The hallowed rule among America’s professional diplomats is to avoid involvement in domestic politics, especially during an election year.
They regard partisanship as poisonous to the trust that an elected President must repose in them to execute U.S. policy abroad, and to their own careers as well. They hope to maintain influence and status no matter which party holds power. Their habit of speaking carefully and quietly tends to continue even into retirement.
Diplomats rarely act like dissidents.
So it was extraordinary to learn that on June 16, a group of 26 distinguished former Foreign Service and military officers plans to issue an urgent, explicit call for Americans to eject George W. Bush on Election Day. Although their brief statement does not endorse John Kerry, the implication will be plain enough. (None of them is likely to vote for Ralph Nader.)
These are hardly the first or only former diplomats, military and intelligence officers to step forward to protest White House policy. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who formerly served as President Bush’s special Mideast envoy, has publicly denounced the Iraq misadventure. So has James Webb, former Navy Secretary in the Reagan administration. Quite notoriously, so have former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and former counterterror director Richard Clarke.
But these dignified dissenters decided that their campaign against Mr. Bush will draw more attention if they work together. Calling themselves Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change, they include top State Department officials from the Carter, Reagan and first Bush administrations, and former ambassadors who have served in posts from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union to Peru, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Among other signatories are a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East.
While some are Republicans, some are Democrats, and several describe themselves as independents, those labels matter little in this unusual uprising. The leading instigator appears to be a Republican named William Harrop, who served as an ambassador from 1987 to 1993 and says he voted for both Presidents Bush. One of Mr. Harrop’s most outspoken collaborators is Jack F. Matlock Jr., who served as the late Ronald Reagan’s trusted envoy to the Soviet Union during crucial negotiations with reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
They believe that the Bush administration’s aggressive bungling has endangered America’s reputation, credibility and security.
“We did this because everything that had been built up in our alliances, with the United States leading the world in a cooperative way, has been thrown out the window by this administration,” said Avis Bohlen, a Harrop recruit who has served the U.S. government in a variety of significant diplomatic and security positions during the past three decades. Her father was Charles E. Bohlen, one of the legendary “wise men” responsible for steering postwar America from isolationism to international leadership.
Ms. Bohlen fears that the Bush administration is forfeiting that leadership. “We are now extremely unpopular throughout the world,” she said, as several recent polls have proved. “Unpopularity is normal for a nation as powerful as ours, but this goes far beyond the expected level. If it continues for a second term-well, people still make a distinction between President Bush and America-but after eight years, the change could be very long-lasting.”
The President’s decision to invade Iraq did not, by itself, provoke the diplomats to protest. “None of us would argue that there wasn’t a case to be made for the war,” Ms. Bohlen said. “But even if you supported the war, the reconstruction has been conducted with such incompetence and such arrogance, such lack of planning …. “
That unhealthy combination of attitude and ineptitude has been evident from the beginning, not only in Iraq but in the administration’s broader Middle East policy, in its approach to the AIDS epidemic, the environment and other concerns of our traditional allies. Ms. Bohlen acknowledges that the President is now seeking to repair what he damaged so badly.
“We can only welcome his reaching out to allies at the U.N., at the summit on Sea Island and on D-Day,” she said. “All of that is a far cry from when they said [French President] Jacques Chirac will never be invited to Texas. How ridiculous that now seems!”
She and her colleagues don’t believe the President’s latest overtures will achieve any lasting improvement. “This renewed diplomacy is not very credible when we’re in an absolutely desperate situation.”
She and her colleagues expect to be dismissed and perhaps mocked by the White House. “Of course, they will try to minimize what we’re saying,” she predicted, with professional understatement. “But it will have an impact because we’re not partisan. Most of us have never done anything like this in our lives, and never imagined that we would. But there comes a time when you have to speak out.”