Hal Saunders - Tribute to Democracy Giant

Hal Saunders died on March 6, after a struggle with cancer.

I first met Hal in 1989, when he asked me to participate in a third task force, on civil society, in the off-the-record, high-level Dartmouth Conference. Dartmouth was a dialogue between the Soviet Union and the United States which began in 1960. Again and again it brought leaders of the two countries back from the brink of disaster by creating a space where they could get a reality check. Hal once told me Dartmouth "was where the Soviets gave the speeches they had in their desks and believed in, but couldn't say in public."

For a decade Hal co-chaired a Task Force on Regional Conflicts, some of the time with Yevgeny Primakov, former head of the KGB and then Prime Minister of the Soviet Union. The task force addressed hot spots in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 1990 Hal went on staff of the Kettering Foundation, which sponsored the Dartmouth Conference, as director of the foundation's international programs. No one could possibly have been better.

He had a remarkable history. In 1961, Hal Saunders joined the staff of the National Security Council and served as Mideast expert for both the Johnson and Nixon administrations -- during the Six-Day War of June 1967, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy." In 1978, President Carter appointed him Assistant Secretary in the State Department for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. He helped set up the legendary Camp David meeting which brought Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, together with Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel and Jimmy Carter together for 12 days of secret talks. The Camp David talks laid the foundation for the historic Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

On November 4, 1979, in the early morning hours, he took a call from the American embassy in Iran and for two hours heard from frantic officials about the takeover of the embassy. For the next 444 days he worked to free the American hostages.

I worked with Hal as the Soviet Union underwent dramatic transformation. And I turned to him when we created the "Reinventing Citizenship" initiative with the Domestic Policy Council and Bill Galston, President Clinton's domestic policy advisor. Our aim was to develop strategies for overcoming the government-citizen gap. No one had more wisdom about how to get things accomplished in government bureaucracies. In 1994, at a Kettering international meeting in Puerto Rico, we discussed the effort and his own work.

Here is an excerpt from my travel log.

San Juan San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 31 10:06 am

Hal Saunders and I ate breakfast on the hotel terrace, surrounded by lush flowers, with the ocean sounding in the background. Small, graceful black birds lit all around us.

I gave an update on Reinventing Citizenship. Hal had many thoughts about how to connect key people in the foreign policy "democracy promotion" networks. Ramon Daubon, a terrific guy, once the Latin Ford Foundation director will be here. He now is at the Agency for International Development, trying to change US approaches to democracy aid in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Beyond foreign policy, Hal's counsel on our initiative was wise and to the point as always: keep it relatively loose and uninstitutionalized for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. Look for ways to create relationships and energy around the key concepts.

Hal's own work is fascinating. He has grants for the conflict resolution project Kettering has undertaken in Tajikistan, where civil war in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse has left a seventh of the population as refugees. Working with the Institute for Oriental Studies in Russia, they've been able to create a vibrant forum bringing together the warring parties in the country around the tasks of ending the war and resettlement; and also "constitution-building," understood as a political process not simply writing a constitution. Hal gives little "sermonettes" in the middle of meetings -- drawing undoubtedly on his mystique as someone who helped bring Sadat and Begin together in Camp David, and his other many achievements. One sermonette was on the need to see constitutional reform as connected to creating a political dynamic across different factions and ethnic rivalries.

I remarked, it must be an amazing and immense gratifying thing to see possibilities for settlement, ending of war, and society-building in a society that is so wracked with suffering and violence.

Hal said simply, "yes."

I last saw Hal and Carol, his wife, at a Kettering international gathering last July. He wasn't well. But he was, as always, passionately curious about democracy developments, including in South Africa - Hal had long worked with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa). Idasa, until its recent end, was one of the great democracy promoting organizations in the world. My wife, Marie Ström, directed their democracy education work for nearly twenty years, and I worked with it on many projects.

Hal combined calm, strategic, big picture thinking with a wonderfully generous, relational approach. He also had a passionate commitment to dialogue as a way to humanize and work through even the most intractable conflicts. This commitment came from his experiences.

Hal was a great theorist and practitioner of deliberation in our time. He created the Sustained Dialogue Institute which involves college students across America in working through conflicts.

I have tremendous admiration for Hal and his legacy, in the trenches of democracy across the world.