Rubin's style rattled diplomatic teacups

May 04, 2000|By Jim Anderson

JAMES P. Rubin -- flamboyant, articulate and telegenic -- put a personal, permanent stamp on the role of State Department spokesman. The position will never be the same again. That is not necessarily a good thing.

Traditionally, the department spokesman was just that -- someone who read aloud what had been written by the people who actually made the policy. That practice had already been disappearing when Mr. Rubin appeared on the scene nearly four years ago. In the tenure of James A. Baker as secretary of state, his spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, pioneered the advent of politico-diplomats who enunciated foreign policy but also acted as political flack for the boss.

Mr. Rubin raised that dual role of personal and institutional spin-meister to new heights. In the process he became a celebrity himself and married another celebrity, Christiane Amanpour, the CNN star correspondent. The impending departure of the couple from Washington was celebrated by the kind of adoring media coverage usually reserved for the resignation of a head of a major government organization. Alan Greenspan should be so lucky when it comes time for him to step down.

So, what's wrong with that? Several things, actually.

When the spokesman and his persona become part of the message, it changes the message and the way diplomacy is supposed to work. Mr. Rubin, with the blessing of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, frequently delivered tough, public warnings and stern advice instead of State Department diplomatic notes, to other nations. Sometimes it worked, but usually not. His blunt, instantaneous words lacked what diplomats like to call "constructive ambiguity -- deliberately fuzzy language that permits both sides to back down without either having to be humiliated.

It works like this:

In the 1970s Cold War days, an American military transport flying from Turkey with a U.S. Army general aboard strayed into Soviet Armenia and was forced down by Soviet fighters. The State Department publicly requested the return of the aircraft and the passengers. The Soviet government refused, claiming that the aircraft was a spy plane.

The incident occurred just when the Soviets needed to buy American wheat after their own crop failed. The Soviet purchasing delegation was hosting a reception at the Soviet embassy, to which the secretary of state, William P. Rogers, was invited.

As the standoff went on, Mr. Rogers informed the Soviets at noon he would not be attending but was sending an assistant secretary of state in his place. Two hours later, it was announced that it would be a deputy assistant secretary who would attend. Another couple of hours, and the Soviets were informed that it would be only a lowly desk officer representing the United States.

At that point, just before the reception began, the Soviets absorbed the unmistakable private message that the Americans were serious. They quietly released the aircraft and its crew without having to undergo the embarrassment of a public surrender to an explicit, public American demand.

A deeper problem with public diplomacy carried out on television by a political loyalist of the secretary of state is that it marginalizes and, finally, demoralizes the backbone of the diplomatic establishment, the professional Foreign Service.

This is not a theoretical issue. Mr. Rubin ran a very tight ship. Any request for interviews by reporters with State Department specialists had to be approved by Mr. Rubin or his deputy. Many such media requests, which are meant to fill in the blanks of unclear policy statements, were not approved. Mr. Rubin preferred to have the spotlight remain fixed on him and, by extension, Ms. Albright.

Since this practice became policy, there has been a serious drain of respected professionals from the State Department. A whole class of Middle East experts -- called, somewhat pejoratively, "Arabists" -- has nearly disappeared from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, to the detriment of U.S. ability to deal with the subtleties of Middle East politics and economics. The recent spike of oil prices appears to have taken the administration by surprise. It shouldn't have. It might not have happened if the professional diplomats familiar with Arab oil politics had been available and had been listened to.

Similarly, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs has seen its professionals dwindle in influence and numbers as their recommendations were ignored since the administration's China policy has gone public to try to win over both Beijing and U.S. domestic constituencies.

It has been suggested that the special relationship between Mr. Rubin and Ms. Albright was unique and, therefore, things will revert to normal now that professional diplomat Richard Boucher is taking over the spokesman's role.

The Rubin-Albright relationship was not mother-to-son, a suggestion that prompted Ms. Albright to roll her eyes and say "oy vey" at Mr. Rubin's farewell. It was the symbiotic relationship between two cold-eyed professionals who understood the power of high-profile diplomacy, knew their roles and respected each other's talents.

It was also a partnership that did not understand that such manipulative conduct has a long-term cost to the credibility of the U.S. government.

Jim Anderson has covered the State Department for 31 years, through 11 secretaries of state, for United Press International and Deutsche Press Agentur.

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