Selling Your Diplomatic Soul

Amid the myriad stories about the Arab spring–which has segued into summer and fall– the Washington Post ran a piece last month about a former high-ranking State Department official who reportedly met with aides to Moammar Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan uprising to advise them on how to keep their boss in power. I’m not going to mention his name because the Post reporter was unable to contact the diplomat for comment and based the story on minutes of the meeting unearthed by an al-Jazeera journalist from the ransacked headquarters of Libya’s intelligence agency. Still, the specter of an ex-U.S. diplomat shilling for a blood-drenched despot (and one who had the whole of NATO and the U.S. against him) unfortunately rings true.

Full disclosure: my husband was a foreign service officer for 27 years. As his wife for part of that time–and as a journalist–I watched the various ways in which American ambassadors lose their sense of integrity and judgment and succumb to terminal cases of clientitis. It’s easy to see why. Theirs is the life style of the rich-and-famous, courtesy of the U.S. government: enormous houses, phalanxes of servants, bodyguards, limousines flying the official flag, constant rubbing of shoulders with those in power. It’s difficult not to internalize these trappings and begin to think of yourself as powerful. The State Department’s culture of conformity only reinforces such perceptions.

Indeed, this is an institution that values conformity so highly it created a special honor to acknowledge those who stray. The State Department’s Christian A. Herter Award is given to senior diplomats who speak out or otherwise challenge the status quo. It’s awarded for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.” (Apparently, the Department has had a hard time finding worthy recipients in the last several years.) What does it say about an institution–and its employees–that bestows special recognition upon those who haven’t sold their souls?

It’s difficult for these diplomats to give it all up when their careers are finished. Short of being a dictator of a small, corrupt country, there are few jobs in the world that can compare to that of being a American ambassador. All that power, all that glory. Besides, what actual skills do they posses other than a Rolodex–or its electronic equivalent–full of names and the promise of access? Sadly, it’s all part of a broader Washington phenomenon, whereby everybody uses the contacts they’ve gained to their advantage. This is what it has come to: generals retire and become part of the military-industrial complex. Congressmen retire and become lobbyists. Diplomats retire and do the same.

Still, shilling for Gaddafi has to represent a new low.