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Ex-diplomat saw Iraq as `I quit' issue

John Brady Kiesling's new book tells why U.S. invasion plans forced his 2003 resignation.

September 25, 2006|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When John Brady Kiesling decided, in February 2003, that the looming United States invasion of Iraq would make it impossible for him, in good conscience, to remain in the U.S. Foreign Service, he carefully crafted a letter of resignation from his post as political counselor in the Athens embassy. Widely praised for its eloquence, the letter briefly made Kiesling semi-famous. Eventually, it helped earn him a tiny advance from Potomac Books.

Yet when he later reread the letter, says the author of the newly published "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower," he was startled to find that it contained a hole.

"It was so obvious to me that Iraq was going to be a disaster," Kiesling says, "that nowhere in my letter had I explained why it was going to be a disaster.... My knowledge that Iraq would be a disaster was intuitive."

One way of looking at his book is as a two-year effort "to figure out where that intuition came from."

The short answer is that it came from 20 years of diplomatic postings in places such as Morocco, Greece and Armenia, where he worked extremely hard -- motivated in part by what he calls his "intellectual vanity" -- to understand the way Moroccans, Greeks and Armenians thought and acted. That is a diplomat's fundamental job, he says, and "a resource for the United States of America."

The longer answer involves specific mistakes made and lessons learned.

In a chapter titled "Diplomatic Skepticism and the Lessons of Iraq," for example, he tells the story of his "failure to prevent a Florida con man from bilking the government of Romania out of $250,000." He then speculates pointedly as to whether this kind of humbling experience might have kept Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from falling so hard for Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, "an indicted embezzler who had already been written off by both the CIA and the State Department as a swindler."

Mainly, however, "Diplomacy Lessons" is a plea that Kiesling's old profession be taken more seriously.

"Diplomacy is not a miracle cure for anything," he says. "Diplomats bust their butts for years, and most of the time what they achieve is that the planet is still spinning around on its axis at about the same speed it was when they started. But that's actually an incredibly important task."

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