Odd man out

Career diplomat John Brady Kiesling talks about his resignation over U.S. policy in Iraq, and a president "not intellectually equipped" to understand worldwide opposition to the war.

Published March 19, 2003 8:21PM (EST)

Don't count career U.S. diplomat John Brady Kiesling among those surprised by the administration's failure to rally support among its traditional allies for a war on Iraq. As political counselor assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, he found himself in charge of explaining U.S. talking points for the war. And late last month, frustrated by an inability to make sense of the administration's need to invade Iraq, Kiesling finally gave up and quit in protest.

"The talking points were pathetic," he says.

Now, after having served 20 years in embassies from Tel Aviv to Casablanca, Kiesling has become the first American diplomat to leave his job in opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq. In a blunt letter dated Feb. 27, Kiesling told Secretary of State Colin Powell, "The policies [diplomats] are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests."

Moreover, in the push toward war, "We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known," wrote Kiesling. "Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."

Two weeks after Kiesling's departure, John Brown, another career foreign service officer, followed his lead and submitted his resignation. They're the first public resignations since 1994, when five State Department officials quit their jobs, frustrated by the Clinton administration's inaction on the crisis in the Balkans.

At first, Kiesling's resignation received minor play from the Beltway press. The New York Times covered the story in 400 words, while the Washington Post gave it just 100 words. (The Post's ombudsman recently concluded that the decision was an oversight.) Time magazine ran a lengthy interview, but it was only printed in international editions.

But Kiesling's letter struck a chord on the Internet -- today, a Google.com search for it retrieves nearly 800 hits. And just last week on the Senate floor, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., mentioned Kiesling's "eloquent and heartfelt explanation" for resigning, and wondered how many other U.S. diplomats privately felt the same way.

In an interview with Salon, Kiesling explained in more detail the reason for his resignation, the reaction it received from his colleagues, and why the coming war will ultimately do America more harm than good. He describes President Bush as "not intellectually equipped" to understand the worldwide opposition to the war, and says he is now convinced that the White House never wanted inspections or diplomacy to work, but was determined to wage war no matter what the facts were on the ground.

And, in answer to Sen. Leahy's question about whether other diplomats feel the same as he, the former diplomat replies without hesitation: "Oh, yeah."

What has been the reaction to your letter?

It's interesting. First of all, thanks to the Internet, it spread much more widely, much more rapidly than I had any conception of. It sort of broke free of my traditional understanding of how newspaper and television determine public opinion. So I was pretty gratified by that.

But what I've discovered from the people who've searched me out is that there seems to be this incredible unhappiness in the traditional American internationalist foreign policy community that the president, just out of ignorance and ideology, is taking apart what these people had built through careers.

What exactly do you mean when you say "the traditional internationalist foreign policy community?" Would that be considered -- I hate to put simple tags on it -- to have a mainstream political bent? Would it be liberal?

They're mainstream foreign policy people, the ones who believe the United States is locked in a web of international interests and must protect those interests by a combination of unilateral force, but more importantly, by a set of institutions and relationships that we can control. There are very hard-nosed people in this community. But they were convinced that these institutions we set up served United States interests and their perspective has always been based on United States national interests.

What did you want to accomplish when you decided to resign?

I was completely appalled. I was in Athens, so perhaps I was getting a distorted view. But the International Herald Tribune, for example, is a pretty good reflection of the mainstream news coverage, and based on that, it was clear to me that the costs of war were not being entered into the equation for the American people. I just found it profoundly sickening. And when you combined that with the general discontent with the policies that are there for us to defend, my zest for doing my job was pretty much gone. So I hoped that by resigning I would help prompt a real debate.

Do you think you were able to do that?

In some ways, yes. After I resigned, it did seem that a number of columnists who had been sort of wishy-washy started asking more questions. I think I helped that. I'm not going to say I was crucial in it. But I think I helped some people who had a lot of doubts to get brave. The fact that they'd been sent this same resignation letter 15 times by e-mail from people whom they respected meant they were not alone.

So before you resigned you were working out of the embassy in Athens, and part of your job was to deal with Greek diplomats, explain the American position, and try to calm fears. What was your take on the talking points you were working with?

The talking points were pretty pathetic. They may work at home, but they do not work with an audience of sophisticated people who have some experience with the world, who are profoundly nervous about the Middle East and terrorism, and would like to see some signs of intelligent life in American foreign policy.

What sort of reaction were you getting from your counterparts in Athens?

Well, I was profoundly struck by the fact that some of my most long-term, reliable colleagues who never indulged in America-bashing, who really shared our values pretty closely, said, "Well, I supported you in the last Gulf War, I even supported you in Kosovo, which we hated, but there is just no logic here and I cannot support you."

And what was I supposed to tell them? "Well, you're quite wrong; our motives are good"? "We are determined to promote security and disarmament" and stuff like that? They didn't believe it. I couldn't find arguments that were convincing.

There was a tactical argument that I used quite a bit and it's a very powerful argument because it's true. And that argument was that the only way you can prevent war with Saddam is by convincing him we are ready to go to war. That's a valid argument, but it's only valid if there is a corollary, which is, if Saddam does comply we aren't going to war. But it became absolutely clear that the worst thing that could happen from our point of view would be if Saddam did comply and we didn't have to go to war.


Because that wasn't an option that was palatable to this administration.

Did you get the sense there were U.S. diplomats in other capitals who also found the talking points on the war to be pathetic?

Oh, yeah.

And is that such a unique experience for diplomats?

It comes and goes. And there are issues where talking points are excellent and praiseworthy. And there are times when the people writing them are sort of shrill and preachy. A foreign service officer takes the points he's given and figures out a way to put them in a cultural and historical perspective that people can accept better. That's a fairly delicate job because you cannot soft-pedal the job too much. But you also have to know that certain pious phrases that sound good in Washington cause [people] to go hysterical in other places.

For instance, the White House argument that al-Qaida was connected with Saddam seemed to work very well at home. But it didn't have much effect on Chile or Mexico or other members of the Security Council.

Well, the point was that countries were saying, give us any piece of evidence [to support that claim] and we'll back you.

Were you surprised that the U.S. and Britain essentially spent six months at the U.N. and could not convince more than two Security Council members, Spain and Bulgaria, to join their war effort?

Right, we only convinced those two and for reasons that had nothing to do with our arguments. Bulgaria felt it owed a profound debt to the United States.

What for?

Basically for Bulgaria's entry into NATO, the United States' strong support for Bulgaria's joining the European Union, and for our economic assistance. They were repaying a debt.

Spain had its own conviction that it was very dangerous for Europe and the United States to stray too far away, for that relationship to be too badly poisoned. And it's helped that [Spanish Prime Minister] José Maria Aznar's conservative views were not too far from President Bush's.

Wasn't the assumption all along that once the United States put its full weight, and its prestige and its resources, behind the second U.N. proposal, and war became truly imminent, that the other countries would certainly come along?

Well, that's what we thought. But what the administration did not understand was that everything the administration had done over the past two years had this effect of cutting loose the ordinary, customary bounds of loyalty and solidarity that the Europeans had felt.

Things like?

Like the Kyoto [global warming] treaty, the International Criminal Court, trade issues. And a really big irritant was the Middle East peace process, where we essentially stalled the Europeans, saying, "Oh yes, we're going to do something." And then we kept finding a reason to make them wait.

At a certain point they decided we were not being straight with them. So when it came down to it, there was such a reservoir of mistrust built up that when we [tried to] lead, they refused to follow. And this is a real change.

Why do you think Bush is pursuing this war?

I'm frankly at a loss. I think he feels an incredible moral responsibility not to have another 9/11 happen again. Since he is not intellectually equipped to understand why such a huge part of the world could have these negative feelings about us, he's looking for a simple answer; and I think he's been manipulated by his Cabinet.

Why do you think Secretary of State Colin Powell has signed off on this war?

Powell has been fighting rear-guard action [against hawks inside the administration] all along. Partly he's dealing with a president who apparently tunes people out if they disagree beyond a certain point. And also I think his instinct is to be a loyal soldier. And that's one of the key issues here. So much of the debate in the United States is not a debate over interests, but a debate over loyalty; are you loyal to the president or not? And put in those terms, the sort of pack mentality does prevail. I guess you could argue that the good of the group requires solidarity in the group, even though that solidarity leads the group to do something insanely stupid.

Do you think Powell should have resigned?

I've said until now, and I guess I still believe, since we're going to war anyway, that the next real issue is to minimize the damage, to rebuild the damaged relationships. And for that you need somebody the Europeans like and respect. While profoundly disappointed in him, the Europeans' respect for [Powell] has not totally disappeared. They hope that out of this fiasco, Powell will emerge with some ability to rebuild.

I saw that in 1994 you won the American Foreign Service Association award for "constructive dissent"?


Why didn't you feel you could stay within the system this time and make your dissent known? Why did you feel you had to resign?

For a long time, I was going to dissent within the system. I spent a long time drafting a dissent channel cable, which is a special channel we have.

Can you explain what that is?

There's an institution called the dissent channel which was set up by the State Department after Vietnam, I think. Essentially you send in a telegram and it cannot be blocked by anyone in the State Department. It must go up to the seventh floor and be read at least by an undersecretary, and generally by the secretary himself. It's a very good mechanism for getting dissenting views known.

I started to do one of those, but at a certain stage I simply realized Secretary Powell was not the problem. The problem was an administration that had already made up its mind. So the only weapon I had was to go public -- that was the only way to put the issue into the public debate.

In your resignation letter, you said that "the administration has chosen to make terrorism a domestic political tool." What did you mean by that?

Terrorism is always out there. You can try to address the root causes and improve law enforcement. We cannot totally protect American people from terrorism except by a level of repression that Americans would not accept. The answer to terrorism is mostly good policing, law enforcement and intelligence cooperation between us and, ideally, relatively strong and organized Middle Eastern states.

We cannot go around and monitor the phone calls of everyone in the Arab world, or go arrest people in Saudi Arabia. We need Saudis and other countries for that. We've been doing pretty well since Sept. 11. Now we risk seriously damaging that, not because Saudi Arabia or anybody will want to punish us for invading Iraq, but because the domestic political consent for that cooperation is about to evaporate.

When you turn on CNN today, what's your reaction to unfolding events?

I'm very depressed. I just feel we're entering a new sort of ugly phase where America attempts to be a unilateral power. But we do not realize that the United States was the chief beneficiary of an international system that found alternatives to violence -- the idea that the United Nations provided hope for peaceful resolution. We have just told [the world] that that's not longer operative, and that violence is the last, best resort. And I'm afraid we'll be victims of that violence far more than we are the beneficiaries of that violence.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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