WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s three-day consideration of whether to heed a request from Russian President Vladimir Putin to send a former ambassador to Moscow for questioning will make current diplomats less willing to put themselves at risk while representing the U.S. government’s interests abroad, predicted former State Department officials.
When Trump met with Putin on Monday, the Russian president reportedly pitched a deal: He would give U.S. officials access the 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking a Democratic National Committee server before the 2016 presidential election, in exchange for turning over former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and William Browder, a U.S.-born British financier who successfully lobbied for sanctions against Putin allies. Putin had an “incredible offer,” Trump said on Monday before the details of the proposal became public.
It took the White House until Thursday to back away from the idea. By then, reporters, lawmakers and the State Department had all expressed horror at the prospect of turning over a former U.S. diplomat to a hostile country. And the damage had been done.
That Trump publicly considered the proposition for several days “inhibits our diplomats, and it encourages autocrats,” said Daniel Serwer, a former State Department official who served as a U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation.
“It’s a very dangerous and unprecedented idea,” echoed Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
Diplomats’ jobs often involve going into foreign countries and doing things that can make the host government angry, such as meeting with opposition groups, speaking out against human rights abuses and defending unpopular U.S. policy decisions. McFaul, the ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, was in charge of an effort to improve U.S.-Russian relations, but Putin viewed him — and the U.S. — with suspicion. McFaul was stalked and harassed during his time in Russia, and he wrote a book about the experience.
Part of the reason he and other ambassadors have been willing to take risks in hostile countries is that they have diplomatic immunity, a concept that was codified in the Vienna Convention of 1961. Countries that are party to the convention agree not to detain or prosecute diplomats for actions carried out in accordance with their jobs. The point of diplomatic immunity is to allow diplomats to carry out their work without constantly fearing that they will be imprisoned if they do something the host country’s government doesn’t like. Without diplomatic immunity — or confidence that the U.S. government will invoke its protections — diplomats couldn’t do their jobs, several former ambassadors said.
“If you’re not getting the support from Washington, you’re going to be very reluctant to put yourself out there,” said Joseph Wilson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe.
Many former ambassadors have stories about working in dangerous situations and needing to know they had backing from Washington if their efforts got them into trouble.
Feierstein was in Yemen from 2010 to 2013 as the U.S. ramped up its drone program, which targeted suspected al Qaeda fighters and resulted in civilian casualties. “We were operating with the support of the government at the time, but the fact of the matter is that if another government came into power and decided the U.S. government was involved in murdering its citizens — which we were — and they wanted to bring me over because I did have a role in those programs, that could be an extremely serious issue.”
John Feeley, a career U.S. ambassador who resigned this year over differences with the Trump administration, recalled being instructed by U.S. officials to meet with Colombian FARC guerrillas to open a back channel in preparation for peace talks. “I cannot imagine years later being summoned by the Colombian Congress or subpoenaed by the Colombian judiciary to explain my actions to them when I was a diplomat in the service of U.S. interests,” Feeley wrote in an email.
The former diplomats who spoke to HuffPost said that Trump’s comments about McFaul appeared to be more of an indication of how little the president understands about international relations than a sign that he meant to upend part of the Vienna Convention. But that he apparently didn’t know or care about how diplomats perform the basic functions of their jobs doesn’t bode well for the State Department, which has seen a high resignation rate under Trump.
“My brave and stalwart colleagues who continue in the Foreign Service assigned to embassies around the world are experiencing the chilling effect of a commander in chief effectively saying, ‘Nope. Ain’t got your back, pal,’” Feeley wrote.