A modified version of this review appeared in the Foreign Service Journal of January 2004. American Diplomacy is indebted to that publication and,the reviewer for permission to republish the material.
Foreign Policy is Important, but This Book Isnt
American Diplomacy asks its reviewers to comment on literary merit, relevance to U.S. diplomacy, and value as an informational tool. Balance and objectivity on this work are difficult, but let me try. more or less. While it is polemical, irrational, biased, embarrassingly misinformed, mean spirited, potentially damaging, and a diatribe, it is also badly written. The jacket blurb describing Mowbray as a "pit-bull journalist" thereby slandering both groups.
Not that I feel strongly about this book, you understand.
Dangerous Diplomacy is also a howler of giant proportionsif you can retain a shred of humor while reading the tome. The book falls open to page 100 and I read, "...all communication from the Embassy must go through the filter of the desk officer, (so) what folks in Washington know about the goings-on in a foreign country. . . largely hinges on what the desk officer chooses to pass on." Self-immolation of this magnitude destroys the authors endless claims to insider status.
But I digress.
Literary merit: None, despite a truly heroic effort consisting mainly of several hundred (yes!) end notes and a fifteen-page index. Endorsing the idiocy of desk officer primacy, for example, is a quote from "an administration official" identified in the end note only as: "Administration official with extensive desk officer experience...." Of the remaining 602 notes, no fewer than ninety-nine provide similarly significant information: "Interview" or even just "An Informed Source." One hundred and three notes are simply "Ibid."
Mowbray may be many things, but he is not even a good writer. Poorly organized and disjointed, the book rambles, goes back over the same distortions, endlessly touts his skills and accomplishments, hypes points he laboriously tries to make, and lacks most any semblance of rationality. It might be best suited to a check-out-counter tabloid featuring a headline such as "Saddams WMD Seen At Graceland!!"
The authors views reflect a lack of knowledge and experience. I am (mildly) distressed to be writing down at his level, but foreign policy is important. It deserves intelligent analysis, not hostile, baseless misinformation. However many times his pencil slipped, he should display efforts to learn how things are done, rather than expose himself as strident, bellicose, and stunningly uninformed.
Organizations are never perfect, of course, nor are their personnel. The Foreign Service and State could benefit from thoughtful, constructive suggestions, but that is clearly not the intent here. The focus is on dishonesty, unethical behavior, crimes of omission and commission by the Foreign Service, and allegedly traitorous secrecy by State. For example, Mowbray extensively details the agonies of Americans whose children are taken overseas by the other parent. He blames failure to get another host country to act against its citizen to satisfy ours on the cold indifference of named officers, putting into their mouths callous and questionable hearsay from understandably distraught, frustrated Americans.
State participates actively in the domestic battles over foreign policy formulation, but does not make the ultimate decisions. In the overseas implementation of these decisions, State has a considerably larger role, but does not and cannot operate either independently or clandestinely. Anyone with even a minimal comprehension of the system knows this. But Mowbray repetitively insists that State controls everything from overall relations with a country to provision of economic/military assistance. Furtherand here is his basic messageState not only operates in violation of instructions from the White House and Congress, not to mention other agency programs and responsibilitiesit does so without their knowledge.
Unfortunately, many people adhere to the delusion that State has absolute control of foreign affairs. This notion conveniently explains everything that goes wrong. When few policies are doing well, and there may be a search for someone to blame, this is a worrisome fallacy. From that perspective, Mowbrays rancorous babble can be seen as dangerous. It is relatively easy for a population basically uninterested and misinformed on the world to hang failures around the neck of a small, far-flung agencythe Foreign Servicethat is charged, in principle, with responsibility for making things go right. An easy position to take, it is, however, a profoundly incorrect one. And this book will not, repeat not, better inform the public in that regard.
Recommendation: Do not buy this 300-odd pages of poppycock, especially if you have a weak stomach or a tendency to become enraged, unless you need to line the bottom of the cage for your parrot or parakeets.