Watching the always-poised Condi Rice this morning, I was reminded why I could never be a professional diplomat. And if you possess a normal respect for the truth and a minimal sense of the ridiculous, you probably couldn't be one, either.
Let's face it: there's something refreshing about Trumanesque "plain speaking," or McCainiac "straight talk." I even agree with much of what John Bolton has to say about the United Nations -- it is a nest of corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats.
But blunt truth never lasts long. John McCain, for example, has become a born-again Bushophile, and that was the end of him as an honest, independent voice.
In the public square, diplomacy is mostly about the repetition of dogma. Secretary of State Rice is merely the latest top diplomat who has been tasked with reciting a committee-spawned catechism of foreign policy belief. If challenged by uncomfortable reality, she simply repeats the dogma. Such script-sticking-to is not always effective, but at least the script-sticker won't get in trouble with his or her superiors.
This morning, on two topics, Iran and Afghanistan, Rice was on message. That is, she said exactly what she had said the day before, and exactly what she will say tomorrow. And if her words strain credulity? Well, tough. That's the State Department line, and she's sticking to it. Better to suffer raised eyebrows from journalists than raised tempers from the White House.
The problem, of course, is that what she said doesn't really pass the laugh test. Fortunately for Rice, questioners Wolf Blitzer of CNN and Tim Russert of NBC are not allowed to laugh in her presence -- there are some advantages to being the nation's chief diplomat.
When Blitzer asked her about religious freedom in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Rice had her standard line: "But again, Wolf, these are evolutionary democracies." And she kept a straight face. She could do it, I can't. Do you believe that the Arab countries are moving toward us? If you do, I have a port to sell you.
And when Russert asked her why the Russians are thwarting us at every turn -- even going so far, apparently, as to help Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war -- Rice uncorked the following about the Russians and the Iranian nuclear program: "We're working through it. We have the same strategy here. We have the same view of the problem." So is that why the Russians are hard at work on a nuclear plant for the Iranians at Bushehr, and are clearly out to detour the US effort to impose sanctions on Iran? Once again, a regular person would lose his or her composure trying to deliver such implausible platitudes.
Even Rice seemed to know that she was straining, credibility-wise. A few sentences later, she added, "The Russians, the Chinese and certainly the Europeans have the same view of what is to be prevented." Note the distinction in that sentence. She insists, because she is supposed to insist, that the Russians and the Chinese are on our side--despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. But when she gets to the Europeans, she puts in the "certainly," because in the Euro case, it is true that Britain, France, and Germany are working with the US, at least for now. Still, it's her job to reassure Americans that the Bush administration is on top of the Iranian situation, making steady progress. After all, if two of the three members of the "axis of evil" manage to bristle with nuclear weapons during W.'s presidency, well, that wouldn't look good, would it? And if the Bush people can't make reality conform to their wishes, they can at least make their rhetoric conform to their wishes.
So that's how to be secretary of state -- if you can keep from gagging. I can't do it, but others can. You find out the party line, get it down into bullet points, practice saying it earnestly, no matter what, and then you are off on your career. With apologies to the real estate biz, that's the secret to diplomacy: repetition, repetition, repetition.