by Laurence Pope
The author calls his extremely trying experience, recounted below, a cautionary tale and an argument for change in the process by which U. S. ambassadorial nominees receive, or don’t receive approval from the Senate. He makes a strong case for reform in that area, citing two recent sets of proposals designed to improve the process.—Ed.
“I DON’T BELIEVE for a second that career officers should be given an automatic pass when they come up for [Senate] confirmation… But it’s clearly wrong to reject a nominee without giving him or her the opportunity to rebut a whispering campaign, and it is particularly damaging in an institutional sense to hold career officers to account for loyal service.”
On Feb. 22, 2000, the White House announced my nomination as ambassador to Kuwait. On Oct. 2, I retired from the Foreign Service. What follows is a brief account of how that came about. It is intended as a cautionary tale and an argument for change, not a settling of accounts.
My appointment to Kuwait was the result of a combination of circumstances. An Arabist by trade, I had served as ambassador to Chad from 1993-1996. (Hold the chad jokes, please; it was a great place; besides, somebody had to do it.) After a routine confirmation, with my wife and daughters I went off to promote democracy.
How effectively I did so isn’t for me to say. An outspoken cable of mine having to do with what I considered to be the failings of our USAID programs fell into the hands of the senior senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, who read some of its more colorful passages on the floor. (One line compared the time it takes to develop a USAID program with the gestation period of the African elephant.) Although a presidential election was held, a first for that country, Chad was as undemocratic as ever when I left.
After a year as diplomat-in-residence at Clark-Atlanta University, I found my way to what I was sure would be my last tour—as political adviser to the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC.
That it almost didn’t turn out that way had to do with a number of factors unrelated to my own merits. One was certainly the high regard for Gen. Zinni at the State Department. In any case, in the fall of 1999 the D Committee (D being the organizational shorthand for the deputy secretary of State who chairs it) settled on me for Kuwait.
As those who have endured it know, the vetting process for a presidential appointment is like being a candidate for sainthood, and the devil’s advocates are in the White House counsel’s office. I remember one surreal telephone conversation from Almaty in the middle of the night with a humorless attorney in which I answered questions about child and spouse abuse while worried CENTCOM communicators brought cups of coffee. After a few more interrogations, and repetitive questionnaires, the appointment was announced. It didn’t seem likely to be a particularly controversial one, election year politics notwithstanding.
So what happened? All I can do is tell the story from my perspective. Some background is necessary.
As the Monica Lewinsky affair was brewing, for reasons which seemed good to an overwhelming majority on both sides of the aisle, Congress sent President Clinton a piece of legislation known as the Iraq Liberation Act, and a besieged president signed it into law. The ILA declared it to be the policy of the United States that the Iraqi people should be rid of the dictator who has ruled Iraq since 1972, and who survived the onslaught of Desert Storm. To this end it granted the Defense Department authority to provide up to $97 million in military surplus to Iraqi opposition groups, in particular to an exile group known as the Iraqi National Congress based in London.
The ILA was, and is, a non sequitur. Under the right circumstances, and given regional support, Saddam Hussein could be removed by a determined military push led by the United States. This might even be easier than it appears on the surface. But he won’t be removed by divided, disorganized, and ill-trained Iraqi exile groups, with or without surplus American equipment. A strategy of arming them and hoping for the best would be foolish and irresponsible.
As the military commander responsible for the lives of the 20,000 American military personnel in the Persian Gulf on any given day, Gen. Zinni felt strongly that he should have been consulted about the wisdom of this legislation. In sworn testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he spoke his mind. Not given to understatement, he warned publicly against a “Bay of Goats.” His outspoken testimony and public comments enraged the proponents of the ILA, including Senators Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and their staffs.
In early 1999, at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in honor of the outgoing U.N. Special Commission chairman, Richard Butler, I was confronted by a furious Middle East staffer for Sen. Helms, Danielle Pletka. Her opening gambit was that Gen. Zinni should be fired for insubordination. I really can’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I have a very high regard indeed for the general, and he was my boss. Whatever it was led Ms. Pletka to threaten to retaliate against me if I came up for confirmation. I unwisely put the threat out of my mind, not expecting the issue to arise.
It wasn’t until late May 2000 that I heard that Pletka and an ally on Sen. Lott’.s staff were stirring up determined opposition to the nomination. Having left Gen. Zinni and the CENTCOM headquarters to prepare for Kuwait, I went to see her, with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Susan Jacobs along as a witness.
Pletka said that as far as she was concerned there were two possibilities. Either I agreed with Gen. Zinni (and the Clinton administration) about the inadvisability of arming the Iraqi opposition, or I was an ineffectual adviser. In the latter case, there was a chance of salvaging the nomination if I would provide the committee with written evidence of my opposition to Zinni’s position.
As Faustian bargains go, this one wasn’t hard to resist. I told her that I would testify about my own views until the cows came home, but I wouldn’t talk about my advice to Gen. Zinni. She made clear that she wasn’t particularly interested in my own views, since as she put it, nominees often say one thing before they are confirmed, and another afterwards.
After that initial encounter I mounted a lobbying effort, with support from various quarters. May they find here an expression of my thanks. The secretary of defense wrote to Sen. Helms. Rep. Tom Allen, D.-Maine, worked on my behalf. Deputy assistant secretaries of State Kay King and Susan Jacobs were helpful throughout. My colleagues in the Near Eastern Bureau provided moral support. Others I won’t mention were good enough to intervene, including an influential North Carolinian. In short, I did what I could.
I had no further contact with the committee until September, when the staff director, Steve Biegun, agreed to see me in response to the lobbying effort. He said that the committee would not act on the nomination. He expressed the hope that I would come up next year for another position; if that happened, I would have Sen. Helms’ support. I said this was no way to run a railroad, and I intended to retire.
And that was it. I never had the opportunity to state my position on the liberation of Iraq to the committee. (I’m for it, in case anybody wants to know.) No questions were ever submitted to me about the ILA, or about anything else involving our important relationship with Kuwait.
Fortunately, this year’s nominees are likely to fare better. The Brookings Institution has a “Presidential Appointee Initiative” (www.appointees.brookings.org) which has made sensible and practical proposals for reforming the process. They deserve a careful hearing by the Senate. The report of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (www.nssg.gov) contains thoughtful recommendations in this and other areas.
No reform agenda will be successful unless senators take the nomination process more seriously. Frivolous holds like the one Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, used last year to deprive the country of the services of Peter Burleigh as ambassador to the Philippines are irresponsible. Senators should not allow the nomination process to be hijacked by staffers with an agenda.
I don’t believe for a second that career officers should be given an automatic pass when they come up for confirmation. The standards should be rigorous for career and non-career nominees alike. But it’s clearly wrong to reject a nominee without giving him or her the opportunity to rebut a whispering campaign, and it is particularly damaging in an institutional sense to hold career officers to account for loyal service. That is a quick way to kill the tradition of a career Foreign Service capable of serving loyally across administrations–an institution which is as important to our national security as carrier battle groups, or armored divisions.
Republished by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, April 2001, Vo. 78, No. 4.