Monday, December 22, 2014

On Secret Negotiations

Harold Nicolson
The art of diplomacy, as that of water colours, has suffered much from the fascination it exercises upon the amateur. ~ Harold Nicolson

On November 12, 1986, I was in the West Wing of the White House on official business. After a long meeting, I made a pit stop at the downstairs men's room. While standing doing my business, the door swung open and in streamed several men. On my left was Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger. On my right was Secretary of State George Shultz. In the toilet stall was CIA Director Bill Casey. They obviously had just come out of a lengthy meeting of their own. All were stonily silent. None acknowledged any of the others. They studiously avoided eye contact at the sink, the towel dispenser and as they sought to exit the room. I sensed a definite chill between them and couldn't wait myself to get out of there. In the outside foyer, a suck-up White House flunkie greeted Shultz in a fawning voice. The Secretary stopped in his tracks and, red-faced, glowered at the man, then stormed off. Next day headlines broke open the Iran-Contra scandal. These men had just met with President Reagan and it didn't go well.

As the affair unfolded, the world became privy to a tragicomic episode in American diplomatic history, one of super-secret negotiations directly between the White House and senior Iranian officials involving a cockamamie scheme to trade weapons in return for release of American hostages in Lebanon as well as cash with which to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. Somewhere in the mix was a birthday cake. Starring an incompetent National Security Advisor and an eager beaver Marine O-5 lieutenant colonel, this farce rivaled a Peter Sellers movie.

Following the announcement of a new turn in U.S.-Cuban relations last week, the New York Times described in "How Obama’s Undercover Statecraft Secured Three Major Accords" the president's preferred style of carrying out sensitive diplomatic negotiations through a handful of White House advisors to the exclusion of other agencies, notably the State Department. President Obama has achieved three foreign policy successes via this means: opening relations with Havana, the climate change accord with China, and the interim nuclear agreement with Tehran. Each involved some clever skulking around the globe by key White House aides. The news media and Congress were none the wiser. The results have been positive thus far.

Negotiations in general need to have some level of confidentiality. The more sensitive in nature, usually the more secrecy is warranted. Henry Kissinger was a master of this this quasi-Machiavellian way of doing business. As with Obama, the Nixon White House concentrated policy making in an oversized National Security Council staff to the virtual exclusion of the State Department. And Nixon/Kissinger were largely successful at it. But Kissinger recruited some of the best and brightest Foreign Service officers to man his operation.

As we saw in Iran-Contra, however, there are risks and dangers to confining statecraft in the hands of a few non-diplomats. We, for example, owe the cession of Eastern Europe to the Soviets to Winston Churchill's secret dealings with Stalin behind Roosevelt's back in the so-called "naughty document." This double-dealing greatly enhanced Moscow's strategic position during the Cold War.

On the other hand, involving more people runs the risk of pesky leaks. Also, the State Department's notoriously sclerotic, atomized bureaucracy has a special talent not only for turning policy into molasses, but for equivocating it to oblivion. It wasn't for no good reason that JFK referred to State as a "bowl full of jelly."

But there is a middle way, one which preserves secrecy, yet mitigates the potential for disasters. I was privileged to have been among a small number of working level officials privy to highly sensitive discussions surrounding German unification and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The talks were close-hold, yet involved experts whose input averted some very real missteps. President George H.W. Bush deserves historians' accolades for the manner in which he and his foreign policy team handled these events.

Days after the Iran-Contra story broke, Assistant Secretary of State Arnie Raphel called me in to inform me he was submitting my name to the White House to serve as an aide to President Reagan's chosen in-house investigator. "By the way," Raphel added, "You report to me and me only. Got it?" In other words, he would be controlling strictly who would be privy to such sensitive work, but would not monopolize it. My assignment was aborted at the last minute by the White House's subsequent decision to confine its internal investigation exclusively to political loyalists, a path that only stoked Congress's and the media's own investigations. One of our finest diplomats, Mr. Raphel later died in a plane crash along with the president of Pakistan.

As a mid-level Foreign Service officer, I had been involved in other highly secret contacts and discussions, even, highly unusual for a diplomat, traveling under false cover. My Foreign Service colleagues likewise are accustomed to exercising utmost discretion in supporting highly sensitive diplomatic contacts, ensuring there are no leaks. When they do occur, they more often than not emanate from the White House itself or from Congress. Carefully chosen civil servants absolutely can keep secrets while supporting delicate initiatives. This White House, however, has shown a decided lack of faith and trust in its career diplomats.

The upshot here for the Obama White House is to tread very, very carefully when conducting secret negotiations, and I don't mean regarding security. That's a given. The Obama team may have experienced great success with the three examples mentioned above. But, by continuing to carry out sensitive dealings with foreign powers via an exclusive handful of top political loyalists in the White House, they increase the risk that future such transactions could fall flat, creating public embarrassment, possibly sparking congressional investigations and setting back America's standing on the world's stage.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Let's Send a Real Ambassador to Norway

Ambassador (?)
After much drama and embarrassment to the Obama White House lasting almost a year, the president's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, dropped out last week. The White House gave up on his nomination after it became clear there were not enough votes in the Senate to confirm him. Mr. Tsunis, a hotel magnate who had donated and bundled well over a million dollars to President Obama's and congressional members' campaign funds, so botched his confirmation hearing, displaying broad and deep ignorance of Norway and its form of government, that four Democratic senators defied White House arm twisting and refused to support Mr. Tsunis for the job. Vigorous lobbying by the Norwegian-American community played no small part in sinking his candidacy. Influential Norwegians, including the mayor of Oslo, also expressed their opposition.

Okay, there's again an ambassadorial vacancy in Oslo. What will the administration do? Nominate another moneybags campaign contributor with zero qualifications, hoping that nobody will notice and make a fuss? After all, the Democratic Senate leadership managed to ram through the lame duck Congress two equally ignorant and unqualified campaign contributors to Hungary and Argentina, countries sliding into despotism and bankruptcy, respectively. That's like sending two junior high Pop Warner players to the NFL and the Super Bowl. A real winning formula.

Now, here's a novel idea: Let's send a real diplomat to Norway! Oh, pshaw, you say. Why, everyone knows that civil servants are as poor as church mice and lack the pizazz that someone like a TV soap opera producer or a political party rainmaker brings to the foreign policy stage. These, after all, are folks who can pick up the phone at the drop of a campaign donation and call the Prez about Argentine LIBOR rates or visa fraud in the Budapest consular section. But I'm serious here. I really mean it. You'd be amazed what a Norwegian-speaking expert in diplomacy and with relevant college degrees can accomplish. Based on personal experience, I can attest that real diplomats are capable of the following:
  • communicate with the people in their own languages
  • know who to talk to in the host government and actually know what to say
  • how not to insult the locals with brash, stupid statements
  • how to pull the strings of USG agencies to get results
  • how not to embarrass the United States through public drunkenness, drug abuse, adulterous affairs or soliciting prostitutes
  • not to require their DCM and other staff to do the real work while they show off la bella figura at cocktail parties
  • how to actually write policy recommendations and know to whom to send them
BTW, all the drunkenness, soliciting, drugs, womanizing, etc. have actually occurred with a slew of politically appointed ambassadors. A relevant example is Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Norway Mark Evans Austad. An outspoken former Mormon missionary who hurled tirades against a variety of Norwegian liberal institutions as well as the press, he was arrested by Norwegian police at a house where he drunkenly bellowed and banged on a woman's door at 3am. The police ended up returning the good ambassador to his residence. For other examples of misbehaving pay-to-play ambassadors, see, The American Diplomatic Spoils System: Embassies for Sale.

We actually have serious business with our Nordic NATO ally. A few priority issues:
  • Russian fighter jets have increased near-incursions of Norway's coastal areas. Norway, of course, shares a border with Russia
  • Norway is a major player in the Arctic and Antarctic. Moscow recently has made military moves in the Arctic
  • Norway rivals its Russian neighbor in gas exports to the European Union, supplying 20 percent (compared with 25 percent from Russia). Should Russia cut back gas exports to Europe by 20 percent, Norway could easily make up the difference
  • Since Norway is not an EU member, all trade issues that come up – including fish exports – go through the Norwegian government, not, as in EU countries, through Brussels. Therefore, our embassy in Oslo plays a key role
  • Norway is home to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, a trillion dollars. Its guidelines mandate that 2 percent be invested in North America
  • Oslo is the go-to place whenever Israelis and Palestinians get serious about negotiating with each other 
Norway therefore is not a throw-away oversized golf resort in the Caribbean where a rich plutocrat can flaunt his abysmal standing on the Peter Principle scale. It's a real country with real issues demanding a real diplomat as U.S. ambassador. Our last career ambassador to Oslo was Margaret Joy Tibbets, appointed by President Johnson in -- 1964.

And here's another reason why the altruistic folks in the White House personnel office should change tack on the Norway ambassador position:

Your ambassadorial selections thus far have brought increasing embarrassment upon the president, who is being criticized in the media for Boss Tweed-like selling of public office. This president has the worst record in this regard compared to his predecessors. Moreover, morale in the U.S. Foreign Service is the lowest it's been since the witch-hunting years of Senator Joe McCarthy. Foreign Service officers have been shut out of the top jobs at State, while the administration uses the State Department as a patronage waste dump, appointing a swelling number of political hacks and cronies to a metastasizing array of "Special Envoys" to one useless or p.c. portfolio after another. The State Department resembles a bureaucratic Humpty Dumpty -- fat, largely marginalized and at risk of falling off the policy wall altogether as a bloated NSC runs foreign policy from the Eisenhower Executive Office building.

So, decisionmakers, before you blithely name yet another credential-challenged, monied dolt to go galumphing off to the land of Edvard Grieg and Trygve Lie, ponder the benefits of making just one exception. The Norwegian people certainly deserve better. America's diplomats would appreciate such a gesture. And the president sure could use some image repair in this area.