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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Brady Kiesling

by tristero

Heroes are always a rare thing. But one of the greatest of our time surely is John Brady Kiesling, the career diplomat in Greece who dramatically resigned in 2003 rather than continue to support the Bush/Iraq war. Here, Kiesling writes with undisguised bitterness at the financial and career rewards Tenet received for behaving like a scoundrel while, in contrast, Kiesling's job prospects were, in effect, destroyed because he was absolutely, and very publicly, right. Two excerpts from this essay by one of the most remarkable Americans of our time:
Accurate prophecy regarding Iraq does not require brilliance or deep expertise. An open-minded person who watched the interplay of nationalism and religion in the Middle East, anyone who listened sympathetically to ordinary Muslims, could have predicted the response to our amateurish attempts at preemptive democracy. And now that foreign policy pragmatism is socially acceptable again, the spies, diplomats, politicians, journalists and academics are pulling out their private correspondence to remind us that indeed they knew better. They would have given an honest opinion on Iraq back when it mattered, but their Commander in Chief failed to ask them for it.
Note that Kiesling writes "foreign policy pragmatism." Nevertheless, his excellent book, Diplomacy Lessons is subtitled "Realism for an Unloved Superpower." But it is clear that Kiesling is hardly advocating black box diplomacy of the traditional "Realist" sort, but rather diplomacy that knowledgeably grapples with issues in international relations as they come up, not within the dangerous framework of an ideological agenda.

I'll come back to the implications of that in a moment. But I wanted to share this other excerpt from Kiesling's essay with you first:
I live simply these days in central Athens. By bicycle (the silver SUV had palled, even if I could still afford it) it takes half an hour to Korydallos prison. There I study "Revolutionary Organization 17 November," a Greek terrorist group that humiliated the CIA for 27 years. This next book would be more salable if I soft-pedaled U.S. blunders, but then key lessons for America's "war on terrorism" would be lost.
I find this very moving. Rather than deliberately cashing in on the big bucks (and from what I can tell, I may be one of three people in the world who actually bought and read "Diplomacy Lessons"), Kiesling is doing scholarship - primary source scholarship - that will provide a candid, no-holds barred, look at a long, frustrating, struggle with terrorism. Talk about serving your country...

Given both his pragmatic approach to diplomacy and the overall tenor of his writing, Kiesling is the kind of person who, at one point, would probably have been labelled a conservative. Quiet, principled, uninterested in revolutionary change, loyal to his country, aware of America's foibles, but never seriously questioning its core ideas. I used to meet people like him, registered Republicans, people who I strongly disagreed with on many, many issues but whose basic decency and integrity was simply beyond question. That was a very long time ago.

I should make it clear, perhaps, that I don't find much in Kiesling to disagree with. I think his analysis of the Bush/Iraq war was, and is, spot on. I think his understanding of foreign policy commands respect due to his obvious expertise. But he is no DFH by any stretch of the imagination, as blog slang has it. Kiesling is no starry-eyed do-gooder who can't see a problem in the world that America's good intentions can't solve. He's far too cynical for that.

As for being a liberal in the sense I'm a liberal?* I suspect - I could be wrong - if ever I had the honor to spend some time speaking with Kiesling that we would quickly find fundamental disagreements in our worldview. So what? His long years of experience and his integrity mean that I would be a fool not to weigh seriously whatever he has to say. And even if he didn't persuade me to change my mind, I would benefit enormously from hearing his opinions and trying to follow his reasoning. On Kiesling's level, it would be immensely valuable to hear his thoughts regardless of whether or not I agree with him.

And that is the tragedy of the modern political discourse. There is nothing to gain from listening to any of the so-called conservative voices, be they Kristol, or Perle, or Wolfowitz, or Rumsfeld, or Cheney or O'Reilly...well, you can list them as well as I. There is no there there, intellectually or morally. There is only the will to power and the willingness to say anything, do anything, to seize power and wield it beyond oversight or question. There are no real ideas, despite their pretensions otherwise, and there are no fine minds; Wolfowitz's academic credentials merely recalls to mind one of Frank Zappa's funniest lines from Roxy & Elsewhere: "You get nothing with your college degree."

The mainstream media desperately needs more truly liberal voices both in foreign policy and for domestic issues. But this country also needs more John Brady Kieslings, for they, too, are intellectually honest and deserve a hearing.

*Of course, "liberal" is a difficult term to define. In the sense of the Enlightenment meaning, Kiesling is as liberal as any of us - as opposed to Cheney, for example, who is a monarchist to the core of his ugly little being. Here, what I mean is liberal in the sense of socially and economically liberal in the late 20th/early 21st century American understanding of the word. I suspect that I am far more "to the left" than Kiesling is, especially about economic issues, (but I"m not sure, of course, having never spoken with him).