Small World: Putting yourself on the line


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

A fading head cold, a persistent chest cold (or worse) and no doctors available for consultation over the long Thanksgiving weekend; an article for The Bridgton News to be written with no subject yet taken hold in an otherwise preoccupied mind. “Don’t write about Trump,” instructs my wife.

That leaves a rumination on autumn leaves or the spirit of Thanksgiving or some such seasonal screed in warm and generous tones. That does not suit my present mood and inclination. I am more attuned to warnings of dangers ahead and dilemmas both political and moral. Back, inevitably, if tangentially, to Mr. Trump.

I feel for the federal civil service on which our government heavily depends. If they fit into the national voting pattern, many of them — at least half — and more in the senior ranks, were rendered unhappy by the outcome of the presidential poll. At this stage, they are probably, like the rest of us, trying to figure out the new departures or old reversions we can expect in the weeks and months ahead.

Let’s start with those 50 national security experts who promised they would resign (if still employed in government) if Trump prevailed — Republicans to a man and woman. Or the 75 senior Foreign Service officers who made the same threat. As I say, it’s early days yet; let’s not be impatient. These are people who have honed their diplomatic skills and dutifully built up their fund of exotic knowledge of foreign parts. Unhappily for them as free agents, there is only so much space in their trade journals for [yet more] articles of dissent and complaint. How to regain influence?

My hunch is there won’t be a tsunami of officers leaving through the State Department’s beflagged entrance way. The U.S. engaged in wrong-headed and destructive (for us as well as the region) conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only a handful (with fingers to spare) of officers resigned in protest. If you’re a senior officer, you’re comfortable with various perks and disinclined by biology to take risks. If you’re younger, you’re probably up for risks but weighed down by mortgage payments and college bills.

Besides, the creed of loyally serving every administration of whatever coloration is pretty controlling. You don’t break with a system just because you disapprove of its policies today. Tomorrow may bring new policies; you may help advance them with your efforts at the margin. Without realizing it, new recruits are sucked into the system; old masters have grown comfortable there. Still, even within the system you’re not supposed to stop thinking about what is good and bad for the country.

Enough abstraction. Let’s move to a case I know something about: Iran. When I worked at our embassy in Tehran my job was to help sell arms to the Shah — for which he had an insatiable appetite. Our line then, in response to liberal criticism, was that Iran was an important country: moderate and cooperative in its relations with us. It was a rare friend of Israel in the region; useful in helping contain the USSR; and a reliable source of oil. Then came the revolution and our elaborate and valuable relationship came crashing down with the hostage crisis. That was 36 years ago, longer than our split with China after World War II. Unremitting, often unprovoked hostility has since guided policy on both sides.

Obama and Kerry led the American effort to begin to clear that poisonous atmosphere. They negotiated an international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for a decade or more while allowing it, under close supervision, to continue to pursue nuclear power. Israel and Saudi Arabia opposed but no other significant state did so (some in Israel’s security establishment support the accord as contributing to the nation’s safety).

To nullify the agreement, as Mr. Trump and members in Congress threaten, would be a disaster for the U.S. Most importantly, it would set back efforts to reconnect with Iran — still an important nation after 36 years, maybe even more so. Certainly, if relations developed, Iran could play an important role in winding down the conflict with Syria and making life easier for us with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to unilaterally tear up or alter the nuclear agreement was clearly uninformed rhetoric designed to win votes. It will cost the U.S. heavily if carried through — a valid reason for widespread resignations in protest.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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