By PETER WALDMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
|BERKELEY, Calif. — Stepping off a stage after giving a speech at
the University of California here, John Brady Kiesling faced a throng of
adoring fans six deep. One woman asked about pursuing a career in diplomacy.
"Do it!" he said. Another, in purple velour and long, silver earrings,
simply gazed into his glasses and sighed.
"I just want to hug you!" she burst out, throwing herself at the stunned 45-year-old, who grabbed a banister to keep his balance.
Bookish and shy in his preppy blue blazer and gray flannel pants, Mr. Kiesling has become an unlikely voice of the peace movement. A month ago, he became the first of three American diplomats so far to quit in protest over the crisis with Iraq. He abandoned what by all accounts was a successful, 19-year career with the Foreign Service — most recently as the U.S. embassy's political counselor in Athens. His letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell was reprinted in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books and widely circulated online.
"We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known," he wrote Mr. Powell. "Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."
Now with the war in full swing, Mr. Kiesling is stepping into the limelight to criticize a government he spent his career zealously promoting. The former envoy's critique of U.S. foreign policy is drawing crowds on college campuses on both coasts. His personal account of literally growing ill from having to communicate Washington's scripted talking points on Iraq provides a rare glimpse into a veteran U.S. diplomat's crisis of conscience.
"I was floundering. My work suffered. I was miserable," he told a group at Harvard this month. "I will believe until I die that Americans want to do good in the world."
A Mild Tempest
Mr. Kiesling's audacity is raising a mild tempest in the world of former diplomats. "Brady was an outstanding Foreign Service officer," says Samuel Lewis, who, as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the early 1980s, appointed the junior officer as one of his personal aides. "I'm one who believes Saddam Hussein has to be removed. But Brady has articulated a stand which reflects extremely well on him."
Other retired diplomats find Mr. Kiesling's outspokenness inappropriate. "I certainly don't take exception to his resignation, but I would draw the line at promoting public opinion against the government or the war," says William Harrop, a former State Department inspector general and retired ambassador to several nations. "I believe it's a seriously wrong decision to invade Iraq, but it isn't appropriate to agitate as a former government official."
Mr. Kiesling has declined numerous invitations to address protest marches and peace groups, confining his input to the "policy debate," as he calls it, "rather than a mass movement." One of the first things he tells audiences is that he's not a pacifist. An admirer of the first President Bush, he supported the 1991 Gulf War. In 1994, he earned a Foreign Service award for "constructive dissent" for helping goad the Clinton administration into military intervention to halt the Serbian slaughter of Bosnia's Muslims.
Internal dissent wasn't an option this time around, he says, because he'd lost faith "in the basic good intentions of the administration." When Congress approved the use of force against Iraq last fall, he persuaded his Greek counterparts that the "tactical vote" was needed to prod Saddam Hussein to disarm, Mr. Kiesling says. He reassured them of his own convictions: that the U.S. didn't want war and that international pressure on Iraq, through unrelenting United Nations weapons inspections, would ultimately defang Mr. Hussein.
"Now I am convinced the president lied to the U.S. Congress," Mr. Kiesling said at Harvard. "He never had any intention of stopping short of war. And now he's cashing the blank check Congress wrote for him."
State Department Responds
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed Mr. Powell read Mr. Kiesling's resignation letter. "I don't think there is too much to say," the spokesman said. "It's too bad the gentleman felt he couldn't continue in the Foreign Service, given his views. But these things happen."
Mr. Kiesling says he recently received a formal reply to the letter from Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, "telling me I was wrong and reiterating the same old talking points." Mr. Haass declined to comment.
The most studious sibling in a family of four overachieving kids from Palo Alto, Calif., Mr. Kiesling immersed himself in Dungeons & Dragons and Thomas Pynchon novels in high school. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in ancient Greek from Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, and earned a master's degree in ancient history and archaeology at Berkeley, before joining the Foreign Service.
He speaks Greek, Armenian, German, Italian, Spanish and "passable" Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew. While posted in Armenia in the late 1990s, he used his spare time to write the first English guidebook to that nation's monuments.
Mr. Kiesling's personal crisis began in October, at a diplomatic party in Athens. He ran into an old friend and source from a stint in Athens 15 years earlier, a Communist who had spent years in Greek prisons. The pair had always sparred politically, but a warm friendship endured.
"He looked at me very sadly at the party and said, 'America's going to go to war; you're committing a terrible crime,' and walked away," Mr. Kiesling says. "I knew we had passed some Rubicon, and I found that very dismaying."
In January, Mr. Kiesling hosted a dinner party for 10 artists and intellectuals from all over Europe at his Athens apartment. Most of the guests were admirers of the U.S. and frequent visitors, he says. Yet none could comprehend why President Bush seemed bent on war. Because diplomats are duty-bound to defend the U.S. whenever they're with foreigners — even in the most casual settings — Mr. Kiesling says he and a colleague tried every argument they could muster to justify the president's stand.
"At the end of the evening, I was spent," he says. "I realized how threadbare and unconvincing my arguments had been. And these were people who like Americans!"
His mood darkened in February, particularly toward work. He couldn't shake an ordinary cold that turned into bronchitis. Feeling "perilously close to being clinically depressed," he unburdened himself to the embassy doctor, who gave him the antidepressant Paxil.
The last straw came when a prominent Greek professor wrote a blistering commentary in an Athens newspaper under the headline, "Blood for Oil." Mr. Kiesling was tasked with telephoning the professor to straighten him out. He had no problem attacking the "blood for oil" argument, as Mr. Kiesling doesn't believe oil has driven U.S. policy toward Iraq.
"But I didn't have an answer to his next question, 'So why are you going to war?' " Mr. Kiesling says.
Feeling increasingly morose, he avoided sharing his policy qualms with embassy colleagues and subordinates, for fear of "burdening the friendships." He never took the Paxil, but tried burying himself in his books. He perked up slightly when his next assignment came in: a year of Dari language training, starting next fall, to prepare for his new job as the top political and economic officer at the embassy in Kabul. By the time he arrived in Afghanistan, he thought, Mr. Bush might be out of office.
He holed up and read, but the cloud of despair wouldn't lift. Finally, in late February, when Mr. Bush made clear he wouldn't be defied, even by the U.N. Security Council, Mr. Kiesling drafted his resignation letter and quit. Suddenly, he felt "a certain lucidity, a strong, liberating feeling," he says.
Speaking His Mind
Free to speak his mind for the first time in decades, he accepted an invitation from his sister's superiors at West Point, where she's a professor of history. "I sensed a great deal more curiosity and concern among the cadets than I expected," says his sister Jennie Kiesling, also an opponent of the war.
Since then Mr. Kiesling has spoken at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Georgetown and to some U.S. Senate staffers and Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont Monday.
He sprinkles the campus speeches with prayers for the U.S. forces, "that they win a rapid and bloodless victory." And he offers his hopes that they are greeted in Baghdad with open arms and "not the outraged nationalism that we would show if we were in the Iraqis' place."