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Author: Melissa Steineger; Photo by Kelly James
Posted: February 1, 2010

IF YOU'RE GOING TO make a difference in world diplomacy, it helps if a four-star general is your biggest fan.

Diplomats, support personnel, and military officers attend the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute to study culture, customs, religion, politics, and other issues before being dispatched abroad. For almost 30 years, Peter Bechtold '61 taught at the Washington, D.C., institute. In November he returned to Portland State as director of the Middle East Studies Center. It is a unique homecoming—Bechtold earned the center's first certificate in 1961.

Peter Bechtold at Marrakesh Moroccan Restaurant in Northwest PortlandThe four-star general—Norman Schwarzkopf—took Bechtold's class on the Near East at the Foreign Service Institute just before taking the reins of the U.S. Central Command in late 1988, a position he held through the Gulf War.

"The Foreign Service Institute program was taught by Peter Bechtold, a German-born expert on the Sudan," Schwarzkopf recounts in his autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero. During the intensive 72-hour, two-week course, Schwarzkopf sat in the front row taking copious notes and "came home to Fort Myer every night exhilarated," he wrote in his book.

Schwarzkopf became such a fan of Bechtold's course that he "suggested" to others under his command that they would benefit, too.

When a four-star general says, 'You know I really think you should go,' that's an order," says Bechtold, a genial raconteur who ends many of his stories with a bit of humor.

WHILE SCHWARZKOPF was perhaps the most recognizable name among his former students, Bechtold also is proud to claim 36 other generals and admirals and 28 students who went on to become U.S. ambassadors, including Joseph LeBaron '69, ambassador to Qatar, and Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq and four other countries.

Bechtold estimates that he has taught interdisciplinary courses and seminars to more than 11,500 men and women from the government's Defense Department, Foreign Service, and executive branch. These professionals attended a minimum of 70 hours. In addition, he has conducted field research in 25 Middle East countries (see map image below) and is fluent in four Arabic dialects, classical Arabic, German, and French. He has appeared as a Middle East expert on PBS, CNN, NPR and overseas radio.

And yet, it all began not with a great love of the Middle East, but with what Bechtold calls a coincidence.

A native of Heidelberg, Germany, Bechtold came to Oregon as a teenager to visit two uncles. He liked the area, so when fall 1956 rolled around, he entered Portland State College.

Middle East mapIt was good timing. Three years later, Frederick J. Cox, professor of history, helped open Portland State's Middle East Studies Center. Cox, a former naval intelligence officer, recognized the value of understanding other cultures around the world.

Ivy League schools like Princeton and Harvard had graduate programs in Middle East studies, but PSU's was one of the nation's first undergraduate programs to receive federal funding. In the first year of operations, the center offered anthropology, geography, economics, history, and Arabic language. Some 52 students took classes, including Bechtold.

"One of my professors said to me, "You're interested in international stuff, aren't you?" recalls Bechtold. He signed up, but admits, "since it was the Middle East Studies Center, I took Arabic and French. If it had been Brazil and Portuguese, I would have studied those."

Many of the center's graduates have gone on to careers in government, academia, and business.

Bechtold earned a bachelor's in math and a minor in Middle East studies, before going to Princeton on a full fellowship. There he received two Ph.D.s, one in Near East studies and one in political science.

"All the trouble we're in—including Iraq and Afghanistan—is a result of that as a nation we're not sufficiently informed about what's going on in the rest of the world," says Bechtold. "You have to understand history, culture, society, politics, religion, economics—that's what I try to teach."

One classic example he cites involves the simple activity of counting on your fingers. To signify the number one, Americans use the index finger, says Bechtold, Europeans use the thumb, and people from the Middle East begin counting on their little finger.

"Context matters," says Bechtold. A "given" to one group of people may not be to another. "If you understand that, you're half the way there."

THROUGHOUT his career, Bechtold has retained a soft spot for Portland State. For the last 10 years, he's followed PSU athletic teams via the Internet. And he says that every year as he sweated through an East Coast summer he wondered "Why am I not in Portland?"

In summer 2009, his chance came. The Middle East Studies Center hosted a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary. There was a lot to celebrate. More than 21,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students have taken courses through the center and hundreds have earned degrees with a Middle East concentration.

As the center's first certificate recipient, Bechtold was invited to speak at the celebratory banquet.

From that reconnection, Bechtold was offered the directorship of the center. He quickly said yes. "I love Portland State, and I love Portland. I want to contribute."

He had just one fear.

Bechtold had taught undergraduates early in his career—including a year spent at University of Oregon, where he filled in for a professor on leave—and been a guest lecturer at more than 40 universities. But at the Foreign Service Institute, his classes were graduate level and his students were older professionals taking courses as a work requirement.

"You don't have to persuade them, they're motivated," says Bechtold. "After 30 years of talking to people who were 30 to 60, could I still talk to 20-year-olds?"

Fortunately, he had some recent experience with younger students. Shortly after retiring from the Foreign Service Institute in 2005 he had filled in at the College of William and Mary for a year. That experience gave him the confidence that he could make the needed connection. "The students were motivated," says Bechtold. "It was fun."

As the center looks to the next 50 years, Bechtold hopes to infuse some of his experiences into its programs. One approach might be to initiate a seminar similar to one offered at Princeton that introduces students to each of the Middle East studies specialties by having a different professor speak each week about the topics he or she covers.

Another idea he's considering is to bring luminaries from his East Coast Rolodex to PSU to speak. And he hopes to create more connections between current students and Middle East-born students and local Middle East communities.

"I want to build bridges with students of the Middle East, the academic world, and government," says Bechtold. "I try to help them understand a different culture and its history, society, and politics. That's what I've been doing."

Melissa Steineger, a Portland freelance writer, wrote the article "Hard Times in Sharp Focus" in the fall 2009 Portland State Magazine.