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Why We Said No: Three Diplomats' Duty
Five years ago this month, the three of us left the US Foreign Service in opposition to the war on Iraq. We were not pacifists. We were professional, non-partisan diplomats bound by our oath of loyalty to the US Constitution. Our job was to build effective relationships with key figures outside the United States. We used our language skills, respectful curiosity, and understanding of local politics to promote US national interests as our president and secretary of state directed.
We did not know each other. Ann, who was also a reserve colonel in the US Army, had helped reopen US Embassy Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. Brady was a 20-year political officer who had learned something about tribal politics and the limits of US power. John was a practitioner of public diplomacy with over twenty years' experience, mostly in Eastern Europe. We shared one key professional judgment, that this war we were ordered to promote would be a disastrous mistake.
Love of country and professional self-respect compelled each of us to speak out, in the only honorable way open to us, by resigning. In our letters to Secretary of State Colin Powell, we opposed invading a country that posed no genuine threat to the United States. We underscored that our invasion would not be understood by our allies, that our occupation would be resisted, and that the consequences of the war would be dire for both Americans and Iraqis.
The war happened, with tragic but predictable consequences. Mistakes by ambitious, ignorant political appointees worsened the fiasco. For domestic political reasons, the Bush Administration could not adapt its policies to the reality that its "war on terrorism" was actually an intricate maze of local conflicts into which it had blundered without a guide.
The invasion of Iraq had a terrible impact on America's relationship with the world. The tricks of totalitarian manipulation of public opinion the White House used to "sell" the war at home -- simplification of the issues, repetition of empty phrases, demonization of foreigners, and falsification of history -- simply did not work abroad.
By counting on such methods, Bush appointees tainted the US informational, educational, and cultural programs that once were the beating heart of America's public diplomacy efforts. The desperate PR campaign by Mr. Bush's Texas confidante, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, failed utterly to repair the damage.
Five years later, we are convinced that the Bush administration is still on the wrong path for regional stability. Key officials lack the empathy and local knowledge needed to wield the tools of US diplomacy effectively in the Middle East. America's outsized military presence is the principle around which local fanaticism organizes itself, to the detriment of the ordinary Arabs and Kurds America aspired to help. A rapid withdrawal from Iraq, coordinated with Iraqi factions and neighboring states, is the least destructive option remaining.
Our gesture earned us a brief moment in the media and the cautious respect of our colleagues. Five years later, we do not regret our decision to leave the profession we loved. Faced with a flawed policy we had no power to change, the three of us embraced the hope Brady expressed in his resignation letter, that "our democratic process is ultimately self-correcting; [we] hope in a small way to contribute from outside to shaping policies that better serve the security and prosperity of the American people and the world we share."
Between now and next January 20 the stakes for our former profession are high. The stakes for the American people and the planet are even higher.
Ann Wright, an anti-war activist based in Hawaii, is touring with her new book Dissent: Voices of Conscience (Koa Books 2008). John Brady Kiesling is a writer in Greece, the author of Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower (Potomac Books 2006). John Brown until recently compiled The Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review. He teaches on public diplomacy at Georgetown University.
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