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.

A Conversation With Rick Steves

Rick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.

Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.

After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.

Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.

As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?

It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.

After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?

They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.

A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”

This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.

Was there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?

I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.

Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?

I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.

If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?

Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.

I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.

Can you recommend Iran to Americans?

It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.

Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.

What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?

If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.

You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?

If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.

I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.

What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?

No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.


I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.

I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.

Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?

My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.

Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?

Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’

Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?

I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.

I’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?

I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.

I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.

We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?

To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.

That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.

So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?

In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.

Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.

Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?

If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.

Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.

What’s your travel schedule like?

For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.

For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.

I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.

Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?

I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.

I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?

While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.

He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.

Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?

I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.

What do you find most gratifying about your job?

I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.

I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.

My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.

[Photos courtesy of Rick Steves, seier and seier and Atilla 1000 on Flickr]

Photo Of The Day: Tel Aviv’s Street Art

Tel Aviv’s street art – in addition to sabich of course – was a highlight of my visit to Israel and the West Bank last spring. I snapped graffiti, spray-painted eggplants, political stencils and stickers.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one to find this element of Tel Aviv’s public culture interesting. Flickr user AlexSven photographed this complicated image in July of this year.

Upload your favorite images to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We choose our favorites from the pool to be Photos of the Day.

Suspects Held In Holocaust Memorial Desecration

Two weeks ago we reported that the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem was vandalized. Now Israeli police have detained three men in connection with the crime.

All three are ultra-Orthodox Jews and have confessed, police said.

The front of Yad Vashem was covered in Hebrew graffiti, including slogans such as, “Thanks Hitler for the wonderful Holocaust you organized for us. Only thanks to you we got a state from the UN.”

Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community don’t recognize the state of Israel, saying it shouldn’t exist until the coming of the Messiah. The BBC reports that some radicals even believe that Hitler and top Zionists plotted to create the Holocaust so that the Jews could create Israel, which has got to be the dumbest conspiracy theory we’ve ever come across, and that’s saying something.

The defacement was signed, “world ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”

The men are due to appear in court today.

Photo courtesy USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography. Click link to read the names of these children.

Church Of The Nativity In Bethlehem May Become Palestine’s First World Heritage Site

The government of Palestine is applying to put the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It would be the first such site for the emerging nation.

The government of Palestine is eager to increase its recognition among the community of nations. While 130 countries recognize it as a country, a few don’t, most notably the United States and Israel. When Palestine was accepted into the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization with a vote of 107-14, the U.S. and Israel protested being outvoted by not paying their UNESCO dues.

The church in Bethlehem is built on the supposed site of the birth of Jesus Christ. There has been a church here since the reign of Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine completed a basilica there in the year 333. That building burnt down and was rebuilt in 565.

Despite changes and expansions over the centuries, the interior has many original elements, including early Byzantine mosaics. Beneath the basilica lies a cave that is the purported birthplace of Jesus, with a fourteen-pointed star marking the exact spot.

The World Monuments Fund put the church on its list of a 100 Most Endangered Sites, citing decay of the structure. The Palestinian Authority responded by announcing a multimillion-dollar restoration campaign. Placement of the building on the UNESCO World Heritage List would help bring attention to its fragile state.

UNESCO will decide whether to put the church on the list later this month.

[Photo courtesy Lewis Larsson]