Traci Hukill is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
While elected leaders come and go, the job of the civil servant requires a certain steadfast patience—a willingness to subjugate personal principles to fulfill a duty to the public. However, when the actions of the nation's leaders fly in the face of personal principles, some civil servants may decide they can no longer be seen as tacitly endorsing those actions by continuing to serve. Such was the case of three U.S. diplomats—Ann Wright, John Brown and John Brady Kiesling—who resigned in protest of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.
A year after they made national news by stepping down independently from once-satisfying careers in the State Department to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the stories of these three very different people bear remarkable similarities. They all felt that defending the war abroad was unimaginable. Received hundreds of supportive emails flooded in from privately distressed State Department colleagues. Miss the diplomatic life. But insist they have no regrets. For each there came a moment when the rush to war became too noxious to tolerate.
Deciding "It Stinks"
On March 19, 2003, the day before the United States launched air strikes on Baghdad, Ann Wright decided she could no longer represent a government whose foreign policy she found indefensible. She typed a three-page letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell resigning from her post as deputy chief of mission in Mongolia, effective March 31. "All my life I've been a public servant, and with every administration there are things that you personally may have to hold your nose and go, 'Oh, God,'" says Wright, a retired Army colonel who joined the foreign service in 1987.
"But I never felt so strongly about any of them that I felt that I could not figure out how to either divorce myself from the policy so I wouldn't have to do any representing of it or else handle the PR work of whatever that policy was. I felt I could not support this administration's decision to go into Iraq, and when you disagree with a policy that feels like kind of a cornerstone—I morally felt that I could not participate in it."
Wright, plainspoken and easygoing, now lives in Honolulu, scuba diving and relaxing between trips to the mainland to give talks on her decision to resign. Her daily routine differs dramatically from those of her fellow State Department resignees—John Brown is writing and teaching at Georgetown University, and John Brady Kiesling is teaching at Princeton and working on a book. But in their deliberative approach to breaking rank with the Bush administration, they have much in common.
For Brown, it was in September 2002, when Bush chief of staff Andrew Card uttered the infamous words, "you don't introduce new products in the summer." "That was a defining moment because I realized that these are parochial people. They're selling us a war, selling us a product for domestic purposes so W. can be Mr. Commander-in-Chief and on that we can win congressional elections," Brown says. "And that's when I said it stinks." The final straw came on March 6, when Bush, as Brown later wrote in the Foreign Service Journal, "speaking to a docile media in a faux-imperial White House setting, red carpet and all," failed to explain why the United States needed to attack Iraq now. That night, inspired by Kiesling's impassioned and much-reprinted Feb. 27 letter of resignation, he began drafting his own and submitted it on March 10. "At the time I was in the United States," Brown says, "but I couldn't see myself abroad defending this thing. I was in the Balkans from '95 to '98 and I was the press guy at the American embassy in Belgrade. I had reservations about our policy, but still, we were trying to stop a war. So I could go to bed and sleep. I have to thank Brady Kiesling for this," Brown says, "because I had never thought about the statement I could make until I saw his letter."
Kiesling—the first to resign in an eloquent letter printed in The New York Times and on countless anti-war Web sites—sounds a little sheepish when he confesses that his decision was sparked by a "stupid bureaucratic insult" in the form of a reprimand for not locking up a classified document in the safe at the U.S. embassy in Athens. "And then I realized it wasn't diplomatic security making me miserable," he says. "My career was making me miserable, because the work I was being asked to do was helping the United States behave really badly and stupidly."
Kiesling is not a pacifist. When the Balkans were imploding in 1992, he says, "it was clear to me that our policy of just pious bleating in favor of peace and unity was not going to do anything, and if we wanted to save lives there the international community would have to be prepared with an incredible threat of force." He and a group of colleagues wrote a memorandum of dissent to the department urging U.S. military action. But then came 2002, and Kiesling, who had begun his foreign service career under Reagan as an analyst, was offended by the connection drawn between Sept. 11 and Iraq. "If there had been any connection at all, we would have trumpeted it from the rooftops," Kiesling said.
"And the fact that nothing was presented, just vague murmurings designed to delude the American public, that struck me as criminally irresponsible."
Wright arrived at her decision in January 2002, while watching President George W. Bush's State of the Union address on television in Kabul. Wright was sharing a two-room bunker with the four other diplomats assigned to the bare-bones U.S. embassy in Afghanistan (and, surely not pleasantly, sharing one toilet and one shower with 100 Marines) when Bush announced to the world that Iraq, Iran and North Korea had hereby been designated an "axis of evil."
Wright recalls: "We looked at each other and said, 'What? Why are they doing this now?'" Over the next 14 months she watched, dismayed, while 130,000 troops amassed in Kuwait even as the Bush administration ignored Israel and Palestine, refused talks with North Korea and imposed what she considered the "unnecessary curtailment" of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. But what really chapped her was the abandonment of Afghanistan—planned, she now believes, from the moment Bush stepped into office. "Having served for six months in Afghanistan and having seen personally how far we had to go to bring the security environment into one that you could really start working on civil reconstruction of the country," she shakes her head. "If we had had that 130,000 troops we put in Iraq and put them into Afghanistan a year ago, things would be a hell of a lot different in Afghanistan. We've squandered time that we could have been using to wrap up Al Qaeda for a purpose that had nothing at all to do with the war on terrorism."
Another irritant to Wright, who worked on contingency war plans for Iraq in the 1980s, was the scuttling of those plans, which called for something on the order of 300,000 troops, including a substantial deployment of civil affairs people and military police to guard infrastructure. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, fearing public outrage, cut it short—and now Americans have to pay for looting, infrastructure damage and the rest. Furthermore, she predicts a major troop drawdown between June 30 and the November 2. "What we are paying as citizens for reconstructing Iraq should be a bill given to the big money guys of this administration—George Bush, Cheney - let those millionaires, those multimillionaires, pay for the ridiculous waste of money to rebuild that country," Wright says.
We're No Longer The Good Guys
All three fear the war's effects on America's image abroad. "Americans have been considered vulgar, badly brought up, we don't know how to use knives and forks properly, we wear shirts that are too colorful—you name it," Brown says. "But nevertheless we didn't shoot first. And with this catastrophe in Iraq we shot first. Basically, we were the good guys and we're no longer the good guys."
For Kiesling, the greatest cost was incurred Sept. 11, when the administration began telling the public the world is far more dangerous than it is. "We have become a frightened country, a country frightened into violation of its own principles and even its own interests," he says.
And all around, no regrets. All received an outpouring of support from fellow diplomats and friends around the world. Brown, who has written for The Nation and Counterpunch and publishes a daily listserv called the Public Diplomacy Press Review, revels in being able to speak his mind after 20 years of keeping mum about his personal views, as foreign service professionals must. So does Kiesling, although he feels somewhat adrift and jokes that one of these days he'll have to get a job (the Princeton assignment ends this spring). "I'm sort of the lone-analyst type, but in other ways I'm very much a creature who wants to be part of an organization with some external sense of purpose to keep me going," he says. He has resisted being adopted by the anti-war movement, which wanted him to "simplify the world for them in a way that would say they were right and the U.S. was wrong," when the answer wasn't that simple.
But his resignation was the right thing to do, and it served a purpose. "The thing that was best about my letter was not that it inspired the peace movement but that a whole bunch of ordinary Americans who had a somewhat idealistic idea of the U.S. suddenly had a set of arguments they could use that our current course wasn't the right one," he says. "People who knew in their guts that we were doing something foolish but couldn't articulate it—and I think I helped people articulate it."
As for Wright, when asked if she harbors regrets about leaving, the answer is an unequivocal "Nope." "I miss the diplomatic life immensely, but I don't at all miss representing this administration," she says. "I think it's very difficult for my colleagues still in the State Department. To be a diplomat having to represent these policies is horrendous. It is really tough."
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Published: Mar 30 2004