A successful ambassador, but still a bad way to do it

February 10, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Pamela Harriman arrived in Paris with the reputation of party girl become political party-giver. She made herself the most successful American political ambassador of the decade.

Her husband, Averell -- Union Pacific heir, converted to the New Deal and to wartime and postwar diplomatic service in Washington, Moscow and London -- was the most successful non-professional American diplomat of the war and post-war years. But he earned office by demonstrated competence.

She was seen as a Democratic Party fund-raiser and political sponsor of Bill Clinton. In Paris, her reputation was as seductress; that was the titillation, even the scandal. Few realized that her power of seduction was intellectual as well as social and sexual.

She had the power to make people want to talk with her. She was -- or certainly made herself seem to be -- interested in everyone with whom she spoke, and in what they had to say. She in turn had something intelligent to say to them.

The right questions

She made no pretense to being intellectual, nor was she particularly sophisticated in matters of international relations and foreign policy. She knew what she needed to know, and she asked the right questions. That was evidence of the seriousness with which she undertook her role in Paris. And of course the willingness to listen is seduction itself -- certainly to vain men, and in the world in which she functioned, all men are vain.

Her French interlocutors found that she studied the dossiers, learned the details of the issues she dealt with and respected the advice of the American Foreign Service professionals who stood behind her.

Before she had arrived in Paris in 1993, she had asked that the acting ambassador and professional head of the American mission in Paris, Avis Bohlen, remain in the post of minister for the next two years as her chief adviser. (Avis Bohlen, now U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, and one of the most respected figures in the Foreign Service, is the daughter of Charles Bohlen, himself a former ambassador to Paris and one of the great names in American diplomacy).

The two women made a professional combination that earned the respect of the French government. The French were particularly grateful for Mrs. Harriman's ability to smooth the edges of conflict between Washington and Paris -- a quality too often in demand during her time in Paris, and one reason for the unusual ceremony of ''solemn homage'' to her that France's President Jacques Chirac ordered Saturday.

A list of irritants

France and the U.S. have been fighting over NATO reform, Africa and the U.N. secretary-generalship. The commercial and trade rivalries between the two have been intense and sometimes unpleasant, with a particularly difficult passage two years ago when French counterintelligence caught CIA agents in the act of attempting to bribe a French official.

Pamela Harriman managed to maintain mutual respect between French and Americans, and on the personal level even to keep relations cordial. In the weeks before her fatal stroke she was trying to find a way out of the latest acrimonious fight between Paris and Washington, over NATO's Southern Europe command.

Foreign governments like political ambassadors from the U.S. when they can guarantee direct access to the president or to the secretary of state, as Pamela Harriman could do. They dislike them when they are incompetent and pompous, as some of Mrs. Harriman's Paris predecessors have been.

Political nominations to agreeable embassies are an American practice that won't be changed. It has been more indulged by the Clinton administration than by any previous American government. The successful nominations, as in the case of Mrs. Harriman, should not obscure the fact that this trend should, and can, be checked.

The record of these appointments is very mixed. Some of the best American ambassadors have been political nominees, or began as wartime or Cold War recruits from civilian life to government service.

The call of duty

A prudent distinction must be made between those who joined for duty and those nominated for political services to a president. It's not duty but fun that most of the latter want.

The neglected but crucial objection to this practice is what it does to the American Foreign Service. The career objective of a Foreign Service officer is eventually to have an embassy, just as the career reward for an army or naval officer is to finish with a major command.

If Washington were to reserve the U.S. Army's European Command, or major units of the Navy's Pacific Fleet, or Pacific Air Command, or NATO Atlantic Command, or even corps or divisional or Air Force wing commands, to big donors to the president's political campaigns, the American public would be outraged. Exactly that is done with respect to major ''commands'' in the Foreign Service -- to general indifference.

The result is to deter serious people from joining the Foreign Service. The practice undermines the morale and commitment of people already in the service. For too many officers, it has made the Foreign Service a dead-end job.

Pamela Harriman was an exceptional woman as well as an exceptional ambassador. She would certainly have said that her success in the Paris embassy rested upon a foundation constructed by the embassy's professionals. A lady, she would have wanted that acknowledged.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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