Friday, May 11, 2007

Tenet's Forgettable Twin: one who resigned...

I'm grateful to Arianna Huffington's excellent memory. On April 29, 2007 she argued that CIA Director George Tenet should have resigned to protest the way his agency was being misused in the run-up to the Iraq War. She came up with my name as a reminder that foreign policy professionals occasionally do the honorable thing and resign when the alternative is to carry out a disastrous policy.

Disastrous for whom? After 2001, budget discipline evaporated, vivid photo ops multiplied, and American citizens checked their constitutional freedoms at the door. Apart from a few awkward moments at Presidential press conferences, everyone in Washington is thriving in the mess Tenet facilitated.

There was thus no reason to make Tenet suffer. He accepted his Medal of Freedom, signed his book deal, and was wafted into Georgetown University to teach a new generation of College Republicans to feed at the public trough. Should they recoil at his public criticism of Vice President Cheney, Tenet can fall back on the applause of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. Few Greek-Americans care to write off one of their own as a failure.

Intellectually, my decision to resign from the U.S. Foreign Service in February 2003 was a fine one. The American people are less secure because of President Bush's policies, and soon they will be less prosperous. But the brain circuitry that rewards humans for good decisions is the same circuitry our chimpanzee cousins use. Happiness in social animals does not derive from being right. It comes from the social reinforcement we get from our troop.

The U.S. government offers heroin-like rewards to those who play by its rules. I did not have Tenet's bedside secure telephone or morning meetings with the President. Still, as head of the Political Section of U.S. Embassy Athens I basked in the glory of a superpower. I chaired meetings of my acolytes, lectured journalists, chatted with cabinet ministers, rode in motorcades with flying flags. Withdrawal meant long, gray days and restless nights.

It would be silly to envy the painlessness of Tenet's transition. The applause I got from the "reality-based community" was as warm and respectful as I could have hoped. My letter of resignation to Secretary of State Powell, which I cc'd to the New York Times, still gets quoted by scholars and bloggers. It was, the writer Michel Faber said, "a masterpiece of dignity, eloquent reasoning, acute analysis and, most of all, humanity." And with such psychic support I had better be content.

Diplomacy is one of the rare professions open to a mild-mannered person with a BA in ancient Greek and MA in ancient history. I resigned with just under twenty years in the U.S. Foreign Service, at age 45. Hanging on another five years for my pension was the prudent course, but I was angry and the war was going to start in three weeks.

My daughter's college tuition was paid up. The proceeds from selling my house in DC would keep me fed for five years or so. Returning from Greece, I was horrified at the nonsense filling the media. On foreign policy, the Washington Post was as pompous and parochial as the Washington Times. In 2003 there seemed a desperate need for a "Diplomacy for Dummies" book to explain what kind of world Americans are part of. Also, I was squeamish about looking for a real job.

Americans are no more disposed to employ our Cassandras than the ancient Trojans were. Accurate prophecy regarding Iraq does not require brilliance or deep expertise. An open-minded person who watched the interplay of nationalism and religion in the Middle East, anyone who listened sympathetically to ordinary Muslims, could have predicted the response to our amateurish attempts at preemptive democracy.

And now that foreign policy pragmatism is socially acceptable again, the spies, diplomats, politicians, journalists and academics are pulling out their private correspondence to remind us that indeed they knew better. They would have given an honest opinion on Iraq back when it mattered, but their Commander in Chief failed to ask them for it.

This being so, with perceptive and deferential analysts a dime a dozen, any organization would be rash to hire someone of proven disloyalty and tactlessness. U.S. government contracts keep afloat almost every significant foreign-affairs employer in the country. Adding my tainted name to the masthead would do them no favors.

No one gets rich writing books. Tenet earned his $4 million advance for emerging from the shadows, sharing a few secrets that had reached their sell-by date, and making the politically timely point that what happened was someone else's fault. I was offered one tenth of one percent of that amount for writing a book that explained, drawing on my own awkward apprenticeship, what diplomacy does and how and why.

The publishers are right, of course. The public sees diplomacy not as the glamorous front lines of America's national defense but rather as a remote province of languid and impenetrable cookie-pushers. Americans are infatuated instead with the idea that the world revolves on secrets and conspiracies. This is an extremely profitable delusion. Spies can expect an invitation to The Daily Show or at least 60 Minutes. Diplomats do their sixty minutes on C-Span2 and hit the university lecture circuit with a box of books in the trunk of a borrowed car.

My book reviews were kinder than Tenet's. The ex-ambassadors and academics who reviewed Diplomacy Lessons praised it handsomely: "... a new George Kennan..." "...Kiesling's broad scope and incisive wit are reminiscent of some of Sir Harold Nicolson's best essays on diplomacy." Few Americans recognize those names. Still, enough non-specialists devoured the book to convince me to keep writing.

I live simply these days in central Athens. By bicycle (the silver SUV had palled, even if I could still afford it) it takes half an hour to Korydallos prison. There I study "Revolutionary Organization 17 November," a Greek terrorist group that humiliated the CIA for 27 years. This next book would be more salable if I soft-pedaled U.S. blunders, but then key lessons for America's "war on terrorism" would be lost.

Yes, by a strict reading of his oath of service, Tenet should have resigned. His job was to protect the people and Constitution of the United States. He worked for a President who would pay no attention to any lesser gesture. He deserves the criticism Ms. Huffington meted out for his self-serving performance.

I took the less-traveled road, and am content. Greek-style "filotimo" ("love of honor") is certainly worth having. Government employees nurturing grand suburban aspirations, however, would be ill-advised to cling to it. Tenet has been richly rewarded by the American system for hiding his doubts and pandering to the Old Testament instincts of his boss. Until human sensibilities evolve in the wake of some global catastrophe, it will always feel more comfortable, to fawn on the powerful and hope for the best.

-- John Brady Kiesling

* John Brady Kiesling was the first of three U.S. diplomats to resign in 2003 to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. He is the author of "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower" (Potomac Books 2006).


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