“You have one more test to pass.”
That’s what then–secretary of state George Shultz would tell newly appointed diplomats after they had finished the obligatory grip-and-grin. The guest in his office would look puzzled, and Shultz would instruct him or her, “You have to go over to the globe on my desk and identify your country.” Invariably, the statesman would point to New Zealand or Egypt or some other nation, to which Shultz would reply, “No, point to your country,” reminding him where his true loyalties lie.
“Originally,” Shultz says, “I thought of it as something fun.” But when it took several years for someone actually to spin the globe around and point to the United States, the exercise became a potent—and telling—display of the underlying problem of the State Department. Foggy Bottom’s inverted priorities—believing that the job of the diplomatic corps is to represent a foreign country’s interests in America, not America’s interests in the foreign country—can be seen in any number of examples, from easy visas to child abduction cases.
By its own admission, State lobbied against the rather mild Syria Accountability Act in part because Syria and its neighbors would not like the sanctions bill. The intent might not have been to represent Syria’s interests—State’s standard line is that sanctioning countries hurts “relations”—but the effect is that it did. Saudi Arabia was able to enjoy Visa Express even after September 11 because State believed that ending the program would harm “relations” with the House of Saud. And State does little to help left-behind American parents recover their children abducted to foreign lands because exerting real pressure—in the minds of State officials—would make it more difficult to get other “favors” from the foreign governments.
FIXING STATE—TO THE EXTENT IT’S POSSIBLE
Then-U.S. ambassador to Jordan, William Burns, had heard some disturbing news, and he rushed to make an apology. A Jordanian citizen, Ishaq Farhan, had received a visa from the State Department, only to be turned back by U.S. customs officials as he tried to enter the country to give a speech at a conference for the American Muslims for Jerusalem in Santa Clara, California. Burns personally assured Farhan that he was sorry for any inconvenience the incident caused.
Farhan was head of the fundamentalist group Islamic Action Front (IAF) and had possible ties to terrorism. Not sketchy, far-fetched ties, either. A fax threatening possible terrorist action against the United States came from his office fax machine, which is why he was added to the terrorism watch list in 1999 and his visa (issued in 1998) was revoked.
On November 10, 1996, the American embassy in Amman, Jordan, received the following fax from IAF demanding the release of a Hamas leader, Dr. Musa Abu Marzook.
We demand that you immediately release Dr. Musa Abu Marzook and urge you not to hand him over to the Zionist enemy. We warn you that if you do not release Dr. Musa Abu Marzook, and if you hand him over to the Jews, we will turn the ground upside down over your heads in Amman, Jerusalem, and the rest of the Arab countries and you will lament your dead just as we did to you in Lebanon in 1982 when we destroyed the Marine House with a booby-trapped car, and there are plenty of cars in our country. You also still remember the oil tanker with which we blew up your soldiers in Saudi Arabia.
Granted, this might not constitute sufficient evidence for a criminal conviction in a court of law—but then the question of whether someone qualifies for a visa is not one for which the U.S. has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since the incident happened in May 2000—more than a year before September 11—State still had the power to “correct” matters. The suspected terrorist, who had told the Jordan Times in 1998, “The resistance of the enemy Israel is a right and legitimate jihad holy war,” had his visa reinstated, giving him an open door to come to the United States.
Less than a year later, Burns was named assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), one of the most coveted positions at Foggy Bottom. The next step is usually a lucrative private sector or foreign policy institute job (often funded with Saudi petro-dollars). There are few positions with more power at State. During his first two years as head of NEA, Burns’ bureau opposed reauthorization of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act; actively undermined the pro-democracy Iraqi National Congress, and ignored the massive student protests against the ruling mullahs in Iran in summer 2002, only to later “engage” those same mullahs so despised by the people they oppress. Over the course of 2001 and 2002, Burns personally guided efforts to re-legitimize Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi.
As disturbing as Burns’ tenure as head of NEA is, however, it is roughly similar to the track records compiled by previous NEA chiefs. Burns, in other words, is not the problem at State; he is merely the latest symptom of the problem: Foggy Bottom’s corrosive culture.
A look at how State handles itself in a wide range of areas—abandoning abducted children trapped overseas, intentionally making it easier for even suspected terrorists to get visas, coddling the House of Saud, courting Saddam Hussein after the end of the Iran-Iraq war and after the gassing of the Kurds, ignoring pro-democracy groups in the name of “stability”— shows that the causes for those actions are few in number but broad in scope. It’s not that Foggy Bottom officials are anti-American, although far too many seem to have forgotten the country they should be representing. It’s not that officials at State think they are doing anything other than advancing America’s interests. It’s a question of priorities, and the necessary means for achieving them.
Regardless of the issue at hand, State’s primary goal is “stability,” a thoroughly value- and moral-neutral word. Within the United States, “stability” would mean continued freedom of religion and speech, regular elections for government positions from the local town council to the president of the United States, and the ability to say and write things highly critical of the government without any fear of punishment or retribution. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, or North Korea, “stability” means something far different: constant fear of the government, no freedom to speak or pray as you please, and a life side by side with thugs and terrorists who roam freely.
It is simply unconscionable that the country that is the embodiment of freedom would be complicit in the denial of God-given rights. It is against U.S. interests to tolerate such regimes. Regimes that have no respect for their own people are not likely to have any for the United States. U.S. strategic interests will surely at times require partnerships with disreputable leaders and even brutal regimes, but in working with such entities, the U.S. should push them down the path of freedom.
Freedom does not magically appear; it happens in stages—a process that can be measured not in months, but years or even decades. And it’s not about holding elections or casting ballots, it’s about building institutions of freedom—such as a free press, free enterprise, and free and independent churches, synagogues, and mosques—and pushing governments to implement internal reforms and place the highest priority on human rights.
To say that Foggy Bottom officials hate freedom or cheerfully support the tactics of tyrants would be grossly unfair. But the State Department mindset generally does not focus on questions of values and morals. State truly believes that “stability” is sacrificed if the spread of freedom becomes a top objective.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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