Small World: The new diplomacy

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I had lunch the other day with three friends — three older (if you can believe that) retirees from the Foreign Service. They had had long experience in Europe, Russia and the Middle East and I thought I might garner an insight of two between the anecdotes and off-repeated memories.

It was not to be. What they wanted to talk about was the present parlous state of the State Department and the Foreign Service — how an ambassador’s authority had withered under the better-funded pressures of other agencies with overseas ambitions, especially the military. That lament was mixed with the seemingly contradictory complaint that ambassadorships were being auctioned off by the White House to denizens of the upper one percent who made generous contributions to political campaign.

I was never one for bureaucratic battles nor am I enthralled by (other people’s) memories. I kept trying to introduce Ukraine or other current events into gaps in the talk. Failing to break in, I turned to undercutting: What did it matter whether the ambassador was a professional who had worked up from the bottom ranks or a plutocrat who made heaps of money on good bets in the stock market? Whatever their origins, no one paid much attention to what they thought or did, especially not the president who had appointed and then forgot them. If the president wanted to convey a message to a foreign government, no need for an ambassador to put on his pin stripes and draft a formal note. The president simply picked up the phone and talked to his counterpart.

The same was true of the State Department. How much of a policy function did it retain when the White House had staffed up its own foreign policy team? “Expertise on Iraq, Iran, Syria or Ukraine? Thanks for the offer, State, but we have our own guidelines. You guys do some think pieces if you have any good ideas. We’ll take care of the policy.”

The truth is that the overseas antagonist or friend is always secondary. The prime enemy or potential ally is to be found right here in Washington: Congress, the media and other potent interest groups. Thus, the WH has to fight two battles at once — abroad and at home. While the ex-social worker president who senses Americans want less conflict and involvement abroad, Obama must also deal with the local hawks, who have a taste — and sometimes a financial interest — in exhibiting muscle.

Examples abound. The United States has built a bridge to Iran and both sides are working hard on a deal that will permit nuclear power but preclude a nuclear weapon. At the same time, to keep the hawks from barking or ruining the deal, the administration feels it must act tough towards Tehran, tightening sanctions, rejecting ambassadors and other torments.

The same script in Syria: Obama draws red lines and issues warnings (cheers on Capitol Hill) then agrees to a deal brokered by Russia to remove poison gas from the Syrian arsenal. When cheers turn to boos, Obama sends a few weapons to the rebels. Everyone equally happy…or unhappy.

And in Ukraine, Obama, Biden and Kerry issue unpleasant threats to Moscow in an effort to please tough, nostalgic Cold Warriors. But the Secretary of State then excuses himself and signs an agreement with Moscow to cool things down.

Doing diplomacy on this sort of battlefield, a president naturally wants advisors around him who are skilled in dealing with other (rival) Americans. Never mind the secondary foreigners.

Along this ill charted, perhaps improvised way with ambushes around every bend, one hardly notices that our appointed ambassadors play no visible role. In the old days when men of real stature filled those posts, they would have been thinking, advising and leading. Their presence was real and would have been felt.

Having to share the glory with such appointees, the president’s poll ratings may have suffered in those days, but diplomacy would have worked and war been avoided. Imagine what might have been avoided if those old time men and women with deep knowledge of Iraq had been listened to by a president being pushed into war.

Enough. I begin to sound like those old-timers at lunch and their harkening for days of yore and glory.

Henry Precht is a summer Bridgtonian.

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