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Somoza Falling.

Somoza Falling. An >;thony Lake. Houghton Mifflin, $18. 95. Few events in recent times have been hashed over as frequently as the Nicaraguan revolution.

Anybody choosing to write about it now, ten years after the fact, should have a compelling reason. Anthony Lake offers his in the preface to his book. A veteran of the State Department, Lake describes how he left Washington in 1981 to teach at Mount Holyoke College, only to find that his students had a seriously twisted view of how U.S. foreign policy is made. He wrote >;this book to help set them straight. "What does a member of the National Security Council staff do every day?" he asks. "What is it like to be an assistant secretary?" Lake uses Somoza's overthrow as a case study.

Somoza Failing reads like a handbook for bright graduate students intent on entering the foreign service. Worried about telephone protocol? Somoza Falling offers some useful guidelines, ("The junior officer defers to the senior by coming on the line first, so the latter is not kept waiting. >; This requires very nice judgement by the secretaries who initially place and receive most calls.") Concerned about getting around the State Department? Somoza Falling provides a floor-byfloor guide. (If an official is sighted carrying a memo "in an ascending elevator, the text of a draft is probably being delivered to some superion If in a corridor, the hurried official is probably off to persuade a counterpan in some other bureau to clear such a draft before it can go upstairs.") Since the windows at the >; State Department don't open, offices can grow uncomfortably warm, but Somoza Falling offers a solution: "An enterprising occupant may be able to adjust the heating with a bent paper clip. Bribery or pleading may elicit a window key from one of the maintenance people. . . ." There are tips on parking (country directors are just senior enough to get a coveted spot in the basement lot), food at the cafeteria ("somewhere between edible and enjoyable"), and weekend attire (sport shins and tennis shorts are >;acceptable, blue jeans are not).

Lake introduces us to a series of mid-level bureaucrats, each of them heroic in his own small way. Patricia Haigh, a junior economics officer at the embassy in Managua, inadvertentIy gets caught in a firefight, then rushes back to the embassy with dirt on her face to announce that there's "a war out there." Deputy chief of mission Tom O'Donnell is "a goodhumored, unflappable professional," assistant secretary William Bowdler conveys "an extraordinary sense of solid digni >;ty," and NSC aide Robert Pastor works such long hours that he never gets to eat at home.

Oddly, Lake, while so reverential toward the policymakers, finds little to praise in the policy itself. In his view, Washington failed in its goal of replacing Somoza with a "moderate alternative" and thus staving off a Sandinista victory. The overworked bureaucrats in Washington, distracted by crises elsewhere, failed to give Nicaragua the attention it deserved. By the time the NSC and State Department finally ag >;reed on what to do about Somoza, the Sandinistas were already on the outskirts of Managua. This is a reasonable analysis, but the same story is told in Robert Pastor's Condemned to Repetition, which appeared in 1987 and which Lake cites repeatedly.

Equally familiar is Lake's prescription for putting things right. Policymakers, he writes, need "an understanding of the past causes of revolutionary explosions." To that end, Lake provides a list of eight elements common to revolutions-vast social changes, >;restrictions on access to the political process, repression, etc. "If a policymaker finds himself dealing with a situation in which every item on the checklist seems present," he writes, "it is probably time for the kind of crisis that wonderfully concentrates the mind."

Lake also urges the foreign service to recruit better people. Noting the woeful quality of the intelligence estimates provided on Nicaragua, he recommends an increase in the "number and influence of career experts" in Washington. "Soon >;er or later," he maintains, "presidents and the nation they serve pay a serious price when the voices of the government's middle-level experts are either unclear or ignored."

After eight years of Reaganism, it's hard to argue with this. The fanatical exploits of ideologues like Elliott Abrams and Oliver North have done the foreign service a great service, making people pine for the good old days when cautious bureaucrats held sway. Under the reign of

James Baker, career officers are sure to make a comeb >;ack. Already the job of ambassador to the

United Nations, traditionally reserved for big-name windbags, has gone to Thomas Pickering, as pin-striped a professional as Washington has to offer.

Yet one has to wonder how much better the career people will do. Somehow the image conjured up by Somoza Falling-that of mid-level experts sitting in their overheated offices, poring over eight-point checklists-does not inspire much confidence. Certainly the professionals lauded in

Somoza Falling-people like Warr >;en Christopher, William Bowdler, and Viron Vaky-did not do all that well, especially in the case of Nicaragua.

The real problem runs much deeper than Somoza Falling indicates. The foreign service is hardly the repository of courage that Lake makes it out to be. The term "career diplomat" cuts both ways. It connotes someone who brings a professional touch to diplomacy and someone who makes a career of it. When professionalism and careerism conflict, the outcome, sadly, is rarely in doubt. Take a plac >;e like Zaire. Any truly professional diplomat stationed there cannot help but be appalled by the corruption and brutality of Mobutu's rule, but Mobutu is our friend, and sending uncomplimentary cables about him would not enhance one's career prospects.

And while the government could certainly use more "men and women who understand foreign societies," as Lake asserts, the reality is that such men and women rarely get listened to in

Washington. Diplomats who become too attuned to local populations and th >;eir needs risk being accused of "clientism"-or worse.

Perhaps the most notorious case is that of John Paton Davies, the legendary foreign service officer who served in China in the 1930s and 1940s. As described in David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, Davies knew as much about China as anyone, having spent much of his boyhood and pan of his college years there. Fluent in Chinese, steeped in the country's culture and history,

Davies had a broad range of contacts in China; based on them, he conc >;luded that revolution was inevitable. He indicated as much in his cables to Washington and recommended that the State Department establish ties with the Communists. The department ignored him, of course; what's more, when Mao finally triumphed, Davies, rather than be rewarded for his prescience, was accused of having "lost" China. During the McCarthy years he was subjected to no less than nine investigations; though cleared, Davies was broken by the experience, and he eventually moved to

Peru to open a f >;urniture factory.

His experience left a deep imprint on other foreign service officers, who concluded that honesty and accuracy did not always advance careers. As Halberstam relates, such an attitude helped lead us into the war in Vietnam: "The Americans who followed John Davies would be very different; they were determined to impose American versions and definitions of events upon Asian peoples."

The Best and the Brightest first appeared 15 years ago, but, rereading it recently, I was struck by how f >;amiliar it all seems. Halberstam's account of U.S. policymaking on Vietnam uncannily anticipates the Reagan experience in Central America. In both cases, those in charge of making policy knew next to nothing about the regions in their charge, and they had only contempt for those who did. Both Vietnam and Central America show the need for career diplomats to speak out and professional appointees to listen. The extent of the madness became evident during the Iran-contra hearings, when no less an official >; than Robert McFarlane observed that he was reluctant to suggest a more conciliatory approach toward Nicaragua lest William Casey or Jeane Kirkpatrick brand him a communist.

As far as parking and phone calls go, Somoza Falling is a reliable guide. But aspiring diplomats eager to learn how Foggy Bottom really works had better look elsewhere.

-Michael Massing
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Author:Massing, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Words:1384
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