National emergency

A spokesman for a new bipartisan group of retired diplomats and military officers says Bush must be removed for the good of the country.

Eric Boehlert
June 17, 2004 12:43AM (UTC)

Angered by what they see as President Bush's dangerous and radical foreign policy initiatives, a unique bipartisan group of nearly two dozen former senior U.S. government officials -- drawn heavily from the Washington establishment -- has founded a new activist organization that calls for Bush's defeat in November. Calling itself Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change, the group is scheduled to release a statement at a Wednesday morning press conference, arguing that Bush's foreign policy has damaged both the United States' national security and its standing around the world.

Traditionally, diplomats and members of the military, each of whom must work seamlessly with administrations from both parties, studiously shun election-year politics. And avoiding the political spotlight usually extends to those who have retired from the Pentagon and the State Department as well. The Bush administration, however, has sparked more diplomatic outcries than most. Last year, on the eve of the war with Iraq, John Brady Kiesling resigned from the State Department in protest, as did a handful of others. Earlier this year, some 50 retired U.S. diplomats urged Bush to reverse his Middle East policy, insisting he had "placed U.S. diplomats, civilians and military doing their jobs overseas in an untenable and even dangerous position."


And while the new group insists it is not partisan in the sense that it's working with the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, its members say the surest way to right today's foreign policy wrongs is to defeat Bush in November. "We think the only way to reverse the situation is to elect a different team," says William Harrop, one of the group's primary organizers, who spoke with Salon. A 39-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Harrop served under Presidents Carter and Reagan as ambassador to Guinea, Kenya, Seychelles, Zaire and Israel. Along with Harrop, the list of signatories to the group's statement includes a number of senior officials who served under Republican presidents. Among them are Arthur A. Hartman, Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1981 through 1987; Jack Matlock Jr., appointed by Reagan as ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1987; Allen Holmes, an assistant secretary of state under Reagan; Charles Freeman, ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the elder Bush; and retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East under the elder Bush.

Tell me how this group came together and why you're doing this now.

It came together in late March and early April of this year. There were two things that happened. First, many of us, who have worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations, had talked to each other, and we could see there was a real discontent with the direction our country was going. Second, the thing that really kind of tipped it for me was that Pew global attitudes poll that showed the extraordinary drop in international support for the United States -- and how we're more feared and less respected than at any point in our history. That was kind of a cold shower.

Were there any reservations about going public?

As public servants you don't normally get involved in politics, and it wasn't easy for a lot of people to do it. But we decided we had to speak out and found that many people wanted to join in. In fact, after the Los Angeles Times wrote about our group, we got calls from people saying, "Hey, why did you leave me out?" So we're going to have a Web site, which will go up tonight [at], and with the Web site people will be able to get more involved.

You mentioned the Pew poll. It's interesting in that most Americans traditionally pay very little attention to foreign affairs; probably even fewer pay attention to how America is perceived internationally. But as a former diplomat, I assume that's your life's work?


Some of us feel that we've spent 20, 30, 40 years working to create a circumstance in which the United Sates could exert influence and could see its policies carried out because we were respected, because we had alliances and people were accustomed to working with us through the United Nations and bilaterally in other ways. We feel that a lot of this has been undermined by the philosophy and style and policies implemented by this administration.

And the centerpiece of that is the war in Iraq?


The war in Iraq is very important. There really was a disingenuousness in the way the war was presented. Most of my colleagues probably did believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the intelligence that was available was shaped and distorted, and [there was] downright dissembling regarding whether Iraq was involved with al-Qaida and 9/11 -- there just wasn't evidence of that.

But it's not just Iraq by any means. And it's not just about Israel and Palestine. If you look at the list of people who have signed the statement, they've [primarily] worked in Latin America, Europe and Africa. It's more a feeling that the approach toward the world of the United States, now that we are the only dominant world power, is that we can get our way by muscle and not by leadership.

In the Los Angeles Times piece, a Republican strategist close to the White House suggested Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change doesn't understand that 9/11 changed everything.


Well, in my opinion, things have not changed that much since 9/11. Most of us involved in this group have dealt with terrorism. This is not new -- 9/11 is the first time [terrorism] has happened on U.S. soil, but 9/11 does not really change the nature of the world or the importance of developing allies or a coalition of governments to collaborate in trying to reach common goals. It doesn't change that. I think there's been an attempt under President Bush to give the impression that he alone decides foreign policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks because the whole world has changed.

Another comment in the L.A. Times piece, by a White House ally, suggested that your group is made up of former State Department Arabists, whose diplomatic approach, perhaps more evenhanded than the Bush administration's, never succeeded in the Middle East, and now that the White House has staked out a different course people are offended by that.

Some of us got together to talk about our press conference on Wednesday, and we had all read the story. And one fellow said, "It just occurred to me I'm the only Arabist in this crowd." That was Michael Sterner, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. I just don't think there's anything to that accusation -- it's a desperate retort on [the White House's] part.


Another point made by the White House is about the timing, that forming the group doesn't make sense now because we just saw President Bush go to the U.N. and do what critics said he hadn't done, which was to mend fences and try to come up with a consensus approach to Iraq. What do you say to that?

I welcome those developments at the U.N. and think they're very good things. But I think [they occurred] because the administration came to the realization that its approach in Iraq was simply untenable, that they couldn't be going it alone and that they had to go back to the U.N. They made some important concessions and got a resolution passed in the Security Council, but it's awfully late in the day. We've already spent a great deal of money and lost a great many American lives. Nobody has offered more troops, which is what the United States needs in Iraq. I welcome the developments, but I do not believe they represent a policy sea change in the administration.

There was a lot of talk last week about Ronald Reagan's legacy and within that discussion was a small one about whether Reagan would have supported the war on Iraq and the neoconservative approach to foreign policy this administration has taken. As someone who worked for his administration, do you have any thoughts on that?

All you can do is speculate, but I don't really think that he would support this approach. I think [Reagan's and Bush's approaches] were quite different. There were certain hints in Reagan's righteousness about good vs. bad. But it hadn't developed toward anything like the circumstances we're seeing now.


You mentioned that Foreign Service officers usually don't get involved in politics and that forming this group was a difficult decision. At what point do you think such people should get involved -- and what precedent does that set?

I don't think people "in harness," so to speak, should. If you feel that strongly you should resign. You can't really take part in partisan politics [as a diplomat] when you've sworn an allegiance to the Constitution and to serve the administration. I think when [diplomats] retire there might be a little more involvement. I think people have a lifetime habit of not getting involved and have a hard time breaking it.

Would there be any downside if more former diplomats and military commanders were routinely involved in partisan politics?

I don't think so. Your loyalty is to your country, and as a citizen you have every right, even responsibility, to become involved. And I'll tell you that hardly anyone we spoke with didn't share our views. But there were a couple who said they just didn't think [going public] was right.


In March 2003, I interviewed John Brady Kiesling, a career U.S. diplomat who was serving in Athens and who resigned on the eve of the Iraq war, fed up with the rationale for the war he was forced to spin to his diplomatic counterparts in Greece. You mentioned that if you get to that point during service, then your only option is to resign. Looking back at your time served, at what point might you have thought of resigning, and if you were an ambassador today, do you think you would have come to the same conclusion?

I don't know. There are so many personal considerations. You've got to educate your children, and it's not easy to do that when you resign. But at some point you might have to. Quite a few members of the Foreign Service resigned, probably 30, over the incursion into Cambodia [in 1970]. But there has not been a long tradition of resignations in the Foreign Service, and there probably should be more than there have been. I've always admired the British system, where it's not all that uncommon.

Do you think those who signed the group's statement represent the traditional, internationalist foreign policy community in Washington, those who believe in the interlocking relationships the United States relies upon around the world?

I think the key people involved in this have learned from their decades of experience in the business that alliances and improved relationships are a necessity to solving problems, and that the approach we're seeing now by the United States is probably not going to prove very durable.


For people who don't do this for a living and who pay attention to foreign policy only when it's in the news, it's probably hard to comprehend how radical the current administration's foreign policy approach is, as well as how dramatic the effects have been internationally in terms of America's plummeted standing around the world.

None of us would argue against the right of the United States -- if its national security were in danger -- to take whatever action is required. We just think military action should not be a first resort; it should be a last resort, and it should be done in a political context that you prepare to make sure you obtain the results you want. In contrast, this war appears to have been an ideological war. People had been thinking about taking out Saddam Hussein for many, many years, then moved to take that action and had to overcome a lot of objections. I think that was radical.

And what about the dramatic effects on the world's perception of the United States?

We've been in existence for two and a quarter centuries, and I don't think we've ever experienced this degree of hatred and fear. One of the most disturbing things [I heard], and I can't remember which nationalistic member of the administration it was who said it, was the answer to a concern expressed that the United States was feared: "Well, if you're feared you get your way, don't you?"


And what is the problem with that, because it sounds very appealing?

The problem with that is that you get your way for the moment, on whatever the immediate issue is. But you're not able to persuade people to listen to you and go along with your general conceptual view.

In our statement, we list a number issues that are going to be very difficult for the United States to deal with in coming years. There are lots of things you could solve because people agree with you. The tougher issues require leadership to get other countries to work together and to get people looking in the same direction and feeling your same urgency. Over the long haul, we don't think leading through fear will work.

The group's statement clearly calls for working toward the defeat of Bush in November. Is that because you think we're past the point of his being able to correct the errors of his ways?

Some people have said that if the neocons who strongly backed the war were replaced, then the situation could be changed in the administration. Most of us don't really believe that's possible. We believe Bush is a strong president. We don't think he's a puppet of any particular group. And we think it would be very hard to get him to change direction. He has a strong personality and character and is strong-willed; he knows what he wants. So we think the only way to reverse the situation is to elect a different team.

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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Iraq War Terrorism United Nations

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