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WAR WITH IRAQ / INSIDERS' MISGIVINGS

Antiwar Movement Embraces Diplomat Who Quit Over Iraq

March 21, 2003|Rone Tempest and Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writers

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Only a month ago, John Brady Kiesling was a senior embassy officer in Athens, reading classified cables and defending U.S. policy on Iraq to Greek and European leaders.

Today, as missiles thunder down on Baghdad, the 45-year-old Californian is touring college campuses -- including the U.S. Military Academy, Harvard and, on Thursday, UC Berkeley -- speaking out against the same Bush administration policy.

Dismayed by what he describes as the "arrogance and blindness" of the Bush doctrine, Kiesling resigned last month after 20 years in the foreign service, which included postings in Armenia, Morocco and Israel.

He was joined last week by another veteran diplomat, John H. Brown and, on Wednesday, by foreign envoy Mary Wright, who said in a resignation letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that U.S. foreign policies will make the world "more dangerous, not safer."

Kiesling has gone a step further in recent weeks, emerging as a subdued but influential voice in the American antiwar movement.

In his letter to Powell, Kiesling wrote: "Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon ... since the days of Woodrow Wilson."

The words of Kiesling, the U.S.-based Brown and Wright -- a former deputy chief of mission in Ulan Bator, Mongolia -- are repeated frequently by many in the peace movement.

All three can claim the authority of insiders who had access to U.S. intelligence. They also represent a rarity in U.S. government service: the principled resignation.

Even during the long Vietnam conflict, only a handful of low-level officials resigned. Senior officials who opposed the war, such as then-State Department Undersecretary George Ball, preferred to fight their battles from the inside. Kiesling, Brown and Wright are the first U.S. envoys to resign since a handful of Balkan experts quit in the early 1990s.

"I guess I grew up with this notion, maybe because of my classical education background," said Kiesling, that "civil servants should be prepared to resign on principle."

Besides being instantly adopted by the Internet-driven peace movement, Kiesling said, he has been supported by e-mails that have flooded U.S. embassy Web sites. The few negative responses, he said, tended to be along the lines of, "Don't let the door hit you on your way out."

Interviewed at his mother's Menlo Park home near Stanford University, the soft-spoken Kiesling, who studied ancient history and archeology in college, said he has resisted numerous appeals to participate in street demonstrations.

"It's not the right audience," said Kiesling, who is divorced and has a 19-year-old daughter. "The peace marchers are truly wonderful people, but they are not the key audience here."

For one thing, said Kiesling, he is not a pacifist. He was an ardent supporter of the first Gulf War as well as the U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

"Until these recent events," Kiesling said, "I'd been a pretty contented diplomat." Kiesling had been involved in the complicated Balkan region for most of his career.

In the spring of 2002, however, he began to feel that senior members of the Bush administration were bypassing diplomatic channels. Typical, he said, was a brief visit to Greece by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during which the Bush Cabinet member made only a cursory attempt to meet with the local embassy staff.

Kiesling's agonizing decision to resign, and to resign publicly, came from a growing feeling that the Bush policy threatened to destroy long-standing alliances and unravel significant anti-terrorism efforts.

"It seemed to me that we were winning the battle," Kiesling said. "Suddenly out of nowhere, the whisper started concerning the problem with Iraq. The intelligence seemed very flimsy."

Instead of taking to the streets, Kiesling has accepted a handful of invitations from university policy centers.

His older sister, Eugenia C. Kiesling, is a historian who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. She arranged one of the more unusual stops for Kiesling since his return home, a series of lectures at the service academy.

"I decided it was my patriotic duty to transmute my own misery into a wake-up call," he said.

In her letter to Powell, Wright took issue with the Bush administration's policies on Iraq, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and civil liberties at home.

She said the Iraq policy squandered worldwide sympathy for the United States generated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Wright said she spent 26 years in the Army and Army Reserves, rising to the rank of colonel, and had served as a diplomat in Micronesia, Somalia, Uzbekistan and other nations.

Brown joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and served in London, Moscow, Prague and elsewhere. Most recently, he was a diplomat in residence at Georgetown University.

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Tempest reported from Menlo Park and Zitner from Washington.

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