In January 2003 John Brady Kiesling, political counselor at the US Embassy in Greece, hosted a dinner party for a dozen European artists and intellectuals at his apartment in Athens. Most of the guests were friendly to the United States, but none of them could fathom the Bush Administration’s inexorable march to war in Iraq. As a career diplomat obligated to defend his country’s foreign policy, Kiesling reflexively counterattacked with prowar arguments, but the rhetorical effort left him exhausted and irritable. “At the end of the evening,” he later explained, “I realized how threadbare and unconvincing my arguments had been. And these were people who like Americans!”
A few weeks later Kiesling resigned from the State Department. “Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq,” he wrote in an eloquent letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, “is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson.” That letter turned Kiesling into an antiwar celebrity and brought him an admiring handwritten note from Bill Clinton.
“My personality,” Kiesling says with a wan smile, “is not really that suited to going out and being a rock star.” That’s true: He has none of the swagger and charisma we tend to associate with whistleblowers and mavericks like Daniel Ellsberg and Joseph Wilson. With his light blue button-down shirt, khaki pants, black loafers and round glasses, Kiesling, youthful at 49, carries himself like an assistant professor of English or an earnest young librarian. One senses a steeliness in him, but also a sense of fragility. Did he make the correct decision to terminate his twenty-year career in the foreign service? “Yes, I’m much happier now,” he responds without hesitation. “Everyone has to punch some ticket in life that says they have made a difference.”
Kiesling was recently in New York City to promote his new book, Diplomacy Lessons, and I met him at an apartment across from Washington Square Park, where he was staying with an old friend. Diplomacy Lessons is three things: an autopsy of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy by a man whose job was to help implement it; a primer on the art (and necessity) of first-rate diplomacy in an era of unilateral gunslinging; and a memoir of Kiesling’s years as a foreign service officer in Israel, Armenia, Morocco and Greece, the country he loves the most and the place he now calls home. The pages devoted to Kiesling’s career are among the most gripping in the book.
In those pages, we see an idealistic young man, with a newly minted graduate degree from Berkeley in Mediterranean archeology and ancient history, who took the foreign service exam in 1983. We see a hapless diplomat in Morocco who, with the best of intentions, once tried to broker a deal between a restless neighbor (a proud, impoverished Islamic university student) and a US intelligence officer, a deal that quickly collapsed. We see him gaining confidence as a junior diplomat: schmoozing with power brokers and literati, scanning the Greek press for political minutiae and making the long drive every few months to the headquarters of the Communist Party of Greece, where, near a huge bust of Lenin, he would spend an hour arguing with the Politburo member in charge of international relations.