Contrary to a generosity of spirit in America, both our political parties have shown disdain for the underdog in foreign policy, kicking them in the teeth when empathy might be more in character. Bipartisan annoyance at the suffering of foreigners seems to twin our Left and Right.
Faced with the slaughter of a million Biafrans in 1967-70, Lyndon Johnson sided forcefully with Nigeria’s central government, saying of the Biafrans, “Get those [n…] children off my television set.”
Only a couple of years later, President Nixon, presented with wide scale massacres in what is now Bangladesh, said of Indian attempts to staunch the bloodletting, “The Indians are a slippery, treacherous people.” He wanted unblemished relations with the West Pakistan aggressors, who became his go-between with Chou En Lai’s China.
In both cases, the U.S. government was enamored of the status quo, which in one instance held firm (Biafra/Nigeria) and in the other yielded a new nation which might have been favorably inclined to us if we had even politely asked the West Pakistanis under President Yahya to attenuate the slaughter. We didn’t.
Dacca (now Dakha)’s U.S. consul general, Archer Blood, sent a famous telegram challenging Washington’s passivity in the face of genocide. Written as a dissent channel cable by Blood’s subordinates, the text got Blood’s approval and even an extra paragraph from him to strengthen the point. All involved knew that Washington vindictiveness under Nixon and Kissinger would come down on the signers’ careers in the Foreign Service. Short-term risk, long-term gain.
Nothing comparable in grandeur, we did a dissent channel cable in Port-au-Prince in 2000, when Washington directives came almost daily, instructing us at the embassy to find ways of making President Jean-Bertrand Aristide somehow look and smell good. It wasn’t easy, because in this case there weren’t really even pigs lips to put lipstick on.
Both U.S. political parties (2000, 2001) found ways to wed themselves to Haiti’s ruling party as the latter killed opposition leaders, tortured journalists, locked down the local economy, set the capital on fire twice weekly, and went out of its way to thumb its nose at the U.S. and other potentially friendly governments. It also stole so much money that when some mountains of it were retrieved in Aristide’s basement after his departure in 2004, it was too sticky with mold to save, and had to be burned.
In Washington, we at the embassy in Port-au-Prince were code-named “Captain Bly” because we were seen as mutinous.
To us, the State Department Haiti desk was known as “Mother,” because they called us every day to make sure we were behaving. The embassy staff was of varied and even conflicting backgrounds and political stripes, but we had eyes and ears, and all saw that the local regime’s malice was too obvious to ignore.
We knew that Washington’s daily orders to make it seem better must have had some Realpolitik logic behind it, but none of us could see any short- or long-term benefit in putting up with it. In this case it wasn’t a tribe or ideology or religion at the receiving end of daily human rights abuses, but nearly every Haitian. People were dirt poor as ever, but now also afraid, hungry, deracinated and disillusioned, especially after the three sham elections of 2000.
We were witnesses, we knew about Good Samaritan laws in some U.S. states requiring people to try to stop a crime if they saw it in flagrante.
A colleague and I talked about it, and decided to go the dissent channel route. U.S. law (not to mention morality) trumped loyalty in an adverse and extreme situation. The dissent channel cable, like Affirmative Action, was instituted under the Nixon administration, the one you might least expect. It was set up after Vietnam to allow U.S. diplomats to vent to in cases where their own chief of mission demurred to Washington’s directives. Dissents never changed policy much, but they allowed individuals to skewer themselves by registering disapproval of the orders we were getting from the “thousand-mile screwdriver” from Washington.
I drafted a dissent text arguing that the current regime in Haiti was aggressively persecuting its own people, and asking the U.S. government to lower its level of unconditional love for it, at least to make public statements denouncing murder as an instrument of domestic policy in Haiti. Even bland comments were blunted by Washington.
Drafting and editing were a cinch. Then it occurred to me that our chargé d’affaires was not a bad guy at all, and deserved the courtesy of seeing the message before we sent it out. My colleague agreed.
Unruffled, the chargé read it and said, “Why would this go out as a dissent, when we all see it the same way? If you want, we can send this as a front-channel cable under my name.” Kind of like Archer Blood in Dacca, thirty years before. He smiled.
My colleague and I were nonplussed. In signing the cable, our chargé would be sticking his neck way out and offering himself as a lightning rod for Washington’s wrath.
“In fact, let’s send this around to country team, and see what they say.”
The text went around to the consular officer, the political and economic officers, USAID and all the others. With a few minor edits, it got unanimous sign-ons.
None of this did a jot to U.S. policy toward Haiti, nor does this anecdote compare in grandeur to the Blood Telegram. But the process was the same in underlings rising up, and their courageous boss in agreement, willing to take the brunt of Washington backlash.
Like demographic growth of the human race, the U.S. electorate’s interest in foreign policy was negligible for the longest time (usually less than five percent of what “factored” into the voting process.) Now with humanitarian crises more visible, terrorism, a global economy locked in possible meltdown, and climate change denial, foreign policy may begin to rise on the graph. If so, Americans should look to their own inner core of empathy for the underdog, and see about breaking a pattern of bedazzlement with the status-quo-no-matter-what.
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.