Diplomats speak out against BushDavid Hoppe

It's almost impossible to get into an argument with a professional diplomat. That's because they are practiced in the arts of observation and analysis. They watch, they listen and, most of all, they engage. That is, they ask questions, converse. I suppose you could say that diplomacy is all about keeping the conversation, whether it's between two people, or nations, from breaking down. "If this administration goes around telling people we're facing another threat, people are going to want to know what the hell it's based on. I think it's going to be very hard." - former ambassador Sol Polansky

Sol Polansky is a professional diplomat, now retired. When he began his career as an interpreter in the Soviet Union, Stalin was still in power. Later, Sol would serve as deputy chief of mission in East Berlin, acting ambassador to Austria and ambassador to Bulgaria. He is also a close family friend. That doesn't mean I haven't tried to provoke him from time to time. But I don't think it's possible. I believe Sol would rather hear what someone else has to say then score a few points over dinner.

So the fact that Sol Polansky and 187 of his fellow former ambassadors decided to come forward and sign a letter calling for a change in national administration deserves our attention. This is the first time in 75 years that a group of senior diplomats has broken an unwritten code of political silence to make their feelings known.

Sol said he was "upset and frustrated" with the way the Bush Administration was doing things. When a member of the Kerry campaign asked him if he was interested in seeing if there were other colleagues who felt the same way, he agreed. "Essentially," Sol says, "we began calling friends of ours, colleagues who were retired, basically saying, 'I'm concerned about where we're going and if you feel this way would you be interested in signing on to a letter in support of Kerry and pointing out why we think it's important we have a change of administration in the next election.'"

Eighty-eight career ambassadors added their names - people who had served under presidents of both parties and worked their way through the foreign service ranks. Meanwhile, a list of non-career, politically appointed ambassadors who had served under both Republicans and Democrats was being compiled, making a total of 188 signatories. They held a press conference at the National Press Club on Oct. 4. John Eisenhower, the son of President Dwight Eisenhower and a former ambassador to Belgium who had recently published his own letter endorsing Kerry, attended.

"These were people who are upset with the way the whole Iraq business is going, with how we have lost confidence among our allies and friends, and the dive in public support for the United States as a result of the administration's positions," Sol says.

Sol recalls being in Norway on the morning of Sept. 11 and the immediate outpouring of sympathy and support that Americans received. "If you went into Oslo today and people found you were an American I'm not sure you'd get much support," he says. "I think virtually every public opinion poll that's been taken abroad, whether in Europe or the Middle East, shows a strong decline in respect for and support of the United States as a result of what this administration is doing. I think it deeply troubles everybody that's been involved in this letter writing - the kind of support that's been lost. It didn't have to happen."

This loss of support isn't, as President Bush would have it, merely a matter of being temporarily unpopular with our neighbors. It puts our security in jeopardy. "If we talk - it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that governments will be highly suspicious of what we're telling them. If this administration goes around telling people we're facing another threat, people are going to want to know what the hell it's based on. I think it's going to be very hard."

The willingness of these retired foreign service professionals to share what their years of experience tell them is cause for alarm with the rest of us has, predictably, raised hackles in certain quarters. Last week, two groups came out with statements aimed at rebutting this criticism of Bush policy. One of these groups was endorsed by Sol's former bosses, George Schultz, Lawrence Eagleburger and last, but hardly least, Henry Kissinger. In brief, they assert that Sol and his colleagues' decision to make their views public breaks tradition for retired senior diplomats.

"I understand what they're saying," Sol says. "But we're retired, we have views. There's no reason why we shouldn't express those and, at the same time, respect the commitment that current foreign service people are making to the U.S. government.

"My own response is, look," Sol continues, "we took an oath to defend the United States of America when we joined the foreign service. We didn't take an oath to protect a Republican administration or a Democratic administration.

When we started this process of asking ambassadors if they were willing to sign on we didn't ask them if they were Republicans or Democrats. I didn't ask what their party affiliation is and I don't know. If an administration wants honest answers, they've got a group of people who are prepared to devote themselves to their country and to try to give their best opinion."

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