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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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.