WASHINGTON — Nearly 25 years ago as a junior Foreign Service officer, I received a lecture from Ambassador Margaret J. Tibbetts, then the highest-ranking woman in the State Department. My office had forwarded for her clearance a sloppily typed cable regarding Cyprus. She remonstrated: "Young man, don't you realize that in diplomacy one misplaced comma and there can be MIGs over Cyprus!"
One of the most troubling aspects of last week's extraordinary events regarding Libya is the possibility that diplomatic ineptitude--the equivalent of misplaced commas--may have helped bring on the conflict. As U.S. warplanes were sinking Libyan ships and destroying ground radar stations, it came to public attention that William A. Wilson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a close friend of the President, had proceeded in early January on an unauthorized diplomatic mission to Libya. His secret meeting with Libyan officials followed on the heels of terrorist attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports that U.S. officials believe Libya assisted.
One should understand the gravity of Wilson's actions. Clear channels in diplomacy are always important, but especially in moments of war or peace when it is imperative that the two sides understand precisely what each to trying to say. In such times, governments pay particular heed to the statements and actions of official representatives.
Because of Wilson's official position, his trip to Tripoli cannot be compared, as some have, with Jesse Jackson's diplomatic forays. Jackson is a private citizen. Most foreign governments are sophisticated enough to understand that he speaks for a constituency, not a country.
Wilson's actions also cannot be compared with those of Andrew Young, who, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, met with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization without the knowledge of the State Department. Young was under instructions to persuade members of the Security Council to delay a sensitive vote on the Palestinian question. Arab diplomats told him that only the PLO could make that decision. Young replied that he could not meet with the PLO observer but if he happened to run into him socially, that was something else.
In fact, official U.S. policy permits U.S. officials to remain at social functions where PLO representatives are present. And Young's own President, Jimmy Carter, had shaken hands with the PLO representative at a U.N. reception. Young's mistake, then, was in not reporting his conversations to Washington.
Wilson's actions were different. He was negotiating with a state where he had maintained personal business ties but a state which his own Administration has virtually declared an enemy. Worse, he undertook this action when the United States was attempting to send a clear message to Tripoli--that Libya had approached the limits of U.S. patience and further steps were likely to bring a military response. He insists that he only conveyed established positions, but his arrival, just as the United States was cutting off official contact, could have convinced the Libyans that the Americans were bluffing. Indeed, the White House now reveals that it challenged Libya because the Libyan government did not seem to be getting the message. Like misplaced commas, Wilson's visit may have been a factor that helped bring warplanes over the Gulf of Sidra.
The gaffe is particularly egregious because of the special problem Libya presents to the international community. In recent years, countries like Iran or Libya have violated accepted norms; the international community has proved powerless in exacting any price. Unless such states can be forced to pay, we may see even greater violence in the international field. Moreover, U.S. efforts to persuade the international community to adopt effective steps short of war cannot possibly succeed if an Administration sends such confusing messages.
Yet this country will probably continue appointing people like Wilson to sensitive posts until we begin assessing the damage from sending abroad what a former State Department official called "ambassadolts." The cost to the nation under the Reagan Administration has been high.
In addition to Wilson's escapades, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom stayed on vacation during the Falklands crisis. It is well known among insiders that Alexander M. Haig Jr. came very close to a peaceful solution of that crisis. Would an able U.S. ambassador, who had established a close relationship with the British prime minister, have been able to nudge Britain toward a position that Argentina would have found difficult to turn down? We will never know because our man in London was John J. Louis Jr., heir to the Johnson Wax fortune, who said publicly: "I had thought of doing something in government service at some point in my life. But to have thought of this specific post would have been hilarious."