Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is one of those rare diplomats with brilliant language abilities who also was involved in an astonishing range of key events in the last 30 years of the 20th century. While his ancestors may have been a bit rakish, he grew up in the Bahamas in a household where it was expected to speak a foreign language at dinner. He joined the Foreign Service as “a perfect escape from boredom and monotony” and somehow became almost bilingual in Mandarin in two years (an unheard-of accomplishment) and then served as one of the interpreters during Nixon’s historic trip to China.
After serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in China and Thailand (where he also became fluent in Thai), he was named Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs in 1986, then Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (after learning Arabic), where he worked with General Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm (you can read more here). In these excerpts, Ambassador Freeman frankly (and often critically) discusses his upbringing; his experience in China; his observations about the Foreign Service as a “proto-profession which is unable to learn from its mistakes; Public Diplomacy officers vs. FSOs; the problem with “Africanists;” interagency negotiating (e.g., when you have a problem with the Department of Commerce, schedule the meeting for early evening since they will want to go home and therefore will make concessions); the difficulties of working in Saudi Arabia and the lack of a war-termination strategy for Desert Storm; and his hope that the Foreign Service will one day become truly professional. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 1995.
A Rakish Ancestry and a Privileged Upbringing
FREEMAN: I’m a typical product of centuries of American miscegenation. The Freemans came to this country in 1621. And there is a family tradition (which may or may not be correct) that the reason for this is recorded in a famous English law case called Freeman vs. Freeman, in which, as I recall, my putative ancestor was a rake and a ne’er-do-well in London (the family was originally from Devon) and was persuaded by a wealthy uncle, having lost all his own money in gambling and drinking, that he should marry a very ugly, overage young lady who was the ward of this uncle. Being a scoundrel, he naturally insisted on a written contract. In return for marrying this girl, he got an annual income and a lump sum. The uncle made it clear to him, orally, that the contract was dependent on his refraining from drink and gambling, and his behaving like a gentleman. He didn’t live up to the terms of the contract, needless to say. And this resulted in a lawsuit in which he tried to enforce the contract against his uncle. He lost. When he lost, he abandoned his wife, went to Holland and became a Puritan, repented of his sins, I reckon, and then moved to the Plymouth Colony. One brother went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and remarried, bigamously. So that’s the start of the line.
The family has been around in the United States long enough so that I can count thirteen European nationalities and one American Indian tribe in my background, and some illustrious ancestors — John Adams and John Quincy Adams among them, and Governor John Winthrop, in an earlier period….
My mother was an artist and architect from Boston, Carla Elizabeth Park. The two of them [she and my father] ended up in Nassau, the Bahamas, initially running and then later buying a hotel of some antiquity and distinction, called the Royal Victoria, which had been built during the Civil War for the gun and cotton runners of the South…. So I grew up in the Bahamas….
The teachers at that school in the Bahamas included quite an eclectic lot, many of whose backgrounds I didn’t know at the time. A history teacher was arrested, in the course of one of my classes, as a war criminal by the British authorities, and returned to Germany for trial. I never knew quite what happened to him. The Latin and Greek teacher, who was an RAF ace, turned out to have been drummed out of the RAF for egregious homosexual behavior. The geography teacher was a South African Communist in exile. My scripture teacher later defected to a job at BOAC as a stewardess, which probably lowered the standards of beauty in that organization, but certainly improved our scripture teaching….
I should say that there is a family tradition, on my mother’s side, going back at least to the time of my great grandfather, which would be the late nineteenth century, of conversation twice a week at the dinner table in a foreign language. And each generation chose its language. For my grandfather’s generation, it was German, although my grandfather was also bilingual in French, having lived in Strasbourg for a while. For my mother’s generation, it was French, although she also knew Spanish. Having Robert Redfield, who was an anthropologist, as an uncle, she had spent a year with the Redfields in Guatemala while they were doing field research. For my generation, the language was French, again. And for my children, it was Chinese….
First, I should say that my father had succeeded magnificently in business in the Bahamas and had multiple interests — in addition to the Royal Victoria, another hotel, a rental car agency, a recording company, a nightclub, a restaurant, some supermarket investments in Cuba, which proved to be a bad thing as Castro came along…. He was overextended at that time, having just renovated the two hotels, and this brought him down financially. He ended up staying on in Nassau as a real estate agent for several years while he paid off a few million dollars in debt, and then moved to California….
When I was at Yale, I was a full-scholarship student. That gave me an incentive to try to get through quickly. And the incentive was added to when, shortly after I arrived there, I met a girl, whom I courted madly, even dropping out of the swimming team in order to pursue that courtship, got her pregnant, and had to marry her. (Well, at least I thought I did.) I had a quite happy marriage of thirty years with her, which broke up only in the summer of 1992, in a very nasty way….
I took quite a range of courses: history, political science, economics. I took a full accounting course, enough to have probably gone for a CPA if I’d wanted to. I did biology. I did not do any of the physical sciences other than that, though I did some biochemistry. I did sociology and found it inane and didn’t pursue it. I took a course in linguistics. I taught myself, outside of school, some strange things. I had gone to Europe when I was fifteen and met a Danish girl, and I taught myself to read and write Danish to carry on a correspondence. I learned Anglo Saxon in order to read the poetry, although I didn’t take very many English courses at Yale. I took a fair amount of philosophy. So it was a very diffuse experience….
I decided that really what I wanted to do was join the Foreign Service…. It seemed to me that the Foreign Service offered a career that was in some respects the antithesis of the law. Whereas lawyers are like oysters, who have a free-swimming polyp phase but then soon settle down on a rock and grow a shell of clients and flap their jaws in the tide for a living. In the Foreign Service, every several years, one has a complete change of scene, not simply colleagues with whom one is working, but physical location, cultural location, and linguistic location. Therefore, it seemed to me that it, as a career, offered a perfect escape from boredom and monotony….
My primary encounters with Foreign Service people had been unfortunate. In 1960…two friends and I decided to hitchhike to Tierra del Fuego. As we went south in Central America, things got gloomier and gloomier, and we turned around and went back to Mexico…. I was sleeping peacefully on the beach one night. I was awakened with a flashlight in my eyes and a prick in my throat, which was a bayonet. It turned out that I was sleeping in a maximum-security zone just in front of the oil fields and refinery in Tampico. So the Mexican army rounded me up, and I was taken off to the brig. Somehow the local consul was awakened from his slumbers and came out and got me and my two friends out of the custody of the Mexican military and allowed us to sleep on their kitchen floor (we were fairly scruffy) for the remainder of the night. They gave us breakfast, very kindly.
But what was most notable about them was that, while they had spent their entire career in Latin America, his Spanish was dreadful, and her Spanish was kitchen Spanish, no verb conjugations and the like. I thought to myself, as I reviewed that experience, “My God, if that’s what is in the Foreign Service, I can surely excel.”…
“The U.S. continues to value amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy”
The nature of the training [A-100 course for incoming Foreign Service Officers] I found disappointing…. I commented to you on the work I’m currently doing on statecraft and diplomacy. I had expected something really rather different, having read some memoirs of European diplomats. I expected a bit more emphasis on what I would call professional knowledge and was quite surprised to see that a great part of the course was taken up with explaining the organization of the U.S. government, very little with tradecraft, which was what I was most interested in. I found the A-100 quite spotty, as a course, and quite disappointing. The only thing that I found really satisfying was the consular segment of it, because that had some meat and substance, and, by God, you had to know that stuff or you were going to flunk on the job….
I gave a talk at the Foreign Service Association…on the question of whether diplomacy is a profession. My view is that it ought to be, but is not…. Professions have certain common characteristics. One of them is, by the way, tutelage by elders, a period of apprenticeship. That has now been substituted in the military, the legal profession, and the clergy, by specialized schools. West Point was the first for the military; the Harvard Law School pioneered professional legal education; and divinity schools, which existed from the outset of the university system in this country, have taken over the function for the clergy. There is no comparable thing for the Foreign Service. Therefore, elders teaching new entrants the rules of the game and the ropes of the trade is essential. And what I found most missing in the A-100 course was exactly that. It was very interesting and useful to know about the organization of the CIA and how it related to the rest of the government, and the NSC structures that then existed, and the organization of the Pentagon, as well as, of course, the Department of State. But the lore of diplomacy, the tradecraft of it, and its relationship to statecraft were not addressed.
A second characteristic that a profession has is a self-certifying process. That is that professional competence is certified over the course of the career. The Foreign Service has that in the form, now, of commissioning in tenure boards and promotion panels and selection in and out of different grades. So that it has this in inchoate form.
Another characteristic is a code of ethics. The Foreign Service has such a code of ethics, but it’s inchoate and unwritten. There are certain rules that we all learn in the course of our careers. For example, the protection of confidences, which is an ethical principle just as much as the attorney-client privilege is in the law….
The importance of all of this is that self-consciousness as a member of a profession leads to better training. It defines what is being trained and stimulates training. Second, it leads to tutelage and apprenticeship relationships in the profession. And third, as the profession is recognized as such, entry by unqualified people is barred. Sometime around the 1840s, it became unthinkable for anyone to be appointed a colonel in the U.S. Armed Forces without having had a professional military education. That was violated in the Civil War, but the basic principle has stood. No one would imagine that a politician with distinguished credentials in that field, or a businessman with distinction in the field of business, was qualified to run a carrier battle group or to command a division. In the clergy, similarly, you cannot now aspire to serious status professionally without credentials….
So the problem of the U.S. Foreign Service is that, whereas the United States pioneered the development of professions of the military, the law, and the clergy, the Foreign Service, for various reasons, failed to acquire those professional characteristics and to formalize its professionalism. And therefore it is vulnerable to the placement of friends of politicians in positions where they exercise great responsibility on behalf of the nation without understanding the simplest elements of what goes into discharging those responsibilities well. The United States is now, to my knowledge, the only significant country, and may be well on the way to being the only country, that continues to value amateurism over professionalism in diplomacy…. My own view is that the Foreign Service is going to be vulnerable to grotesque political manipulation for as long as it fails to follow the military, the law, and the clergy in professionalizing itself….
An Amazing Student of Chinese
I reported for Chinese-language studies at FSI the day after New Year’s, 1969. There were two other starting students, both of whom had graduate degrees in Chinese studies and Chinese language from the University of Michigan. However, the linguist in charge…tested them and found their grammar and pronunciation greatly wanting, and decided to start them again at the beginning, which was quite humiliating for them. And I found it embarrassing for me, because I thought I would hold them back and would to some extent destroy the utility of this experience for them. So I determined to work hard and to try to catch up with them. And I worked very hard. And the result was that, within about three months, I passed them, and within six months, I had a 2+/2+ in Chinese [reading and conversation, on a five-point scale], which I think was unprecedented. So rather than continuing for the full year at FSI Washington, they sent me to T’ai-chung, to the language school there.
I arrived there August of 1969. The school in T’ai-chung was deliberately separated from the embassy in Taipei in order to prevent the embassy from raiding the student body, as it would have. And I continued to work exceedingly hard. I managed to talk my teachers into allowing me to have nine and a half hours of class a day. I’d start at 6:30. The result was that, several months after I arrived there, I got a 3/3, which was supposedly the objective of the two-year course. I kept grinding away, and I ended up eventually with a 4+/4+ [reading/speaking; in this case, nearly bilingual] in Mandarin. But along the way, some things happened. I decided to learn Taiwanese, which is as different from Mandarin as Dutch is from English. I ended up with a 3+ in that.
But as 1970 unfolded, the Department was casting around for an interpreter to replace Don Anderson…. I suddenly got a call, March 1970, asking me whether I would go to Warsaw, where the talks were held with the Chinese Communists, as interpreter…. I should say, one thing I did at T’ai-chung was exhaust the library. And I ended up producing an annotated bibliography of the library for the student body. So I was still reading, even though I was getting up every morning and writing a thousand-character essay for the 6:30 class….
I also was aware that classroom environment is not Chinese. My wife, who was from New Jersey, learned Chinese. We gave up English and spoke nothing but Chinese at home. My three children all became proficient in it. My youngest child, Nathaniel, who was an infant when we arrived, left Taiwan knowing no English, only Chinese. I sight-translated the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien’s book, into Chinese for my children. I’m probably the only person who’s ever done that….
Following up on the China Trip – How to Work the Bureaucracy
Part of the process that led up to the Nixon visit [read more about his experience as interpreter during the visit] was signaling the Chinese by the removal of restrictions on trade and travel and exchanges of one sort or another. But that process was far from complete, and there needed to be major adjustments made in American law and regulation to accommodate the new relationship with the Chinese.
As I recall, within a week or so of the president’s return from China, Dr. Kissinger commissioned two National Security studies, one on economic relations and one on cultural relations with China. And he set about a one-week deadline for the conclusion of these, imagining, I suppose, that there was a vast army of bureaucrats below him who could now fill in the details of what he had done.
Well, that vast army of bureaucrats for both studies was basically me. So I spent a week, often a whole night at the office, now out of the Ops Center, drafting two National Security study memoranda, and then circulating these drafts on an interagency basis, and spending much of the following day negotiating with other agency representatives in an effort to get some kind of agreement.
The bureaucracy was especially recalcitrant on the issue of relaxing export controls, and the difficulty of coming up with agreed language was quite considerable.
I discovered a number of things about the culture of Washington bureaucracies.
For example, if you called a meeting for five o’clock in the afternoon, by about six-thirty, the Department of Commerce representatives were desperate to go home and have their martinis and dinner, and would begin to make major concessions. So the first lesson was always to call meetings late in the day when there was a controversy with Commerce.
The second lesson was that the Department of Defense, unlike the Department of Commerce, would sit there all night and obstruct. But their bureaucracy was so cumbersome that if you stayed up overnight and produced a redraft and then scheduled a meeting for the early afternoon, they would not have had time to coordinate their position, and you could rule them out of order as not having a position, and push forward.
Treasury was the wiliest and most insistent of all the bureaucracies we were dealing with, partly because the subject matter in which they had real expertise was minimal. They had opinions on many things, but their expertise was quite limited.
Q: Was it limited because China had just not been in their orbit? Or was it limited because they were limited?
FREEMAN: Treasury historically has professed some sort of a major role in trade policy. But Treasury doesn’t promote trade in any way. It has no direct involvement with the business community, as opposed to bankers. And there is a real question as to whether bankers are an intelligent life form or not. So it was Treasury speaking as the custodian of national interest, as it saw it, even though it had no effective role in the issues that it often addressed….
On Public Diplomacy officers vs. State’s FSOs
USIS [U.S. Information Service] is, in a sense, a purer form of the Foreign Service (although my former colleagues at the State Department wouldn’t agree) than the State Department, in that its meaningful activity is almost entirely abroad and in interaction with foreigners. USIA, the headquarters, is a dull, uninteresting, boring place to work, generally. The people who run USIA won’t agree with that opinion, but it is commonly the opinion among those who must serve there.
Whereas, at State, there are really two kinds of FSOs. There are those who glory in overseas work. Most consular officers and many political and economic officers fall into that category. A lot of admin officers love the scope that they have to do things overseas, which they don’t have in the vast bureaucracy at the State Department. But there also are FSOs who see their role as policy formulators, and who are desperate to be where they think the action is, which is in Washington.
In USIA, you don’t find that sort of person. Or if you do, that sort of person is attracted to details to the State Department and not to the USIA headquarters.
But the interesting thing is, during my tour in India with USIA, I got incredible management experience, at a very young age, managing budgets, people, activities, programs, a sort of experience that, frankly, State does not offer, except perhaps in a few areas of consular work and refugee programs, at any point. Even the administrative function does not offer program management in this sense, experience that USIS officers get early on. They see themselves as doers, and they see the people at the State Department as twiddlers. This mirrors, I think, the image that many administrative officers at State have of those in the political and economic business. They don’t perceive the difficulties or the arcane nature of that work, and deny its professionalism. So I think it’s a profound difference.
Then there are other differences. Overseas, State officers work closely (or should, and most do) with colleagues from the intelligence services, whether they’re civilians from the CIA or military from the defense attaché’s office. They are collectors of information and reporters of information as much as presenters of it. To the extent that they are purveyors of information, they purvey an official line, rather than their own opinion, although they may use their own method of presentation, and they may embroider the official line with their own supporting views. But they are not free to express individual opinion.
USIS officers see themselves as presenting the diversity of American opinion. They don’t take easily to the official line.
And so there is a certain tension always between the mentally free-wheeling and, frankly, irresponsible USIS officer (irresponsible in the sense of not being responsible for the formulation of policy) and the State officer, who is responsible for the implementation of policy, and contributes to its formulation, and is, in a sense, always an official spokesman for the U.S. to the government to which he or she is accredited.
Now that exaggerates the situation quite a bit, but it is a description of a chasm that exists between the two, which makes the relationship very uneasy and leads to some mutual disrespect, I think, again, to the detriment of both….
I should mention one other cultural difference, which was very striking and quite difficult for me to adjust to. At State, I had worked on the China Desk and in other contexts where there was a 12 to 14-hour day. When you went home, you were never sure if you were going to have to go back, and you were constantly working under tight deadlines. When I went to USIA, I suddenly found that if I stood in the doorway at quitting time, I would be trampled by my staff, who rushed out the door. By 5:45 or so in the evening, I’d be all alone in the office. It was very difficult for me to adjust to a more abbreviated, leisurely work style; much more a sort of Civil Service type of work style than that at State. I think USIS officers also react the same way when they come back from overseas, where they have a day that is in the office, but then in the evening are usually involved with activities of one sort or another. When they find themselves in an organization where, frankly, the workload is not what it is overseas, they also have withdrawal symptoms….
On the Problem with Africanists
Q: What was the mood with the Africanists and others in the African Bureau, and also outside forces playing on you, such as Congress and the National Security Council? Can you describe that?
FREEMAN: One thing that I discovered, in the course of reading, was that Africanists make Latin Americanists seem objective and balanced.
I’ve often thought (as I mentioned, my first education was in Latin American affairs) that Latin Americanists tend to be flagellants, beating themselves for the sin of being American, and blaming the United States for much of the ills of the Western Hemisphere, some of which indeed may be laid at our feet, but not all, by a long shot.
Africanists are even more passionately aligned with woolly-minded left-wing African causes, and prone to provide excuses for African lapses into strange institutions like single-party government. Human-rights violations that were committed against, for example, South Asians in East and Southern Africa passed without notice from these people. Many Africanists, I found, were apologists for really dreadful regimes in Africa. I think this is probably, in part, due to the American obsession with race. By becoming Africanists, these people were, in a sense, expiating the sins of their ancestors, or taking a stand in domestic American politics. Psychologically, that was important to them.
So this is one factor in the difficulty of managing a policy toward Africa that is realistic.
A second one is the level of ignorance. Most Americans, black or white, know very little about Africa, and tend to see it, depending on their political orientation, in terms of Shaka Zulu or Sheena of the Jungle or Tarzan. Africa is, of course, a real place, with real people, very complicated, good people, bad people, able people, and people who are not able. All of this essential detail fades away at this distance. You could say, in a sense, that Africa’s a blank screen on which Americans could project their fantasies about the issue of concern to them, for or against.
So that was a complication.
Finally, of course, having, in the 1960s, finally begun to come to grips with the travesty of American race relations, Americans felt self-righteous and inclined to pontificate and believed that we had the solutions for other people’s problems. We saw in South Africa (I should say, misperceived in South Africa) something resembling the Mississippi of Jim Crow.
Ronald Reagan came into this with a peculiar insensitivity to these sorts of issues. He was a man of enormous goodwill, I think genuinely color blind, in a sense, but at the same time, full of country club stereotypes, and prone to generalizations that wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. He swallowed various lines produced by South African propagandists to the effect that South Africa’s issues were not racial, but were tribal in nature. There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s very misleading. He had essentially, by his public statements from time to time, appeared to side with the apartheid regime against its opponents, or to endorse that regime against some of its weaker and beleaguered neighbors. So, essentially, by the spring of 1986, he had lost credibility on the central issue of concern to Americans, which was apartheid.
There was an effort made, in the spring and early summer of 1986, to turn this around, by having the president make a speech. And I actually wrote a draft. I wrote a hell of a good speech, actually, which was American, non-apologetic, realistic, but compassionate, which would have provided a basis for sustaining a policy of engagement with South Africa while at the same time stepping up the pressure against apartheid and helping the forces inside South Africa that were attempting to produce reform. That speech went to the White House pretty much the way I had written it. And exactly two lines of it survived the pen of one Pat Buchanan, who was the speechwriter for Reagan, and who himself has very definite views on racial issues and on Africa, about which he knows nothing.
The speech, which the White House took over and gave, was catastrophic, in terms of its political impact. It essentially cemented the total loss of control by the administration of the policy. And it resulted, by the late summer, early fall, in the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act over the president’s veto. That was a policy humiliation for him, and, I think, in many ways a misguided stance by the United States. Sanctions for the purpose of producing political reform have a very dubious history generally, even where American influence is paramount, as was the case with Noriega in Panama at a later time. Sanctions have proven incapable of producing internal reform.
In the case of their application to South Africa, as is normally the case with sanctions efforts, they became a very convenient vehicle for protectionist impulses in the United States.
So, for example, South African apples were banned, at the insistence of the Virginia and Washington State apple growers, despite the fact that the apple growers in South Africa were predominantly colored. We wiped out a good deal of the colored middle-class yeomanry in South Africa with this action.
The South African sugar quota was taken away and redistributed to the friends of various lobbyists. And yet sugar in South Africa was grown primarily by Zulus, not by whites. We impoverished this important non-ANC element of the black population….
On the Difficulties of Dealing with the American-Jewish Community
The American Jewish community, which had always been extremely suspicious of people who trafficked with the Arabs (who, of course, were professed enemies of Zionism in the Jewish State, and who, by and large, over the period of the ’50s and ’60s, abandoned the policies of tolerance they had had toward Jewish minorities, and made life miserable for these minorities or actually expelled them), became increasingly hostile to Arabists in the State Department. It essentially became difficult, if not impossible, for Foreign Service officers dealing with the Arab world, or with the Middle East generally, to take anything other than a stance that was assertively loyal to causes espoused by the Israelis.
Whether the officers believed what they were saying or not was another matter, but they knew that the price of remaining in business was appropriate deference to Israeli interests.
By the ’80s, as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), which was only formed at the end of the ’70s, achieved the transcendent influence in the Congress that it did, there was an atmosphere of intimidation, worthy of the McCarthy era, in many respects, imposed on Arabists.
So, when I spoke of poisonous politics (without taking any position on the merits of Israel’s case versus Arab countries’), I was referring to the sense that those of us in the Department of State, observing NEA [the Near East Asia Bureau] from afar, had that the Arab specialists there were operating under extraordinary political constraints, really worthy, in many ways, of those that apply in totalitarian countries. They could not speak, even privately to friends, an ill word of Israeli actions, let alone Israeli policy, without fear of consequences to their career. So this was not the sort of situation that one voluntarily moves oneself into, unless one has some great affinity for the Middle East, which I didn’t….
On the Dearth of Arabic-Speaking FSOs and the Challenge of Working in Saudi Arabia
I think a larger barrier, frankly, was language. By contrast with China, where as deputy chief of mission and, before that, as country director, as normalization began, I insisted on a level of linguistic competence that was virtually total in the embassy, a great part of the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the consulates consisted of people who had either no Arabic at all or whose Arabic was rudimentary. There were some exceptions, but there was not the depth of linguistic talent that I had seen when I worked in China.
One can speculate about why that is. Arabic, like Chinese, is, of course, an intimidatingly difficult language, although, frankly, I think its difficulty is overrated. The expense of training people for two years in a hard language is such that it is difficult to sustain, budgetarily, over a long period of time. But I suspect that it is because a great many of the most distinguished ambassadors that we had had in the field, and those who had worked in Washington as assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, themselves knew no Arabic. And since they managed to get along without it, they imagined that it was not necessary.
When I started learning Arabic (and I did, during the entire time that I was there, including during the war, except when it was simply physically impossible, put in at least an hour and often two hours a day on language, with a tutor or reading), I asked one of the most distinguished American diplomats in the field whether he had any particular insights into learning Arabic. And he told me, much to my surprise, that he had never learned it, and that he had not done so because, in his words, “I saw no point in acquiring the key to an empty room.”… It’s not an insight; it’s a slander and a very parochial attitude. Arabic culture is far from an empty room. To proclaim that the people with whom you are working inhabit an empty room is to say something very profound about yourself, rather than about them.
So, over the years, evidently, language-designated positions, at least in the establishment in Saudi Arabia, and I believe elsewhere in the Arab world, had either been de-designated as no officer suitable for the position could be found with Arabic, or had never been designated in the beginning. Of course, the problem is that if the positions are not designated, the training positions are not created. So you get into a vicious circle.
I would say, of the senior people on my staff, in a very large establishment, there were only two or three who really could handle Arabic at a level that I considered moderately impressive.
My own Arabic, as I studied, finally got to the point where I could understand virtually everything that was going on around me, as long as it was in the local dialect, rather than classical Arabic, which I made no effort to master. I couldn’t, of course, speak well, and in fact made no real effort to learn to speak well, because my concern was to be able to understand my environment. In any event, if one is an ambassador, I think one should speak with the precision that one’s native language provides, and not speak in a broken version of local language.
I think really the lack of linguistic depth in the embassy was a greater barrier to interaction.
You had asked earlier about how people got around. The restrictions of language and religion, I have discussed. Sexual apartheid in Saudi Arabia was a very significant barrier as well.
The Department of State, in its wisdom, and reflecting the drive toward affirmative action and diversity in American society, decided that Saudi Arabia should be treated like any other post for purposes of the assignment of female officers. This was, in my view, grotesquely unfair to them, even if they were interested and volunteered for the slots, and unfair to the rest of the embassy.
There was, for example, a very, very bright, able, young woman officer who was assigned to the political/military section. She could not get access to the Ministry of Defense, as a woman. She could not get into the building, nor could she have any social interaction with the officer corps. She was restricted, in her contacts, to foreign contractors and subcontractors or to telephone conversations. The net effect of this was that she became enormously frustrated and resentful. The work that she was supposed to do had to be done, and therefore it had to be done by others. Eventually, I managed to move her to a position where she could display her talent, and in fact she did all right.
It is difficult, not impossible, but difficult for female officers to be effective in certain functions, of which the political/military function is clearly one. In others, perhaps it’s less of a barrier.
There was another problem. Normal social life in the non-Islamic world is conducted between couples, but many Saudi couples would not appear in mixed company, so that evenings tended to be sexually segregated. There were nights when my wife would go one direction, and I would go another, and since evenings tend to be very late, we would not meet up until the wee hours of the morning, when we were separately delivered back to the residence. Saudi couples would come to the residence if they were sure who the other couples were. Women are concerned about their reputation in Saudi Arabia, as they are anywhere, and public appearance before strange men will become the subject of gossip and innuendo. Therefore, a great deal of time was spent arranging that nobody ever met anybody new, and that certain circles of friends were reassembled. Very often, I would invite people to the residence, and they would say, “We’d really rather that you come here,” not for any reason other than that they could then control the guest list.
Now having said that, when I did have the opportunity to meet the upper echelon of Saudi society, as couples, I was very, very impressed by the professionalism and level of education and competence of many of the women. They were doctors, they were businesspersons, they were engineers and professionals of one sort or another, who were managing to conduct very successful careers in this society, despite its peculiar strictures on contact across gender lines. They seemed to have very comfortable relationships with their husbands. Most Saudis are monogamous, but some are polygamous, up to the Koranic limit of four wives. Sometimes we would be in the company of a man with two wives, and it was very interesting to watch the interaction. The husband might well request that the wives unveil. But generally they wouldn’t, because whoever unveiled first might be criticized then by the other as a brazen hussy of some sort….
On the Aftermath of Desert Storm and the Bankrupting of Saudi Arabia
There was a huge battle, which really began in ’91 and continued through ’92, between my embassy and Washington, more particularly INR [the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research], on this issue.
INR persisted, right up through 1993 when the Saudis finally did essentially collapse financially, in insisting that the Saudis had all sorts of money squirreled away, in places that INR was never able to identify.
My perspective was that, no, they didn’t. Second, that it’s all very well to sit in Washington and say that the private wealth of members of the royal family should be available to the government. But the private individuals who make up the royal family are no more inclined to share their private wealth with the government than wealthy Americans are. Therefore, this equation simply was erroneous.
I think enormous damage was done to American policy by the persistent failure of the intelligence analysts, particularly in INR, to a lesser extent in the Central Intelligence Agency, which was a little more open minded on this, to recognize the financial strains, which are now acknowledged to exist. I had the misfortune of being right, before my correctness was recognized, and that was indeed interpreted as special pleading. And it contributed a great deal to friction between Secretary Baker, or, more accurately, Dennis Ross, and me.
But the fact is that the Saudis, on the eve of the outbreak of the war, August 2, 1990, probably had liquid assets, above the currency cover that was required by law, of only $3 billion. They went through that and then some in the first week.
The net result of the war, notwithstanding INR’s frankly injurious and self-serving analysis, since they were telling Secretary Baker what he wanted to hear, was to take Saudi Arabia from zero national debt to a national debt equivalent to 55 percent of GNP, overnight. In other words, the Saudis spent unbudgeted funds equivalent, in terms of the U.S. economy, to roughly $4 trillion. The Saudi Arabian economy is an economy of about $100 billion, the size of the State of Georgia. And while that provides fabulous wealth for a few, and a moderate standard of living for the many, it does not provide an endless cornucopia of dollars with which to do everything they wish.
The Saudis ended the war, in fact, financially lamed in a way that has had all of the consequences that I anticipated with apprehension from the fall of 1990, and, more particularly, from January 1991, on. We have had to do a sort of Chapter 11 reorganization on the foreign military sales program. Ironically, I ended up doing that, as assistant secretary of defense, in February 1994. We have had to curtail many programs in Saudi Arabia.
The general view in Saudi Arabia of the American role in the war has shifted from affection, respect, admiration, and gratitude to resentment of financial exactions, as the extent of those exactions became known.
At the end of the war, in fact, the DOD [Department of Defense] accountants had to struggle to show that we had not made a profit on the war. I believe, in fact, if it were not for accounting sleights of hand, we did. Now a good deal of that was not accounted for by the Saudis, but much of it was. I personally collected $16.9 billion from King Fahd, including $3.2 billion that he had never agreed to….
At any rate, one of the problems of fighting wars with other people’s money is that the other people may come to resent what you’re doing. And that was, I’m afraid, the case here.
When I left Saudi Arabia, in my farewell call on the finance minister, I treasured his remark when he asked me what I was going to do when I left. I said that I thought I had done enough government service, and I planned to go to the private sector. He said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but if you ever need a letter of recommendation, say, for example, you decide to become a mafia bill collector, I will provide the letter,” which, unfortunately, I never did get from him, but I would have treasured such a letter.
So I found myself in the odd position of arguing with Washington that Saudi Arabia was strapped, and arguing with the Saudis that they could and should pay more. And I was more successful, I think, with Saudi Arabia than I was with Washington….
On the Failure to Conclude the Iraqi War Well
I think the results of the failure to devise a war-termination strategy were very far reaching. I imagine that the Iraqi generals must have gone out of that tent at Safwan having great difficulty restraining a broad smile. They must have assumed that one term that would have been laid on them, at a minimum, would be a requirement for a meeting between their government and the governments of the coalition forces or the United States or the U.N., at least someone representing the coalition forces, to arrange the terms of a permanent cease fire and, in effect, some sort of Iraqi capitulation.
The fact that no such meeting was requested or ever took place meant that the United Nations, several days later, ex post facto, defined war aims, to include reparations; demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border; an intrusive inspection regime to eliminate some elements of the Iraqi armaments industry, especially those related to weapons of mass destruction; a series of further restrictions on the movement of Iraqi forces within Iraq; and so forth. But Iraq never was compelled to agree to these explicitly, and since it did not accept these terms and has not really felt bound by them, it has cheated ever since.
The second major consequence of the failure to insist on a political negotiation to end the war was, in effect, that the war never ended. The military disgrace that we had visited on the Iraqi armed forces was not translated into political humiliation for Saddam Hussein. He was, in effect, able to stand in Baghdad and declare that he had survived the worst that the world could throw against him, and was a man of great staying power, strength, and formidable political skills. In a sense, much as Gamal Abdel Nasser did after the Suez Crisis, he was able to transform a military defeat into a kind of political vindication, with the result that he remains to this day in power in Baghdad, plotting revenge against the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Americans, and others who injured him. Therefore, as I say, the Gulf War, in a sense, never ended.
All of this, I think, is an extraordinary lapse on the part of the American-led coalition, which could have easily been remedied.
I think it was not remedied mainly because of the speed with which our attention (that is, the attention of political Washington) turned from the war to the task of bringing the troops home and getting on with the 1992 election. This must be unique among wars in that it produced no clear political result, despite the ample opportunity to do so….
On the Inability of the Foreign Service to Learn from its Mistakes and Become More Professional
Q: We’d just been through a hell of a mess, a war. It was certainly a very traumatic time, and lives were not only risked but lost. When you came back, did you find any particular interest by the Foreign Service and the Department of State at looking at how we operated? What did we do right? What did we do wrong? How could we do it better? Was there any interest or any effort made to do this?
FREEMAN: There was certainly an effort made by the Defense Department and the military. Partly, this grew out of a joint U.S.-Saudi study, which Major General Dennis Malcor chaired for the U.S. side, on ways of strengthening Saudi self-defense capabilities so that the threshold at which American assistance would be requested would be raised.
There was no interest whatsoever at the Department of State or in the Foreign Service. To my mind, this points to the lack of professionalism of the Foreign Service, that it does not learn from experience in a systematic way, it does not do after-action reports, it does not consider why things went well or why they went wrong, with a view to improving performance in the future. All of those attributes are the attributes of a profession. The Foreign Service, as I think we discussed at the very outset of this series of interviews, in my view, is at best a proto-profession.
Q: I keep coming across this again and again. Is it a mindset? My personal bias is, I think we hire a bunch of quite-bright people who figure that they can wing it every time something happens. Whatever starts, they can do right from the beginning and take care of it. They’re too “bright” to learn from history.
FREEMAN: I think there is a failure within the Foreign Service to recognize the function of diplomacy in its several meanings: meaning foreign policy formulation, foreign policy implementation, and the translation of policy into activity in foreign lands. I think there is a failure to recognize this as the core function of the Foreign Service.
Instead, members of the Foreign Service identify with their specialty, whether it is some sort of area specialization, linguistic and cultural, or whether it is functional, for example, economic reporting, or trade and investment matters, or the like. It seems to me that, when you raise the question of professionalism with most Foreign Service officers, they look blank, because they define themselves not as diplomats, but as specialists on Iran, on Latin America, on international trade and finance, on consular matters, or on administration.
Since that is the way people define themselves, they look at the experiences they undergo in terms of: What happened? From the point of view of an area specialist: What was it that caused this event, and what are the results? From the point of view of an economist: What is it that caused this adjustment in the pattern of international trade and investment, and what are the results? From the point of view of a consular officer: What is it that I was able to do to help so and so escape a life of misery in some Third World jail for the rest of his or her life? They don’t see what they’re doing as shedding light on how diplomats might be more effective professionally as diplomats. I’m not sure if I’m making myself clear, but it seems to me that this is a fundamental problem.
It’s been aggravated in the U.S. Foreign Service by rigid insistence on cones.
Q: Cones being the term for specialties.
FREEMAN: Yes. And by the view of area specialists that the only thing they bring to the table is their area expertise. I find it absolutely remarkable that the Foreign Service accepts the appointment of totally unqualified political appointees with such equanimity. They do so because, in fact, there is no pride in the core functions of the profession.
Now I would argue that someone who has learned how to make a demarche, how to listen for what is not said as well as what is said, how to observe and report, how to persuade, how to manipulate, if you will, how to form foreign opinion, and who knows what instruments of statecraft the United States government has to bring to bear on these things, and understands what therefore each section of a diplomatic mission can contribute to an overall effort, does, in fact, have a body of knowledge that he or she could profess to be uniquely expert in, and therefore see as the core of a profession equally relevant to service in Rwanda and in Russia.
But I am sorry to say that I have not found this mentality among my colleagues.
Q: Have you observed a more professional approach by any other foreign service, or is this a problem with all diplomats?
FREEMAN: No, there are several foreign services of which I know that are very self-consciously professional, some of them very effectively so, some of them less so. I think of the French foreign service, which is quite self-consciously professional; of the German foreign service; of the Brazilian foreign service; of the Ghanaian foreign service; of the foreign service of Singapore, which I think is probably, pound for pound, by far the most effective in the world. These are people who not only see themselves as area specialists, as functionaries doing a particular function, but who also see the combination of that expertise with the management of government functions, intergovernmental relations, relations between governments and foreign peoples, the management of embassies, the conduct of foreign relations, in a broad sense, as what they are and what they do.
I don’t find that in the American Foreign Service. Partly, in the American Foreign Service, that is because anyone with a diplomatic passport is considered a diplomat, and diplomatic passports are handed out like lollipops to whiny agencies that demand them.
Furthermore, I think there is an American anti-elitist sentiment and anti-hierarchical sentiment that refuses to acknowledge the distinction between professionals and staff.
I would argue that the Foreign Service is a profession potentially as much as, let us say, the practice of law or medicine or military science. No lawyer would ever assert that a legal secretary was a full member of the legal profession, although no law office can function without a legal secretary. Clearly, in the realm of other professions, whether it’s law or medicine or military science, there are people who are at the core of the profession and who are seen as professionals, and there are people who are para-professionals, who are essential to the functioning of the profession, but who are not themselves regarded as part of it. Just so, I suppose, a combat infantryman or woman is, in a sense, at the core of the military profession in a way that a supply clerk is not. But all of them have a sense of belonging to the military.
We don’t have that sense in the Foreign Service, to my distress….
There really isn’t, in the Foreign Service, any mechanism by which people report to colleagues on their achievements and failures in a particular task of this nature. In the case of the military, all of the major participants found themselves enormously busy when they came back, addressing various staff colleges and professional training institutions, partly, I suppose, to pass on whatever knowledge they had gained, but equally, I believe, to buttress pride in the profession and in the ability of the American military to excel. We don’t really have a mechanism like that in the Foreign Service.
I must say, I didn’t expect anything, and therefore I wasn’t at all upset. But you point to an interesting thing: one day, you’re an ambassador in charge of the largest diplomatic mission in the world; the next day, you’re just another guy pushing a cart down a supermarket line….
I think that looking at the experience of professionals, in this case, diplomats, from the vantage point of what professional lessons can be learned, how things can be done effectively, or how they’re done less effectively, how mistakes can be avoided, and why mistakes are made, in other words, after-action review of significant events, is the prerequisite for professionalization of the Foreign Service. I, for one, have always hoped that the Foreign Service would, like the professions of law, medicine, the military, and theology, professionalize itself, in the sense of having an awareness of the need for members of the profession to accredit other members of the profession, to recognize professional skills, as opposed to those skills that are not unique to the profession. So I think the oral history project is very, very important potentially in this regard. I don’t believe, however, that the Foreign Service will become truly professional until its members, not retirees, perceive the need and the benefits from professionalization.
I consider it absolutely shocking that, at the end of the 20th century, the United States still follows a 19th-century practice with regard to appointments to the most senior diplomatic positions. We are, I believe, now virtually unique among countries in entrusting important diplomatic functions to people without proven ability to manage them. That is not to say that the Foreign Service invariably has the best candidate or the most effective person to be an ambassador. It is to say that the Foreign Service ought self-consciously to work toward being able always to field the best-qualified candidate for a job. And part of that depends on recognizing the core functions of the profession and trying to develop them in a systematic way.