by Judith Heimann
All diplomats have to face the challenge at some point of defending a policy that he or she thinks is wrong. On such occasions one is caught between a duty to present one’s government’s point of view—which is our assigned duty and the reason why foreigners want to hear us out—and the need not to burn our bridges with the host government by saying things we believe to be untrue, ill-timed, or inappropriate. Such a challenge was forced on me during the buildup to our launching the second Iraq War, a policy with which I personally disagreed.
I am cursed with a face that is easy to read, and thus telling an outright lie would not work for me, even if I were to try. The Iraq war was not the first time I had faced this issue. One earlier instance when I could not present with a straight face the arguments in my government’s non-paper concerned our refusal to join the International Criminal Court, the tribunal that prosecutes war criminals. Our argument was that the United States would never commit such crimes and so any charge against us would have to be politically motivated. To deal with that case, I brought along the State Department non-paper and said that I hoped my interlocutor would read it carefully and get back to me with his views. He didn’t, and I didn’t press. (US views toward that court have since evolved into cooperation, if not membership.)
On another occasion, I asked—and received—permission to eliminate an item from a demarche on the grounds that it wouldn’t help obtain what we wanted and risked hurting our overall relations with the host country and damaging my personal credibility in the process. At that point I was working in Brussels as a retiree in late 2003. News had just broken of maltreatment of prisoners at the US military’s Abu Ghraib detention center in Baghdad when I was assigned to go to the Belgian Foreign Ministry with a demarche related to a forthcoming UN meeting that included a talking point about “prisoners of conscience.” I received prompt agreement from my bosses at the embassy that that week was not the time to approach the Foreign Ministry with the word “prisoners” on my lips.
But even though I had many misgivings about the second Iraq war, as an American diplomat I could not avoid making my strongest efforts to encourage Belgium to support our logistical efforts to get our men and materiel out of Germany via the port of Antwerp to the Persian Gulf in the lead-up to that war. I knew that the war was opposed by virtually all Belgians—including Belgium’s then-foreign minister and minister of defense.
During a lengthy and delicately handled diplomatic effort by Washington and my embassy colleagues, I searched our office files for old treaties and non-papers on the subject, looking for a good reason—one I could defend with a straight face—for asking Belgium’s support. I came up with the need to ensure that NATO (the lynchpin of Belgian military and defense policy) would not be the unintended casualty of Belgium’s refusal to support us logistically, now that another NATO member, Turkey, had already turned us down. Recognizing the validity of that argument, my contacts helped ensure that Belgium kept its word to NATO.
Diplomats who disagree with a policy as issues of conscience do have options, including dissent or the ultimate step of resignation. Three foreign service officers — John Brady Kiesling, John Brown, and Ann Wright –all resigned in protest over the Iraq war in 2003, with well-crafted explanations of how they reached their decisions.(1) A dissent channel cable is also a time-honored method of protest, with the famous “Blood Telegram” sent during the Bangladesh genocide in 1970 one of the best-known examples. (2)
If I had ever been ordered to deliver a demarche defending the practice of so-called enhanced interrogation, I would have been unable to do so. If obliged to try, I might have had to resign my position at the embassy. It was lucky for me that I was never put in that position.
But sometimes the best way to explode an ill-conceived policy before it does harm is to just play it straight. Once, when I was again a retiree working in Embassy Brussels’s political section, I received a draft non-paper by email from the Africa Bureau saying we wanted Belgium to support the Government of Liberia’s effort to join the Kimberley Process (an international effort that we had helped set up with strong support from the Belgians to eliminate the sale of “blood diamonds”. Belgium’s Antwerp Diamond Market was one of the world’s largest and the most likely to have to deal with questionable diamonds from war zones in sub-Saharan Africa.)
Knowing that the then-president of Liberia was up to his eyeballs in the trafficking of blood diamonds, I was shocked to get this draft request. To offer Liberia membership in the Kimberley Process would be a scandalous betrayal of our international effort. Assuming that people in Washington would quash this mistaken move, I sat on the document. But a week or so later it came back, no longer in draft.
I made the demarche and was barely back in the office when the phone rang. It was an old Belgian friend of mine who was now head of bilateral affairs at the Foreign Ministry, a very senior job. He said, “Judy, what’s this I hear about you telling the Kimberley folks in our government to join in inviting Liberia to become a member of Kimberley? Is this true?”
I said, “Sir, I have my pencil and a pad of paper ready. Feel free to tell me precisely the Belgian government’s thinking on this matter.”
I sent his comment in by email and neither I nor anybody working on diamonds ever heard another word about that Liberian regime being asked to join Kimberley. It didn’t happen.
Judith M. Heimann entered the diplomatic life in 1958 to join her husband, John, in Jakarta, Indonesia, at his American Embassy post. This, her first time out of the United States, would set her on a path across the continents as she mastered the fine points of diplomatic culture. She did so first as a spouse, then as a diplomat herself, thus becoming part of one of the Foreign Service’s first tandem couples. This article is partially adapted from her book, Paying Calls in Shangri-La, which was published in the ADST-DACOR series on diplomats and diplomacy and was nominated for the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Douglas Dillon award for the best book of the year 2016-2017 on the art of diplomacy.