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Yale 62

Then and Now

By Stephen W. Buck

Following the Feb. 22 Washington Post headline “Trump on hunt for disloyalty in ranks,” I was depressed to learn from a retired senior Foreign Service Officer ambassador that in the past few weeks more than 20 seasoned Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCM) have been fired by their political appointee Ambassadors for not sufficiently praising and showing loyalty to President Trump.

This hit close to home for me, as I served a total of six years as DCM to three ambassadors at two different U.S. embassies – luckily, for career Foreign Service Officer (FSO) ambassadors rather than political appointees. I often acted as ambassador for months at a time in their absence. DCMs are critical to the running of embassies and the conduct of diplomacy, particularly when a political appointee ambassador’s only qualification is having made a large campaign contribution.

Steve in Romania for the ICASSI institute, 2019

This is so different from nearly 60 years ago, when John F. Kennedy spoke at our Yale ’62 commencement and famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This inspired me and classmate Bill Rope to join the Foreign Service and classmates such as Foreign Service officer Chris Snow to join USIA (United States Information Agency), while other classmates chose the Peace Corps, AID (USAgency for International Development) and various governmental and non-governmental organizations, under the general rubric of “the New Frontier.” Alas, it may sound hokey now, but it had real resonance for many in that exciting time.

I went to graduate school and then right into the Foreign Service, serving 39 years under 9 Presidents, from JFK to George W. Bush. It never occurred to me to be political. I voted as an independent. The President I admired most was George H.W. Bush, a person who tried to get as much information as possible before making a foreign policy decision. After he was no longer President and I was Consul General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called me up and said Bush had heard I knew a bit about Saudi Arabia and would like a briefing. Scowcroft and President Bush came to the Consulate. I discussed the history, politics and economics, while my wife Hala described the culture and Saudi women. Bush was really interested and asked probing questions. He wanted to know where the Saudis were coming from and how this might influence their foreign policy decisions.

Compare this to today, where “facts” are made up to support positions and ideology and little attention is paid to realities on the ground.

With the exception of a posting to Canada, my entire career was in State’s Near East Bureau, often called “Mother NEA.” I never was muzzled in my reporting, but rather, was nominated twice for the Director General’s award for reporting. The closest I came to being censored was in Jeddah. The political appointee ambassador wanted only good news out of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis asked why were U.S forces needed in Saudi Arabia, given the billions Saudi Arabia was paying for U.S. weapons and technical assistance. Why, a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden asked, were “infidels” needed to protect the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina? Asked about our reporting, I simply said we were conveying what Saudis were saying. Our reporting continued.

Alas, reporting can get one in trouble. In the late ’40s and early ’50s there had been a witch hunt after supposed “communists” in the State Department. Senator Joseph McCarthy went after the “pinkos” in the State Department who had “lost” China. In fact, all these “China hands” did was use their expertise to report on the rise of the communists in China. The interrogation circus was finally stopped by Senator Sam Ervin, who famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” Unfortunately, those courageous civil servants who have spoken out recently are now being hounded.

While supposedly the top member of the President’s Cabinet, the Secretary of State is way down the pecking order in terms of constituent and budgetary clout. The total number of musicians in the Defense Department is more than the total number of Foreign Service Officers! Recent data show about 15,000 Foreign Service officers serving in 265 different postings and that includes those on assignment at the State Department between foreign postings.

Until recently, the Foreign Service was little known. Even in Washington, I meet people who confuse the Foreign Service with the Forest Service. When I went to my first post, Algiers, my great aunt asked me why I was joining the Foreign Legion!

The number of applicants to highly competitive Foreign Service positions has dropped the past few years. NBC News reported recently, “Although President Donald Trump’s unpredictable, go-it alone foreign policy has caused apprehension among some prospective applicants, and led some senior diplomats to resign. [. . . ] Veterans of the diplomatic corps worry that the long-term health of the institution charged with safeguarding America’s interests abroad could be at risk if current trends continue.”

There is another factor for State’s relative weakness. In my view, diplomacy is best conducted quietly, as was the case, for example, with our using Oman as an intermediary in working out the JCPOA, more easily known as the Iran nuclear deal. Quiet diplomacy is essential – and that makes it more difficult to inform the American public about what the Foreign Service does.

One of the few good things to come from the present tensions and accusations was the testimony from now-retired career Foreign Service Officer and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and other courageous civil servants who served in Ukraine and elsewhere. Foreign service officers were distressed that Secretary of State Pompeo did not publicly support her when the White House decided she should be recalled because she was interfering with Rudy Giuliani’s shadow work on behalf of the President in Ukraine. Ambassador Yovanovitch modeled speaking truth to power, and made the Foreign Service better understood. She and other Foreign Service officers should be supported, not vilified.

In these dystopian times, my perhaps naïve hope is that there will be a President following the example of George H.W. Bush – taking a real interest in understanding, rather than vilifying, the “other,” whether it be a person, a country, or a people. Nearly sixty years on I still believe we, each in our own way, can make a difference.

We invite comments below.

7 comments to Then and Now

  • Tom Sherman

    Steve, thanks for an insider’s look and a confirmation that the long term consequences of this administration may be very nasty indeed.

    I think it was Joseph Welsh who questioned McCarthy’s sense of decency. Sam Ervin said “we all go through life like fireflies, with our light behind us.” Too true.


  • Steve Buck

    Thank you Tom and clarifying that the quote was from Joseph Welsh.



  • Jim Kelly

    Steve’s points are very well-taken. His recounting of the quiet role that diplomacy often takes ( and requires) is consistent with the anonymity of the Foreign Service that he describes. Unfortunately this make the Service prone to attack by self-described cleansers of our political institutions since this institution doesn’t have widespread support (“likes” in today’s parlance).

  • Jim Kelly

    A very nice piece. I was interested in his description of Foreign Service anonymity in the public eye. This unfortunately makes it an attractive target for self-described cleansers of our political institutions. That history is repeating itself after 2-3 generations suggests that learning in America is not optimal.

  • Norm Jackson

    Thanks, Steve. Great to read salient words written by someone who actually knows what they’re writing about! 🙂

  • Douglas Floyd Russell

    Steve, A late thank you for the above comments and for your time serving the interest of our country. Having spent 15+ years of my life in other countries I was already horrified at the changes taking place in the way the USA relates to the rest of the world on many fronts. Your note thoroughly amplifies that feeling. And now I can only imagine what is going on behind the scenes in DC given the cover and distraction provided by this virus pandemic. Stay well and keep pitching in for Yale and the USA (The kind of USA we used to know).

    • Stephen Buck

      Dear Douglas – Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate them as I and so many classmates live through terrible times brought on by lack of leadership and encouraging division. I continue to hope that we can replace anger and despair with actions of kindness.

      Again, thank you.