Jordan’s monarch had clashed with the U.S. diplomat over disagreements with Obama administration policies.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children., Ruby MellenRuby Mellen is a fellow at Foreign Policy with a background in TV, print, and digital journalism. Before coming to FP, she covered the 2016 election as a news associate at CNN in Washington, D.C., working on State of the Union with Jake Tapper. Prior to that, she was a politics fellow at the Huffington Post. She was born in New York and is a dual citizen of Belgium and the United States.
Soon after taking office, President Donald Trump pushed out the U.S. ambassador to Jordan after complaints from the country’s king, even though there was no evidence the diplomat had misrepresented Washington’s policies.
King Abdullah II had expressed similar gripes to the previous administration, but President Barack Obama and his deputies rebuffed requests for the ambassador’s removal, backing up Alice Wells, the career diplomat in the job, sources familiar with the events told Foreign Policy.
Several former and current diplomats told FP that the Jordanian king had a tense relationship with Wells, mainly because he strongly objected to the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Tehran. King Abdullah, like other leaders in the region, had deep misgivings about any diplomatic overtures that could strengthen the hand of Shiite-ruled Iran.
The king even sought to exclude the U.S. ambassador from some meetings with visiting U.S. generals, former officials said.
“The king has not liked Alice from the beginning,” one recently retired senior diplomat told FP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He tried to get Obama to fire her. He refused.”
A former senior U.S. official who worked on Middle East peace negotiations said the ambassador, who began her stint in Amman in July 2014, became the nearest and most visible target for the king’s broader dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s policies and its diplomatic gambit with Tehran.
“Some of his unhappiness with us became focused on her,” the official said.
Apart from the Iran deal, King Abdullah believed the United States could have done more to help rescue a Jordanian pilot who was shot down over Syria in December 2014 and later burned alive by Islamic State extremists, former officials said.
“I think there was a feeling, on his part, that the U.S. didn’t play the role it could have with search and rescue” for the pilot, the former senior official said.
“He didn’t feel we were providing what he thought we could be providing.”
The White House, State Department, and the Jordanian Embassy in Washington all declined to comment.
Former colleagues describe Wells as a talented diplomat. But they say her gender worked against her in a part of the world where political leaders are not accustomed to having women sit at the table.
Although the Western-educated king is considered more liberal on social issues compared with his counterparts in other Arab countries, he nevertheless seemed to chafe at having to deal with a female ambassador, as well as a female deputy at the embassy in Amman, former diplomats said.
The ambassador’s job in Amman is also complicated by significant U.S. military and intelligence missions there focused on the conflict in neighboring Syria. A large military presence can often reduce the influence of an ambassador in the host country.
Typically, career diplomats working as U.S. ambassadors serve three-year terms and shorter stints for war-torn countries such as Iraq that are deemed “hardship” posts. In this case, Wells was forced out several months before her three-year tenure was up, diplomatic and congressional sources said.
She was due to serve until June or July, but instead she departed in March.
Veteran diplomats said it is rare for a government, much less a head of state, to convey its displeasure about a particular U.S. ambassador to the White House. And it’s even rarer for an administration to push out an ambassador as the result of lobbying from a foreign government.
“It may not be unprecedented, but it’s very unusual,” said one recently retired U.S. ambassador, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Former and current foreign service officers said the episode raised questions about the Trump administration’s relationship and support for its diplomatic corps, especially amid criticism that the White House is sidelining diplomacy and hollowing out the State Department through a reorganization.
Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria and Algeria, said he was not familiar with the circumstances surrounding Wells’s tenure in Amman. But he said ambassadors have to steer a delicate balance between cultivating a rapport with a host government and accurately conveying the U.S. viewpoint. But ambassadors need to have the full weight of Washington behind them when they are relaying positions that are unpopular or unwelcome.
“Frankly, you need to have an ambassador that has good relations with the host government. That’s vital to do the job well,” said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “But it’s also important for the United States government to back up the envoy, assuming that envoy is delivering the messages appropriately.”
For a president who has sought to reject his predecessor’s policies at every opportunity, Trump likely had no qualms about agreeing to the Jordanian king’s request, said one former senior official, who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
“My guess is that it was a simple thing for Trump. The king asked and he can say yes. As far as he was concerned, this was Obama’s ambassador,” said the official. “He’s obviously shown no hesitancy in doing the opposite of whatever Obama did.”
A former senior official in the Obama administration said there was clearly tension between King Abdullah and the ambassador, but the White House never had any doubts about Wells’s performance or how she managed that relationship.
“She was always looked upon as an experienced diplomat who had deep experience in the region, who was faithfully committed to carrying out the policy of the United States,” the official told FP. “The ambassador was always looked upon with great respect, and I never heard any internal doubts about her whatsoever.”
During her 28 years as a foreign service officer, Wells has received numerous awards for her performance and served in assignments in Islamabad, New Delhi, Moscow, Riyadh, and Dushanbe. She also worked as an executive assistant to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and served in the Obama White House as a special assistant to the president for Russia and Central Asia.
At her farewell press conference in March before stepping down as ambassador, Wells said Jordan was a valued ally and stressed the unprecedented amount of U.S. economic and military aid provided to Amman during her time there. In 2016, Jordan received a record $1.6 billion in U.S. assistance.
Wells has since been named the acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, and as part of her new assignment, she is traveling this week to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A planned visit to Pakistan was postponed at Islamabad’s request, following Trump’s Aug. 21 speech in which he sharply criticized Pakistan’s role in the war in Afghanistan.
FP staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this article.
Photo credit: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images