Three BYU graduates currently serve as United States ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries, braving the political turmoil of the region to represent their country.
Matthew Tueller was nominated last month as ambassador to Yemen after serving as ambassador to Kuwait since 2011. Robert Beecroft is now the ambassador to Iraq after serving in Jordan for four years. Deborah Jones serves as ambassador to Libya, following a long career of positions throughout the Middle East.
American ambassadors accept a certain level of danger when they agree to represent the United States in an unstable country.
“There are some extremist elements in the Islamic world who believe that the answer is always to be engaged in a violent struggle,” said James Toronto, BYU professor of Arabic and Islamic studies. “Ambassadors around the world have always had targets on their backs, and we are worried for them.”
For Ambassador Jones, recent tragedy is a testament to the hazard she faces each day on the job. Jones, who graduated from BYU in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in history, is the official replacement of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
Ambassador Tueller’s recent appointment to Yemen comes after a three-year stint in Kuwait, which was preceded by a variety of Foreign Service roles within the Middle East. While Tueller serves abroad, his wife and five children remain safe at home in Provo.
Ambassador Tueller, who graduated from BYU in 1981 with a degree in political science, credits his time at the university for teaching him to challenge and push himself to meet high performance standards, which has carried over into his career.
“I learned at BYU that to get the best possible education I had to set goals and take responsibility for achieving those goals semester after semester,” he said. “It turns out that was good preparation for my career in the Foreign Service.”
Ambassador Jones said she enjoyed her time at BYU, which provided her a “good education in a very protected environment,” that would benefit her throughout her career in the foreign service.
Ambassador Jones credits her religious upbringing in the LDS Church for preparing her to respect and understand Islamic societies. A sacral society with dietary laws and fasting practices is not particularly foreign to her.
“It’s all very natural and normal for me,” she said.
While at BYU, Ambassador Jones participated in a study abroad program to Spain, where she was first exposed to Muslim culture. She was intrigued by what she saw in Spain and returned as a graduate study abroad instructor before ultimately entering the Foreign Service arena.
Ambassador Tueller’s foreign service career was also inspired by exposure to Spain. Ambassador Tueller, who served his mission in Barcelona, cited his experience as a crucial learning opportunity that brought him a sense of purpose in life that would remain with him as he traveled the world for the government.
“I returned from that two-year experience with a strong sense of what comprises a happy, balanced life,” Ambassador Tueller said. “During my remaining time at BYU, through my graduate studies and then over the subsequent 30 years of my government career, I have tried to stay motivated by that sense of purpose and to be guided by it in every aspect of my life.”
Ambassador Beecroft, who graduated from BYU in 1982 with a double major in English and Spanish, served a full-time mission for the Church in Venezuela years before serving as ambassador to Jordan and then Iraq.
“A mission shows an employer they can adjust, get along, thrive and get outside of their comfort zone,” Toronto said.
Being nominated as a U.S. ambassador to a foreign country is a rare occurrence in the life of a diplomat, according to Dilworth Parkinson, a professor of Arabic in the department of Asian and Eastern languages at BYU. These BYU alumni are among the best and brightest to make it to where they are today.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, general authorities asked BYU to develop and strengthen its Middle East Studies program to help output capable candidates for foreign service with a great understanding of the region. The endeavor has since flourished into a well-respected and thriving program with the potential to continue to produce outstanding U.S. ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries.
Years after graduating from BYU, ambassadors continue to learn every day on the job as they attempt to understand the complex environment of their Middle Eastern host countries.
“The day I feel I have nothing left to learn and that nothing in my job performance can be improved is probably the day I should conclude that I am no longer fit to fill my current position,” Ambassador Tueller said.
Ambassador Jones quoted a British governor of Jerusalem, who said, “The Middle East is a university from which the scholar never takes his degree.”