After attending Portland State University as an undergraduate during the 1960s, Joseph LeBaron joined the United States Air Force and was sent to Turkey. The cultural experiences he had there reawakened LeBaron’s early childhood interest in the Middle East. “It had the religious significance of the Middle East, Jerusalem, to the world history, which I learned about at church and through, eventually, Portland State,” LeBaron said. “It got me very interested.”
After attending Portland State University as an undergraduate during the 1960s, Joseph LeBaron joined the United States Air Force and was sent to Turkey. The cultural experiences he had there reawakened LeBaron’s early childhood interest in the Middle East.
“It had the religious significance of the Middle East, Jerusalem, to the world history, which I learned about at church and through, eventually, Portland State,” LeBaron said. “It got me very interested.”
Before his stint serving with the Air Force in Turkey, LeBaron pursued a degree in sociology and received a certificate in urban studies.
“It was way back in the ’60s and that seemed to be a great ’60s major,” LeBaron said.
LeBaron, who graduated from PSU in 1969, was sworn in as the United States ambassador to Qatar last Friday at the Simon Benson House.
The ambassador believes that Qatar, a small nation on the Persian Gulf extending from the east side of the Arabian Peninsula, does and will continue to play a very important role in the United States’ future.
“It’s significant in so many ways to us in the United States. It is a growing dynamic country in a strategic region. We have an important military relationship with Qatar. The country represents an important economic opportunity,” he said. “It has a regional-political approach that can help us in our own relationships in the Middle East.”
LeBaron is a primary connection between PSU and the Middle East and has become an influential link as U.S. ambassador to Qatar.
“He will be in regular contact with PSU alumni from Qatar who are in top positions in the government, including the Minister of Justice, the head of the post office and the manager of Qatar Petroleum,” Patricia Squire, assistant vice president of the Alumni Association said.
With one of the oldest Middle East Studies programs in the United States, started in 1959, PSU serves as an institutional bridge between campus and the cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East.
The Middle East Studies Center (MESC) at PSU is the only higher education institution in Oregon that offers a degree-based Middle East program. The MESC offers courses in Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian with many other disciplines.
In addition to LeBaron, PSU has produced a substantial amount of alumni that hold government positions in the Middle East and domestically.
“We now teach the four major languages of the Middle East. We’ve been expanding in the last 10 years or so with the addition of various faculty. We have a very vibrant, active outreach program,” John Damis, director of the MESC said.
After completing his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, LeBaron began his diplomatic career in 1980 when he joined the U.S. Foreign Services His first assignment to the Middle East was as vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar.
During the 1980s LeBaron’s assignments included being a political and economic commercial officer to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, staff assistant to the ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey and a political officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul.
LeBaron returned to Washington, D.C. in 1987 to become the Lebanon desk officer in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department.
“I was increasingly interested in the world beyond Oregon and beyond the West Coast. I didn’t take my first airplane ride until I was 19,” LeBaron said. “I got a late start to understanding the world. Once I began it became interestingly exciting.”
The last Washington assignment he served before becoming ambassador was as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His duties included oversight for issues of terrorism, the Near East, international economics and the bureau’s academic conferences.
“They have all been great in different ways. There is no favorite because I’ve enjoyed every one of them for different reasons,” LeBaron said.
LeBaron also studied at the American University of Beirut where he focused in Arabic and Middle Eastern Affairs. He was a doctoral research fellow at the University of Khartoum and is also an alumnus of MIT’s Seminar XXI on international relations.
More recently, from 2001-03 LeBaron was a part-time member of the graduate faculty of the Elliot School for International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
As a Portland State alumnus, LeBaron hopes to be a critical connection between PSU and the Middle East. “I certainly hope to become active in the PSU Alumni Association,” he said. “I look forward to finding ways to promote the connection between PSU and Portland and the state of Oregon to Qatar.”