A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Conversation With Ambassador Ed Peck

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are two ways to become an ambassador in the United States: become a friend or big-time donor of the President or work your way up through the ranks of the Foreign Service by not stepping on too many toes. But there are a handful of current and former ambassadors that aren’t always very diplomatic, and Ambassador Ed Peck is right at the top of that list.

I met Ambassador Peck in 2002, when he gave a lecture to a class I was in about the importance of dissent in the Foreign Service. I was impressed by how passionate and outspoken he was and more than a little surprised the State Department invited him to speak to us. The Hollywood native retired in 1989 after 37 years of government service, five years in the military and 32 years in the Foreign Service.

Peck served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania, the Chief of Mission in Baghdad before we had an ambassador there, and deputy director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism, among many other jobs. His overseas assignments also included stints in Sweden, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. He’s made a habit of speaking his mind and often says things that people don’t want to hear.Peck thinks that terrorists hate America because of what we’ve done, not who we are. And Peck, who is Jewish, has been an outspoken critic of Israeli conduct in the Occupied Territories. Peck now serves as a media commentator, runs a consulting business called Foreign Services International and occasionally dips his feet back into politics – in 2010, he was part of an aid flotilla that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

We caught up with Ambassador Peck recently to ask him how American can bolster its image in the Middle East, how the Foreign Service has changed over the years and what makes a good Ambassador.

You joined the Foreign Service in 1957. What was your motivation?

In my junior year at UCLA, I was chosen to go on Project India, which sort of planted the seeds for the Peace Corps. We spent the summer of ’55 traveling all over India by bus and train to play basketball and volleyball and speak to students, argue, explain, drink lots of tea and participate in the building of dispensaries.

That trip changed my life. I came back and changed my major from forestry to business administration and decided I wanted to join the Foreign Service.

What was the selection process like in those days?

It was a one-day exam at that time. It had long been a three-day exam given only in Washington, D.C., and everyone traveled and stayed at their own expense. And at that time, if you got in, you had to pay to ship your own effects overseas and for your housing. So because of that financial proposition, the Foreign Service consisted of moneyed New England aristocracy. It was a group of snots basically.

By the time I came along, it was a one-day test given all around the world and shipping and housing were paid for. That’s how you got a bunch of peasants like me – people with no roman numerals after their names, born of immigrant parents and without family money. So I embarked on this career and enjoyed it enormously the whole time. Not every minute of every day, not every single boss I had but living and working overseas was, to me, a genuine reward even if it was unpleasant or unsafe or unhealthy or not very exciting.

And where did they send you?

When I first came into the Foreign Service, there was no bidding, you were just assigned to places. My first post was the Consulate General in Gothenburg, Sweden, which is no longer there and then I went to Tangier to learn Arabic, six hours a day, five days a week for 22 months. Then we spent two years in Tunis and in ’66 we went to Oran, Algeria. I was the principal officer of a four-person outpost consulate.

There were no other Americans for 300 miles in any direction. We were all by ourselves out there. They told me, ‘the reason you’re out there Ed, is if one day you don’t answer the phone, we’ll know Morocco has invaded.’

During the Six Days War in ’67, we had nine demonstrations against the consulate in the first five days of that war, which was, I’m told, a world record at that time. They never got in, it never became violent, but it scared the crap out of us.

Did they evacuate you?

Everyone else was evacuated on day five except me. I got into the consulate car, leaving everything else behind and drove through nine Algerian roadblocks to get to the embassy in Algiers, where diplomatic relations had been broken and what was left was known as an Interests Section, under the Swiss flag. All the dependents plus most of the employees were gone. Two months, my family rejoined me in Algiers, and four months later, I reopened the consulate in Oran and flew the only American flag in Algeria since consular relations had not been broken.

It was the only one-person post in the world and finally they hired my wife to act as my admin assistant, which was probably against regulations. We were there for roughly a year.

What was the starting salary when you joined?

I can tell you exactly what I was paid then: $5,200, a good salary. A condominium we own in D.C. now rents, monthly, for exactly that amount.

I worked for the Mobil oil company after graduation but I got fired for doing many of the things that got me into trouble at the State Department: telling people what I thought. Then I worked for Shell and quit to join the Foreign Service. I think I took a $400 pay cut to join. We rented a nice big one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Virginia, for $75 per month.

You were in the Foreign Service for 32 years and the military for five. How do you compare them?

There are similarities. You’re on duty 24 hours a day. You go where they send you and you do what they tell you to do. Those are the similarities. There is a much higher esprit de corps in the military. The Foreign Service is a very low-key organization. Very few people have any idea what the Foreign Service is or what it does. Some think it has something to do with the French Foreign Legion.

The only time any attention is paid to us is when there’s a catastrophe overseas, like the killing in Libya. Otherwise, Americans really don’t care very much, as long as other countries do things the way we want them to.

Also, unlike the military, the Foreign Service has no political clout like the military does. We’re impecunious, we have no political clout or domestic constituency, we have no uniforms and no one knows what we’re doing out in Bunga-Dunga or Puerto Banana or wherever the hell we are.

You don’t usually become an Ambassador by pissing people off though, do you?

I won a dissent award as a middle grade officer, and years later I did a study for The American Foreign Service Association. It turns out that people in the middle grades were more likely to be promoted if they had won a dissent award. And those who went on to become Ambassadors were much more likely to have won a dissent award. So if you do it the right way, persistently and with a sense of humor it doesn’t hurt you. But people knew that if I went to work for them, I’d tell them what I thought.

You spent most of your career in the Middle East. How do you improve our image in the Arab World?

We’ve repaired our ties with Germany and Japan so it can be done. People say Arabs and Jews have never lived in peace together. That is absolute horse crap. How would your relationship with your next-door neighbor change if you woke up one morning and found they’d moved their fence onto your property? If they dug up some plants and trees while doing it? Or especially if they moved their fence all the way to the next house and pushed you out.

And the President is extremely limited in what he can do, because he’s beholden to what his party thinks need to be done in order for him to be re-elected. So he’s not going to do anything to offend Israel because there is a very dedicated, powerful lobby. We like to tell people our way isn’t just the right way; it’s the only way. It’s called American exceptionalism. But by definition, you can’t impose democracy. It isn’t going to work.

I was asked by the BBC about the $1 billion American Embassy in Baghdad and I told them, ‘It’s not an Embassy, it’s a fortress, you can’t walk down to the market, you have to go in an armored car with helicopter gunships flying overhead.’ That’s not the Foreign Service I knew.

But you want the place you work to be safe, do you not? We’ve just had several embassies and consulates attacked around the world and the terrorism threat has magnified in a big way since your career ended.

We brought this on ourselves. The Swedish embassy doesn’t have to move. The Australian embassy doesn’t have to be boarded up and placed behind barbed wire. We brought this onto ourselves in terms of our relations with other countries by our own behavior. It’s focused in the Middle East because there we are violating all of our founding principles every day. Don’t we stand for freedom, justice and liberty all around the world? No. Only in some places.

Gaddafi had to go because he killed almost 1,000 Libyans who were engaged in an armed uprising to overthrow him, so he had to go. Netanyahu killed 1,400 Gazans in Gaza who weren’t armed and weren’t engaged in an armed uprising to overthrow his government and he used American guns, bombs, bullets, rockets, planes, napalm and white phosphorus bombs. But that’s OK isn’t it?

Let’s be clear. No one in his or her right mind, and there are people who will not qualify for inclusion, wants anything bad to happen to anyone in the Middle East. Not one Israeli, or Palestinian or American, or anyone else. But terrible things have, are and, I fear, will happen to all those groups unless and until the Occupation ends, and Palestinians live in peace and security with Israel as their neighbor.

Hold on, we can debate why there are threats out there against us, but the reality is that there is danger in representing the U.S. overseas. Don’t our diplomats deserve to be in secure facilities?

You can never permit a designer or architect to make decisions. Security people are trained to focus far more on security than on operational effectiveness, it’s all just security for security’s sake.

What did you love about the Foreign Service?

Travel, learning, listening, informing and explaining. I would go back in the Foreign Service tomorrow if they’d have me. I loved it; I treasured it. I thought it was an honorable job and I recommend that people join but it’s not the same Foreign Service life that I lived.

Read more from A Traveler In The Foreign Service.