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Photo: James Rajotte

Our Man in Madrid

Alan Solomont relishes his job as the “face of the United States”

Sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid in late May, some fifteen Spanish journalists watched President Obama’s speech about U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Their host, wearing a dark blue suit and crisp white shirt, took occasional notes before assuming the role of seminar leader after the live feed from the State Department ended. “Any reactions?” asked Alan Solomont, A70, U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra. Solomont, who has immersed himself in Spain’s history, politics, and culture, was no doubt interested in feedback from these journalists, whose polite, classroom-like demeanor seemed, well, un-American to a journalist visiting from Boston. But as a representative of U.S. foreign policy, Solomont was also gently prodding news coverage. “I was impressed with the president’s courage to put on the table what he thinks are the elements for agreement” on Middle East peace, he said. The speech, he added, “will not be without political reverberations in the United States.”

Solomont, a longtime Democratic Party activist and fundraiser in Massachusetts and nationally, certainly knows politics. He was named to his Madrid post in 2009 by President Obama, for whom Solomont was a crucial supporter. Obama had already appointed him to chair the board of directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, to which Solomont (who, like Obama, was once a community organizer) was first appointed by President Clinton, for whom he also worked and spent hard, in 2000. In that sense, Solomont, whose deep pockets for political, charitable, and other causes (including Tufts) come from success as a health-care entrepreneur and investor, was a traditional appointee: major contributor and supporter lands plum embassy post. But in other ways, the appointment was nontraditional, both for Spain and for its new ambassador.

Solomont had little foreign policy experience. When his name first emerged, the Spanish press noted mainly his political and financial support of Democrats and Obama. Spain’s second-largest newspaper, El Mundo, referred to him in August 2009 as a philanthropist and “millionaire businessman” or, a few days later, as a “Jewish businessman.” Though some of his predecessors also weren’t career diplomats, Solomont knew he needed to prove himself not only to a new audience in Spain, but to career Foreign Service officers in his own embassy. “The U.S. ambassador occupies a special place, so there was a fair amount of buzz in the Spanish media before my arrival,” he said over coffee in the ambassador’s residence, which is decorated in part from his personal collection of art by Lichtenstein, Hopper, Avedon, and others. “My background was a bit of a curiosity.” And Solomont had usually been more of a behind-the-scenes guy. “I’ve always been supporting other people. Now I’m in more of a principal role.”

Solomont did not begin his formal duties until about five months after his nomination. Part of the delay was due to clearances and other checks (“There is no medical procedure that I would not prefer to the vetting process,” he said), but some of it was due to political “holds” on his nomination placed by senators upset by issues only indirectly linked to him. Though frustrating, the delay “was probably a blessing,” Solomont said. “It gave me time to learn about and really closely follow the issues we’d be dealing with.” He spent the time meeting with top embassy staff, other ambassadors, and experts on Spain, international commerce, and other topics. “I did not know as much about sovereign debt as I do now,” he said. “In retrospect, I felt better prepared than I might have been. But I was still not prepared for how much I would love this work. You’re exposed to an enormous range of issues. You are the face of the United States in this country.”

With extensive travel and other outreach through Spain—Solomont has the politician’s knack for working a room—he and Spain became more comfortable with each other. “I’m not shy about the fact that I’m deeply involved in the Jewish community and Jewish issues, just as I’ve been deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. But I am here to represent the United States, not the Democratic Party or Jewish interests.” That means, for example, celebrating both Passover and Ramadan at the embassy. “I made the same remarks to both groups” of guests, he said. “One of our jobs is to talk about the struggles we as a nation have had with tolerance. That’s something Spain is newer to over the last ten or fifteen years, though it’s doing an impressive job” in handling ethnic and immigrant pressures that have triggered social challenges and political extremism elsewhere in Europe.

Even as Solomont spoke, thousands of demonstrators were occupying one of Madrid’s main squares, Puerta del Sol, to protest economic conditions and political paralysis in dealing with them. “These are tough times for Spain,” Solomont said. “But though we don’t see eye to eye on everything, relations between the U.S. and Spain have never been better. We cannot solve any of the major global issues—global warming, international crime, the economic crisis—alone. We need to partner with countries like Spain with which we share a common outlook and values.” And business ties. Solomont said he is spending much more time than he expected on the commercial side of diplomacy. “I sometimes think I’m America’s salesman in chief.”

Late for his next event—a reception for the U.S. Navy League and guests from the Spanish military—Solomont left his spacious residence and headed upstairs to his office in the main part of the embassy. “We live under the store,” he drily noted. Solomont said he hasn’t really thought too much about his next act. “I’ve not been unambitious, but I can’t imagine any other job where I’ll have an opportunity to make a bigger impact. The changes the president is making in U.S. foreign policy are changing the face of America across the world. It’s incredibly exhilarating to be a part of that.”

Phil Primack, A70, is a freelance editor and writer in Medford, Massachusetts, whose articles appear regularly in the Boston Globe, this magazine (he penned the Summer 2011 cover story on the U.S. Foreign Service), and elsewhere. He has also been a policy analyst for elected officials and currently teaches media law and ethics at Tufts. Not coincidentally, he was a classmate of Ambassador Alan Solomont.

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