I probably shouldn’t have been at the table, but was, the day Undersecretary for Public Affairs (U/S) talked about a video to produce, proving that Saddam Hussein stole food from Iraqi children. I had flashbacks to Francisco Goya’s series on “Disparates,” or the “Pinturas negras,” the one of Saturn devouring his own son.
“Your reactions?” the U/S said to the twelve of us around the table. All nodded assent. “Any other comments?” she added, trying to start a discussion. No one would have any of it.
I took the bait. “Do we actually have video footage for this purpose?” I asked. I imagined the perfect sequence: Saddam Hussein grabbing an egg salad sandwich out of the mouth of an Iraqi child. I thought, It will be a public diplomacy miracle if there is such a shot in an archive somewhere.
“Of course we do,” she answered, glancing at me from across the table. All nodded assent.
She continued, “And the Kurds. Hussein gassed the Kurds, it was a horrible human rights violation.”
Mouths all shut, eyes down.
“Comments?” she said. There were none.
“No comments at all?” she added.
I said, “The chemical attacks against the Kurds took place in 1991, eleven years ago. Maybe we have some more recent footage we might use?”
The U/S peered at me again from the far end of the table. Her eyes turned to narrow slits. “WHO ARE YOU?” she asked menacingly. I gave my name, rank, and office affiliation. “Are you trying to prevent this project from going forward?” she said.
I answered, “No, I’m trying to help. It will be a great video, and even better if we ask the questions that could be on the minds of foreign publics viewing the film.”
She jotted something down on her legal pad. Those colleagues who dared to, glanced at me with compassion, for a fallen comrade.
And as Virginia Woolf would have said, (“Lappin and Lapinova,”) That was the end of that career.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.