

"He was a nice guy, very industrious," recalls Harry Neumiller '51, professor emeritus of chemistry and Kittani's classmate. Seibert said that Kittani "took a lot of pride in the founding of the Honor System" in the fall of 1950. Six students had been suspended that spring for cheating -- "a perennial problem," editorialized The Knox Student -- and "responsibility [was] shunted back and forth between students and faculty." Kittani and Student Council President Glenn LeFevre '50 spearheaded the student initiative to create a student-governed Honor System. Announcing the Honor System in an open letter in The Knox Student, Kittani stated, "We are now under an Honor System; by 'we' I mean every Knox student. Violators will be tried by the students, not by the faculty and the administration." More than 50 years later, the Honor System remains an integral part of the Knox educational system.

Kittani majored in English and political science. Returning to Iraq in 1951, he briefly taught high school and the next year entered his country's foreign service corps. He was assigned to the Iraqi mission to the United Nations in 1957, and, in 1961, he became Iraq's envoy at the United Nations (U.N.) office in Geneva, where he would later make his permanent home. Kittani is credited with mediating the 1970 conflict that culminated in the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan. During the 1980s he served as an undersecretary in the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then as Iraq's ambassador at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Kittani was elected president of the 36th U.N. General Assembly in 1981. The New York Times wrote that his election "was a triumph of individual labor over long odds." Kittani's country had just invaded its neighbor, Iran, starting a war that would last for seven years.

Starting in 1989, Kittani worked exclusively for the U.N. until his death in 2001. As a Kurd -- a state-less minority ethnic group in Iraq -- who was never a member of any Iraqi inner circle and never returned there after retiring from Iraq's foreign service, he had nonetheless survived four dictatorial regimes, including 10 years under Saddam Hussein. "Kittani lived in perilous times," Seibert says. "There were certain levels of politics that he stayed away from. He kept his focus on external relations and avoided personal entrapments."

Every problem, an opportunity
For two men who received innumerable awards and honors, success was rare and fleeting. Most conflicts outlasted their mediations. "Failure" is one of the keywords used by the Lexis-Nexis reference service to categorize news stories about Kittani's U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia. And Sisco's tenure at American University "was not a particularly happy phase of his professional life," according to The Washington Post.

Both men received honorary degrees from Knox: Kittani in 1975, Sisco in 1970. Kittani gave the Commencement address in 1982 and spoke again at Knox in 1985 and 1990. Their visits came at the right time for Seibert and colleagues Roy Andersen, Timme Professor of Economics, and Jon Wagner, professor of anthropology, who were editing the early editions of their now-legendary text, Politics and Change in the Middle East. "We were able to get some time with both of them to talk about the Middle East," Seibert says. "We had substantive conversations with them. We learned details from them that weren't in the books."

Joseph Sisco and Ismat Kittani received high praise from those who knew them best. Sisco's death in November 2004 came just a month before he was to receive an award from the American Academy of Diplomacy. Henry Kissinger read the citation at the posthumous award ceremony, and he told the New York Times, "I loved Joe. He was the best type of Foreign Service officer and absolutely indispensable to me." At a memorial service for Kittani in 2001, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "Ismat served five Secretaries-General -- including me -- with dedication and commitment. He had the kind of optimism that made you feel that with every problem there really was an opportunity."