The Magazine

Living in a Dream World

The political fantasies of foreign service officers.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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As pundits begin to write their obituaries of the Bush presidency, much ink will be spilled over foreign policy. As always, the victors will pen the history. And in the case of the Bush administration, those victors are the permanent bureaucracy at the State Department--the Foreign Service. Presidents come and presidents go, but the labor union that manages foreign relations is forever.

Washington has always been a place where down is up, but nowhere is the world quite so inverted as at the State Department. While American forces fight wars in Afghan mountains and Iraqi deserts, train counterterror troops in Philippine jungles, and stare down North Korean soldiers across the Demilitarized Zone, Foggy Bottom remains as removed from reality as Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and Laputa ever were.

The State Department's in-house magazine, State, records the sheer inanity that is a staple of Foreign Service thinking. Each issue highlights a "post of the month" in which diplomats describe their home away from home. The essays would make local tourism boards proud, but they also provide a mirror into the alternate universe inhabited by all too many U.S. diplomats.

Here's a classic from the June 2004 State: The economic-commercial officer at the U.S. embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, writes that "What's been billed as 'the best place in South Asia to live' is also the site of a brutal 20‑year war that's left approximately 64,000 dead." Still, "if Sri Lanka could settle its conflict peacefully, it could be a model for the region and the world." Indeed. And if North Korea gave its people freedom and embraced democracy, it could be as successful as South Korea.

Certain diplomats evince a strange nostalgia: "Armenia was once considered the Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union, providing advanced avionics for Soviet aircraft and supercomputers," the public affairs officer in Yerevan explained in February 2005. Ah yes, things were great for the Armenians under Soviet rule. Housing for diplomats under communism? Less great.

Take Mongolia: "Until 2002, embassy staffers lived mainly in a Communist-era apartment block near the chancery affectionately known as 'Faulty Towers.' Today, almost all staff members live in Czech-designed townhouses or apartments in a modern, gated housing compound 15 minutes from the embassy," the political and public affairs officer wrote in a June 2007 feature. Diplomats there, we learn, can even enjoy pizza delivery.

Others flail a bit when it comes to meting out praise. In October 2001, the wife of a security officer in Bangladesh wrote, "Another benefit of living in Bangladesh is its proximity to other fascinating lands." Something like the benefits of living in New Jersey--so close to New York.

Not all in State is fluff, though. The bearers of the American standard are vigilant for democratic progress. Like the crucified in Monty Python's Life of Brian, they are in a quest requiring that they always look on the bright side of life: In a February 2007 feature on Cambodia, the family member of a diplomat noted that "Cambodia is enjoying a measure of peace and stability it has not seen in more than a generation"--a low hurdle, if ever there was one. Yes, Cambodia is in the bottom tier of Freedom House rankings, but "criminal charges were dropped against some political opponents."

Things are likewise looking up in Africa. In February 2006, for example, the public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Maseru opined that "Lesotho is a good fit with U.S. policy goals in Africa such as promoting democratic values, free market economies, and health." Too bad that the average Lesothan, because of AIDS, does not live past 40. Too bad, also, that "married women are considered legal minors" by law. Happily, "in practice, professional women are on equal footing with male colleagues." Perhaps this is why the writer concludes that "Lesotho has the potential of becoming a model in Africa during the 21st century."

Meanwhile, "Transition is the best word to describe Angola today: transition from war to peace, from humanitarian assistance to development, from trailers to a new $40 million chancery," writes the political officer in nearby Luanda in September 2004.

Some of us remember good old Angola, playground of the Cold War, scene of horrendous battles between the Soviet-backed MPLA and the U.S.-backed UNITA, as a place where regime opponents were executed and elections routinely stolen. But not our political officer. Perhaps peace would have come earlier, he notes, had not "the Reagan administration supported those opposed to the communist-led MPLA, making Angola a major Cold War battlefield." That Ronald Reagan: He failed to understand that those Cuban troops and their Russian advisers were merely helping the Marxist president "[fight] off coup attempts."

Radical Islam too often causes our U.S. diplomatic rhetoricians to avert their eyes. The public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Mali, an impoverished democracy, airbrushes its growing problem with intolerant Islamism: "Mali's moderate Islam also serves to dilute the harsh rhetoric of fundamental Islam that is spread by itinerant preachers," he wrote in April 2003. Perhaps, but it was not itinerant preachers that built the King Fahd Bridge, the main crossing point over the Niger river in the capital, Bamako. Likewise, itinerant preachers did not build the Muammar Qaddafi Islamic Center, Bamako's largest mosque.

And the beauties of moderate Islam cannot hold a candle to our many, many allies in the Global War on Terrorism. To listen to U.S. diplomats posted abroad, almost every country is a trusted ally in the war on terror. Some are truthful. "Azerbaijan gave the United States its unqualified support in the wake of September 11 and offered assistance to U.S. efforts against international terrorism," wrote two diplomats in March 2003. Others less so: "Oman is a strong ally in the global war on terror," wrote the U.S. ambassador there in January 2005. That same year, Muscat voted with the United States at the United Nations 9 percent of the time.

If our diplomats are tickled by the camaraderie of the Global War on Terror, they are less enthused by George W. Bush's freedom agenda. Some pay lip service to the notion: Diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Cairo boast that, "The U.S. Mission to Egypt reaches out to the Egyptian people to advance peace, democracy, and prosperity .  .  . through a variety of programs with the government of Egypt and Egypt's growing civil society." Less on the reaching out to those on the outs with the government of Egypt, including independent civil society organizations, proponents of (now canceled) municipal elections, free political parties, and an impartial judiciary.

The public affairs officer at the new U.S. embassy in Tripoli puts Foggy Bottom's struggle with democracy promotion more eloquently: "Promoting democracy in Libya is the work of a generation," he wrote in a March 2007 essay. Tunisia, a police state that rivals Libya for lack of political freedom is, in the assessment of the community liaison officer there, "standing on the brink of becoming a modern, First World nation."

Not all State's correspondents are enamored of smoke and mirrors, nor are all diplomats willing to apologize for autocracies. Ramón Negrón and John Vance, respectively the political-economic officer and public affairs officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, did not gloss over the difficulty of life in Cuba.

"Being a U.S. diplomat in Havana has long meant living under difficult circumstances," they wrote in a stunningly honest October 2007 essay. "Listening devices in all USINT [U.S. Interests Section] spaces, vehicles and homes mean one can never escape Cuban government scrutiny. The pervasive intelligence-gathering effort directed at USINT has garnered Havana the dubious honor of being the U.S. government's sole non-fraternization post."

While the U.S. embassies in Chad, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are content to interact only with government-approved interlocutors or government-operated NGOs, the diplomats in Havana recognize the difficulties ordinary Cubans face in meeting them. "For Cubans, interaction with USINT officials can bring unwanted attention from an omnipresent state security apparatus dedicated to squelching all potential opposition."

Messrs. Negrón and Vance: You seem to be honorable exceptions to the rule. Somehow you have managed to avoid the blinders worn by so many of your colleagues. It would be interesting to know how. Perhaps we could discuss this over pizza some day, should we ever meet in Ulan Bator.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.