America’s second president John Adams famously said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Of all the many tasks we set for diplomats, perhaps the most important is to ascertain the facts, assemble and judge the evidence that defines the reality of the country they’ve been posted to. That’s why they’re there, to see with their own eyes, and gather informed local opinion and keep their bosses at home up to the minute on developments, their context and implications.
Inevitably, those facts, as reported by our ambassadors, conflict with the “wishes, inclinations and passions” of national leaders and then it becomes the job of the diplomat to limit the consequences when, say that the facts are that what an American president wants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya or Egypt cannot be made to happen.
What does a master of diplomacy do in such a dire circumstance? He makes something – perhaps something different, usually something less ambitious – happen which will make all parties feel a little better.
Here’s a great example from the career of one of greatest recent diplomats, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. It’s 2008 and President George W. Bush wants American troops to stay in Iraq as military trainers after the combat forces come home, but he wants them protected from criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts. The Iraqi government, representing a people angry about civilian deaths at American military and contractor’s hands rejects impunity for U.S. forces. So, Crocker proposes giving Iraqi courts jurisdiction over American troops, but only when they are off-base or off-duty. In the Iraq war zone, U.S. troops are never off-duty. Iraq understands, accepts the proposal and never prosecutes any American soldiers.
Paul Richter covered the State Department and foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times out of its Washington, DC, bureau. He previously covered the Pentagon, the White House and, from New York City, the financial industry. He was raised in Minneapolis and Washington, DC, and graduated from Clark University. The author of The Ambassadors, he lives in Washington, DC.