by Larry Lesser
In a departure from our usual practice, the following story is wholly a work of fiction but based on a real Foreign Service situation known to the author. We include it not only because it is an interesting story but also one that illustrates well some of the competing pressures inherent in the Foreign Service Life. –The Editor
In 1974 I was quietly working as a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Rabat. I had previously served in Jerusalem and Amman. I was fluent in the Arabic dialect spoken by the Palestinians. Over a several years period I had worked the Arab street in the region and got along well with Palestinian intellectual and political leaders. That wasn’t exclusively because I’m such a swell guy; the Palestinians rightly attach great importance to having access to American diplomats. My political reporting in Jerusalem and Amman had gained me professional recognition and a couple of promotions; I had arrived securely in midcareer and was poised for bigger things. Rabat was a quieter place, and, after the intensity of my work at those other posts, it was a respite I had requested – primarily for family reasons.
My career accomplishments had come at some cost to the emotional wellbeing of my wife. Connie and I had met in grad school and thus – as I saw it – we had jointly chosen this Foreign Service career. But being a ‘trailing spouse’ wasn’t working out so well for her. For one thing, by temperament she was less outgoing than I am. Maybe more important than that, she was not a native-born American; she was Scandinavian by birth and upbringing. (I prefer not being more specific about her country of birth.) She had chosen to go to grad school in America, where we fell in love and got married. More than she realized at the time, Connie had separated herself from her roots. And then on top of that a few years later she involuntarily became a quasi-official representative of her adopted country in foreign lands. It was a very tough adjustment for her. Unlike me, she did not learn Arabic. She experienced the Arab world as hostile and threatening – and of course at some level she was right. I thrived in that culture but most people wouldn’t, and my wife didn’t. You can’t talk people out of feeling that way; Connie knew her own mind and had come to believe that living in the volatile Middle East as the wife of an American diplomat was going to drive her crazy. It was driving her crazy. She loved me and I loved her and she wanted me to be happy and fulfilled in my work, but there was a limit to what she could do to support me in my chosen career and she was pretty sure that she was just about at that limit.
And that’s without even beginning to consider the situation for our sons Peter and Donny who were in the early grades at the Rabat American School. I thought they were doing fine, but it wouldn’t be good for them if their mother suffered a nervous collapse – to say the least.
Rabat was a challenging environment but the embassy provided a great support system for families. Our government housing was comfortable – except when the city’s water or electricity systems would break down. We were happy with the school. And the official American community was large and relatively self-sufficient. Connie was trying to make the best of things; she rarely reminded me that I had dragged her and the boys to yet another deeply foreign post because it would be good for my career, never mind how burdensome it was for my wife and kids. Generally we kept the subject out of family conversations. Everybody – including the boys – understood the situation and was determined to play his or her part – because they loved me and depended on me. My tour of duty would be just two years
One morning not long after arriving in Rabat I was called into the ambassador’s office. Our ambassador was a distinguished career diplomat – an Arabist himself, fluent in the language after several tours in the Arab world. I would say that he and I were the two best Arabic speakers in the embassy. (Fluency in Arabic was a relatively rare commodity in the Foreign Service, especially considering the number of posts where Arabic was the primary national language. Becoming fluent in Arabic was an excellent strategy for career advancement but nevertheless very few officers acquired it. Admittedly it’s a hard language that requires some aptitude and willingness to work hard at learning it, and on top of that I think many of my colleagues had a kind of cultural resistance to fitting in too well with the Arab world. Anyway, it was well known that I was a fluent Arabic speaker and that I had operated effectively developing contacts at my previous posts in the region.)
The ambassador told me that Secretary Kissinger wanted to send me on a sensitive and secret mission to talk to PLO leaders. The Secretary had been told that I was exceptionally well connected to the Palestinians, that I had near-native fluency in their style of Arabic, and that I had the discipline and intellect to know how to handle myself under extremely sensitive conditions. I was supposed to fly immediately to Washington to be personally briefed on the details by Kissinger himself.
Here’s the background: the Nixon administration worked hard on the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger relied heavily on secret diplomacy. He did a lot of things either by himself alone or using a small group of trusted advisors, but generally he didn’t trust the career Foreign Service. But dealing with the Palestinians required special measures because the U.S. had not awarded diplomatic recognition to any Palestinian entity. We had no official contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat. In any case, the PLO was a frustrating entity to deal with under the best of circumstances. It was weak and poorly financed and loosely held together. Its policies were incoherent. It was an organization built on opportunism and despair. It was not a reliable negotiating partner.
The Israelis were also difficult negotiating partners, but for different reasons. They tended to be sure of their goals and positions and disdainful of the Palestinians. They had come up with positions they considered reasonable to settle the many unresolved issues between them and the Palestinians, but there was no credible adversary to sit across the table from them, and the Israeli government was generally inclined to leave it at that: when the Palestinians would be ready to talk seriously the Israelis would talk with them but until then the hell with them.
It was a situation that cried out for an effective intermediary to unblock things and reduce tensions: that intermediary was the U.S. government. Despite the solidity of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the Palestinians and most of the Arab world nonetheless regarded the U.S. as the most effective honest broker between the parties. And Nixon and Kissinger took the task on, cognizant of the high stakes involved and the volatility of the region.
And now the Secretary of State wanted me to play an important role. This was the professional opportunity of a lifetime. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my system as soon as the ambassador told me. (Don’t be fooled by my relatively cool prose style.) There was of course no question about my accepting the assignment. I knew with every fiber of my being that I wanted to do it – and I imagined that it would propel me up to a new level within the Foreign Service.
I asked a few questions, but the ambassador didn’t know anything more about the nature of the special secret assignment itself. He had a little more information about why I was chosen, however – all of it highly flattering. Apparently my reputation had spread; not only that, it had probably been exaggerated in the retelling in the corridors of the Department. The ambassador said that when Kissinger asked the Near Eastern Bureau who among the younger officers was the best Arabic speaker with the best Palestinian contacts they immediately came up with my name. And the ambassador, when he was told that they were thinking of choosing me for the assignment, had endorsed the idea and told them I was the best he had ever seen.
He told me I should plan on being away from Rabat an estimated three weeks, but it might be longer depending on how the PLO leadership responded to the initiative I would be transmitting to them. I should anticipate traveling within the region not only to the West Bank and Jerusalem and Amman but probably also to Beirut and Damascus and Tel Aviv. I would be working alone; this was to be a very low-profile initiative.
I had to tell the ambassador that I was worried about how my family would manage if I was away for several weeks. The ambassador looked grave when I brought it up. Then he reminded me that every Foreign Service Officer pledges to be worldwide available and to carry out assignments “subject to the needs of the Service. That is what the law requires and that is our solemn oath. And here is what it means, Warren: your first and absolute priority is to work to advance the legitimate interests of the United States. Your wife will have to understand.” Later on, recalling what the ambassador said I know it can seem pompous and pretentious, but at the time I thought it was high-minded … and true. Later on it occurred to me that the ambassador didn’t say anything about making sure the community would look after my wife and kids while I was away from post. I didn’t think of it at the time – and neither did he, I suppose – but it might have made a difference.
Unfortunately Connie didn’t see it the way the ambassador said she would have to. When I told her what the plan was she went ballistic. She had been holding her emotions in and holding herself together because she knew how important it was for her not to be a burden on me. But now she reminded me that every day was an ordeal for her until I got home in the evening – and it was worse on the many evenings when I stayed at the office past the kids’ dinner and sometimes even past their bedtime. But if I wasn’t going to be there at all for a period of weeks she didn’t think she could handle it. She sometimes was in such despair that she thought of ending it all. (She had never told me that before, at least not directly, although I had caught and not responded to hints that she had suicidal thoughts.) Connie said the assignment sounded dangerous too. What was she supposed to do if something happened to me? Didn’t I understand that for her to stay functioning she was totally dependent on me?
Connie’s reaction was stronger than I had reckoned on. It worried me a lot. She’s a beautiful woman – and charming and intelligent. But her psyche was beset by demons. I told her – this was the approach I chose – that I absolutely had to accept the special assignment and I was sure she and the boys could manage for the time I would be away. I promised I would be in touch daily by phone from wherever I would be (although both of us knew that might not be an easy promise to keep). And I promised that after we finished our tour in Rabat I would insist on a Washington assignment for the wellbeing of our family. In Washington Connie would have the support system she needed, including mental health services, and the boys could go to local schools and be fully integrated as American children in their own society. The point Connie had to understand was that it was out of the question for me to refuse the assignment, but apart from that I would accommodate her in every possible way.
I flew to Washington just two days later. Connie made it very difficult. She cried a lot, she repeatedly told me she didn’t think she could handle my absence for more than a very short time, she told me she hated herself for being so weak and for holding me back in what I wanted to do, she told me I was being selfish for putting my career ambitions ahead of the needs of my wife and kids, she had negative things to say about the Palestinians and the Israelis … and then she threw in for good measure negative things about the Moroccans and for that matter about the lousy Foreign Service and Kissinger and Nixon.
But I went. I carried background papers about the PLO and its principals and its principles, including reports I myself had drafted during the previous several years, and read them on the plane. (There were no markings to indicate that the papers were official, much less classified.) My flight arrived at Dulles during the business day so I went directly to Main State with my single piece of rolling luggage. I presented myself around 4:00 p.m. at the office of Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Roy Atherton and within minutes was sitting with that eminent senior colleague, followed less than an hour later by my first and only introduction to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his nearly-regal seventh-floor office. Kissinger was known as an aloof chief of the diplomatic establishment; not many career FSOs got to deal with him directly and personally. He was also known as a formidable intimidating intellectually overwhelming presence. On that occasion however he welcomed me in jovial and avuncular style, notwithstanding that he then laid out my instructions in a tone of high seriousness. Although there were several others in the room – I recognized Hal Sonnenfeldt and Bill Casey, in addition to Assistant Secretary Atherton, and there were two or three others as well – Kissinger dominated the discussion and no one else spoke except when he asked them to provide additional detail or just to express agreement with what the Secretary had just said.
I’m not going to cover the substance of what Secretary Kissinger had in mind for me to do. For one thing I’m sure it’s still classified and I have no desire even years later to get myself in trouble over exposing national security information. But another reason for not providing the nuts and bolts of my instructions is that it wouldn’t be very impressive if I did. In spite of all the fuss about the sensitivity of my mission it seemed to me that the message I was supposed to carry to PLO leaders was pretty mundane. A lot of the sensitivity was in the fact that the U.S. government was making such a contact at all at a time when our official policy was to have no contact with that rogue organization that supported terrorist acts, primarily against Israel. And I suppose there was a delicate balance of sensitivity about what we told the Israelis about whether and how – and at what level – we were making contact with the PLO I’ll just say that the content of the message I was to carry to PLO leaders, and the questions I was to ask them, was entirely along predictable lines. What made it sensitive was that I was a representative of the USG and that we wanted to hear their reactions and proposals.
I listened and took extensive notes, writing furiously while also trying to look up fairly frequently. I don’t remember asking any questions, except maybe to make sure I got something right that the Secretary said in his low-toned rumbling voice with its distinctive German accent. He asked me questions several times along the way: what’s the Arabic word for thus-or-so? do you know so-and-so and how candid can you be with him? – questions like that. Generally speaking I was able to answer the questions.
The briefing lasted almost an hour and a half. After that I had to convert my notes into coherent prose immediately, or else there was a chance my instructions would crumble in my brain overnight and be impossible to reassemble. The Near East Bureau gave me an office and an IBM Selectric typewriter and I sat until around 9:30 composing and recomposing what the Secretary of State had told me. By the time I left everyone but Assistant Secretary Atherton and his personal secretary had left the building for the night. I had been instructed to come back in the morning and work out logistics – plane tickets, hotel reservations, embassy support in the region – and to spend a couple of hours more with the top officers of the NEA Bureau – but no desk officers, my peers; this operation was too hush-hush for them to be involved or even aware.
Finally reaching my hotel, I discovered that Connie had called several times and wanted me to call her back whenever I got in. By that time it was around dawn in Rabat. Connie had left messages just about every two hours, however, which meant that she hadn’t slept much, if at all: and that was just the first night I was away. Not a good sign.
I called. Connie picked up. She was not rational. She didn’t let me say much at all. She said, “You better come home right now. Turn around and come home. I can’t take it. I’m losing my mind. I might do anything. You don’t know the thoughts that are in my head.”
I could hardly get a word in. Connie was hysterical. I wanted to tell her at least a little about meeting the great Henry Kissinger. I wanted to tell her how important my mission might be for the future peace and security of the Middle East and the world. But there was no opportunity to make the point. She was just hysterical – for no reason that I could ascertain except for the demons working in her psyche.
So after this non-conversation had gone on in insane loops for maybe ten minutes I told her, “OK. I’m coming right home. I’ll tell them I can’t go through with it and I’m going home.” Then Connie calmed down a great deal. I said I’d get back to her to tell her what flight I’d be taking, and Connie said she’d meet me at the airport.
A hell of a thing… World peace would have to wait. I thought about my situation. I thought I don’t think Connie would kill herself. She’s a devoted wife, and even more than that she’s a devoted mother. She wouldn’t do it.
I was 95 percent sure … maybe 98 percent.
But I also made a couple of other calculations. First – and most decisively – if I go ahead with my secret mission for the Secretary of State and Connie really goes over the edge it would be devastating. I would never get over it. So even a two percent risk is unacceptable. I have no choice; I have to chuck the assignment and attend to things at home.
That calculation was enough to settle the matter but then I added another observation for my own comfort: namely that the stakes for this secret mission are really not so high anyway. At best I would be able to give just the slightest nudge in the right direction, but more likely it would have no impact at all. The only damage by my not going through with it would be to my own career situation; it would be very awkward for me after the SecState himself had invested his personal time and effort in preparing me. But I had no choice.
I didn’t call anyone else that night. And somewhat surprisingly I slept well; of course I was exhausted mentally and emotionally from a day of great excitement and strain on top of the jet lag.
In the morning I skipped the meeting with the logistics folks and went straight to the NEA Assistant Secretary’s office and requested five minutes to see him urgently. He wasn’t available, but his senior deputy was there. With the door closed, I told him what I had to do. He said, “This is going to be bad. Didn’t Kissinger himself brief you yesterday? He isn’t going to take this well. Nobody does that to him. He’ll be mad at you and he’ll blame the whole Foreign Service system. It’ll be bad for all of us.”
He said, “It’s not too late for you to change your mind, is it? Have you told anyone else?”
“No,” I said. “Only my wife. But, you understand, that settled it. I’m responsible for whatever happens to her, for whatever she does. It’ll be between me and her that she put me in this position, but it’s settled.”
“Let me try another tack,” he said, “and then I’ll let you go and do whatever you have to do. Is there anyone else back in Rabat who can stay with your wife and kids and help her get through this?”
“You don’t know my wife. This situation didn’t just appear out of the blue. It’s been coming for a while. Connie doesn’t reach out to people; she’s kind of closed off. She hardly goes out. She takes care of our boys and she takes care of me and that’s pretty much all she does. She needs treatment but I’ve been hoping we could at least get through our tour in Rabat and then we’ll take care of her problems when we go back to the States after that. But I can see that it isn’t going to work and I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, good luck, Warren. Good luck on your home life and good luck in your career. I don’t envy you.”
And I started contacting the airlines for the next flight back to Rabat. Later in the morning I heard that Secretary Kissinger was furious when he was told I had backed out of the assignment. He wanted me fired for cause … as an example.
My tour in Rabat was curtailed almost immediately and I was assigned to a low-profile position on a quiet country desk in a different geographic bureau of the Department. I had no previous experience – or interest – in the country in question (I don’t want to name the country). My colleagues – god bless them – told me this was how they could protect me from the wrath of Henry the K. I was well liked and there’s a certain esprit de corps within the career Foreign Service to support one another. Secretaries of State come and go but we Foreign Service Officers are the continuity that is essential to the coherent conduct of foreign relations. I kept my low-profile job for as long as Kissinger remained at State, and then I re-emerged as one of the Department’s best Arabists and my stalled career rocketed ahead.
As for my marriage, the first thing to say is that leaving Rabat and returning to Washington was just what the doctor ordered for Connie. And for the boys, too, I suppose. In Washington Connie got treatment with a clinical social worker and her condition stabilized. Our marriage was damaged but we held it together for a few more years until the boys were old enough to handle the trauma of their parents’ reasonably amicable divorce. After that it was time for me to go out again to an overseas assignment. With Kissinger gone I could return to the Arabic speaking part of the world.
In fairness to Kissinger and to history – and to myself – I must point out that all these years later the Arab-Israeli conflict is no closer to peaceful resolution. I don’t think you can judge me for putting the welfare of my family ahead of that micro-initiative for peace in the Middle East at that moment in history.
Larry Lesser, a retired FSO, served as DCM in Bangladesh and Rwanda and as deputy executive director of the Department’s NEA Bureau. Other overseas tours were in Belgium, Burkina Faso, India, and Nigeria – the latter as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since retiring he has been a re-employed annuitant, chiefly for the Office of Inspector General and as an editor of human rights reports for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). He was an appointed member of the Foreign Service Grievance Board 1997-2003, and an elected member of the American Foreign Service Association board of governors 2005-07.