Few modern-day diplomats have left as indelible a mark on the U.S. State Department as Thomas Pickering, and retirement has not diminished the former ambassador’s influence on urgent issues ranging from Iran to Benghazi.
The New Jersey native’s globetrotting four-decade career in the Foreign Service included key ambassadorships to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan. In the 1970s, King Hussein of Jordan declared Pickering “the best American ambassador I’ve dealt with.”
Later, as ambassador to the United Nations, Pickering reportedly did his job so well — and garnered so many headlines in the New York Times — that then-Secretary of State James Baker had him transferred to a post in India because he had overshadowed Baker during the Persian Gulf Crisis of the early 1990s.
Pickering also served as undersecretary of state for political affairs and eventually earned the personal rank of career ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service, before his retirement in 2000.
Following his retirement, the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program was renamed the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program to honor the longtime diplomat.
But in Pickering’s case, “retirement” was just an official term demarking the end of one career and the start of another. He went on to serve as vice president of international relations for Boeing, and today, the 83-year-old former diplomat is vice chairman of Hills & Co., an international business consulting firm. He also sits on the boards of numerous nonprofits and professional organizations and continues to write about topics ranging from Afghanistan to Cuba.
Pickering stays active in foreign affairs, as well. He was chairman of the panel that investigated security lapses at the U.S. government compound in Benghazi, Libya, and he helped found the Iran Project, an independent nongovernmental entity that aims to reduce misunderstandings between Iran and the United States through informal discussions with influential Iranians.
As controversy swirled around the negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program ahead of a self-imposed June 30 deadline, Pickering rejected the notion that engaging with one’s enemies conveys weakness. Instead, he told The Diplomat that communicating provides insights that lead to diplomatic breakthroughs.
“Talking is the method of communication in which you work to solve problems,” Pickering said in an interview at his office in midtown D.C. “Most of your most serious problems are with your enemies. So being able to use all of the leverage you have and marshal that in ways in which you bring your enemies along is the centerpiece of diplomacy.
“There are others who believe you can punish other countries by not talking to them,” he said. “Generally, it doesn’t work…. This is where we are with North Korea at the moment.”
That’s not to say the United States shouldn’t negotiate “from a position of strength,” Pickering added, but the talks with Iran are somewhat complicated by the other negotiating partners, known as the P5+1, which includes Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
“One can have a logical argument about Iran,” Pickering said. “Have we deployed enough pressure and are we getting what we should for it? Part of the difficulty here is that we are not negotiating alone. We have five other partners and part of the success of the pressure we are using, which is sanctions, underlying a military threat if they try to make a nuclear weapon,” relies on the cooperation of those partners.
Pickering said the deal struck by the Obama administration and other countries to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a good one — and likely as good as Washington is going to get.
“If we don’t take the present framework agreement and seek to ratchet it up more, are we going to have all these [countries] with us? The answer is clearly no,” Pickering said three weeks before the June 30 deadline for a final agreement on a deal.
“Can we solve our problem with the framework that has been put together?” Pickering asked. “Most of us believe we can, but … we won’t make that judgment until there is a final agreement. Our group has been recommending the Congress to do exactly the same — keep an open mind, think about what is already on the table, think about what else needs to be done and evaluate it when the process is finished.”
Pickering suggested patience on the part of a Republican-controlled Congress that has consistently tried to inject itself in the ongoing negotiations.
“We have taken the view that the Congress has a logical and important role to play in this, and the Congress needs to decide for itself whether it is prepared to accept an agreement or not,” Pickering said.
Asked if he envisions a scenario in which the United States and Iran could eventually forge a more trusting bilateral relationship based on mutual interests, Pickering said, “It’s much too early to answer that question.”
“The nuclear question is a central factor in whether the relationship can proceed further,” he explained. “There are a huge number of outstanding issues. We have differences over Syria, we have differences over the Iranian support for terrorist organizations, we have differences over the view of how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, we have serious differences over the way the Iranians handle domestic human rights issues, particularly freedom of religion.
“But we have common agreements about Afghanistan; neither of us wants a Taliban government; and about what to do about the future of Iraq; neither of us wants to see [the Islamic State] in charge,” he said.
“If we can resolve the nuclear question, the next question is what else should we tackle and in what priority order and that is obviously a presidential decision,” Pickering said. “But my sense is you don’t want a world in which you live in perpetual disagreement with everybody or anybody.”
Perpetual disagreement, however, defines a foreign policy controversy that has come to haunt both President Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. The Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi that killed four U.S. government personnel, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, has spawned more than a dozen congressional hearings, tens of thousands of documents, calls to improve diplomatic security and a host of largely debunked conspiracy theories. Republicans say they are simply trying to uncover the truth about the still-murky attack, while Democrats accuse them of using the tragedy to tarnish their presumptive nominee for the White House in 2016.
Pickering played a key role in the Benghazi aftermath, having been tasked by then-Secretary Clinton to head an Accountability Review Board to examine the circumstances surrounding the attack, widely blamed on Islamist militants who roam parts of the fractured country. He has been eager to address lingering criticisms of his report since its release in late 2012.
The investigation of the chaotic attack, which involved arson, small-arms and machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and mortars, focused on two U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
Pickering was named chairman of the review board, and Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served as vice chairman. Perhaps not surprisingly, the report was immediately criticized by Republican members of Congress, many of whom have alleged a State Department cover-up of the security lapses.
“In my district — and the vast majority of Americans — feel that your report was a whitewash,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) told Pickering and Mullen at a House Oversight Committee hearing after the report’s release. “That’s what people feel.”
A primary complaint was that the review board didn’t bother to interview Clinton. Pickering pushed back against the criticism two years ago, and reiterated his stance on the matter in his Diplomat interview. He said the scope of the review was dictated by Congress and that the investigation revealed that Clinton wasn’t responsible.
“We were charged by the Congress … with looking at four issues: Was there a security problem, did we take it fully into account, did we do the right kind of thing and what needs to be done if we didn’t do the right thing,” Pickering explained.
“We looked at it from that perspective and we interviewed maybe over 100 people, including people who were with the secretary the night of the event,” Pickering continued. “We decided that two things were true — that the decisions made in connection with preparing Benghazi adequately for the security situation were made at a level well below the secretary and reviewed at a level well below the secretary. And we held the people who made those decisions responsible.”
The State Department disciplined four officials in the incident and the highest-ranking among them, Eric Boswell, head of the Diplomatic Security Bureau, resigned. Pickering said the purpose of the report was to find out who was responsible for the lax security at the U.S. government compounds in Benghazi — not to find a high-ranking scapegoat.
“The Congress said in the material accompanying the [Accountability Review Board] act to not accept as a solution to the investigation that some senior-level official accepts full responsibility when in fact the decisions were made further down and the accountability rests further down,” Pickering said.
“That was the conclusion we reached and I have seen nothing since then that in all honesty I believe changes the equation,” he added. “I’m perfectly prepared to consider the fact that if new information comes to light that changes the equation, [but] so far that has not happened.”
In fact, he says, the unprecedented scrutiny into Benghazi has revealed no smoking gun or massive conspiracy.
“I feel reinforced now two years later — almost three years later — that there has been nothing produced,” he said. “But I am not of the mind that nothing can ever be produced because I said today nothing has been produced. We were working with what we had.”
So, why not talk to Clinton anyway, given the expected criticism of the report and the great likelihood that she would run for president — at least to get her on the record?
“We carefully considered this question and the group, the five of us, had already concluded the responsibility rested where it rested,” Pickering replied. “We didn’t think it was necessary under what we knew at the time, which is what we still know now, to conduct an interrogation of the secretary.”
Asked to assess Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, Pickering was strongly complimentary, but also makes a point of conceding that he served on her special policy advisory committee while she was on the job.
“I felt that she and the State Department under her period of time did a good job — an excellent job,” Pickering said. “Nobody escapes scot-free from making a mistake or two, but I always thought Secretary Clinton went out of her way to be honest with the public. When she made a mistake, or thought she made a mistake, or thought she should have done so differently after the fact, she said so and not too many human beings of that stature who have ambitions to go further are prepared to be as frank in public as she was in those cases.”
That’s hardly likely to satisfy Republicans who are demanding full access to Clinton’s emails during her tenure as secretary of state, along with her testimony before the House Select Committee investigating Benghazi.
Pickering said it’s obvious that the Accountability Review Board report didn’t close the door on the tragedy.
“Most questions have been laid to rest but they are not going to stay at rest,” he conceded. “They will continue to dog her campaign. It’s part of the natural flow of events in a democracy in which presidential races are hard fought and carry a great deal of weight and I can’t complain about that.”
With his own Benghazi report in the rearview mirror (the State Department has accepted all 29 of the board’s security recommendations), Pickering has been spending his time thinking about the future of the State Department itself. Among the things that concern him most is its lack of diversity.
“We are still a predominantly white WASP-ish American organization,” he said, referring to the acronym for a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
In a Washington Post op-ed published in May, Pickering and Edward J. Perkins, also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the American Foreign Service suffers from a lack of people of color.
“Every dollar we invest in diversifying the diplomatic service will be repaid many times over by resolving disputes, averting conflicts, making new friends and opening new markets in a world whose variety must be reflected by our representatives overseas,” the former diplomats wrote.
Pickering said he was disappointed to realize that State Department fellowships that bear his and Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) names were slated for budget cutbacks by a belt-tightening Congress.
“My hope and objective has always been that we should double the size of those programs because diversity is important and those programs have been the sources of most of the diversity in the State Department,” Pickering said. “If you have the brains and the competitive nature to participate and you don’t have the money, the State Department finds the money [for a student] to study for three years and you have to give the State Department five years of your life, and we hope they stay.”
Pickering also lamented what he said is the politicizing of the department by awarding prized ambassadorships to those who raise money for presidential campaigns, commonly called “bundlers” in political parlance. The longstanding criticism — and it has been borne out at some high-profile confirmation hearings recently — is that these political appointees are seriously uninformed about the countries in which they are chosen for ambassadorships.
“It’s gotten worse every year and the price has gone up,” Pickering said. “Twenty years ago the price was $300,000 and now it’s a $1.3 million average. That’s what they’ve either bundled or donated to get attention, to be considered.
“However you shape this, it’s people buying jobs and the sale of office ought to be prohibited — and it is, by law,” Pickering said. “We completely ignore it, work our way around it, and both parties are fully agreed they want to do this because they have to raise a lot of money.
“I’m totally in favor of doing everything we can to ensure we appoint people with really formidable talent to these jobs,” he said.
So how does the government return to a more merit-based Foreign Service?
“One of the ways you get at this is campaign finance reform,” Pickering said. Just as quickly, though, he discounted the notion that the current system will ever be reformed.
But he said the percentage of political appointees can be reduced, “so that the White House can be proud of the people it appoints. Ambassador jobs are becoming even trickier in this day and age because we have a multiplicity of problems and the guy on the spot has to make judgments. Unfortunately, some of these political appointees hardly ever show up on the job, which is another issue,” he said.
“We proposed that the standards for appointment be very high and … that high standards are maintained so that rather than have 30 or 33 percent be appointed out of the White House political process, that they aim for 10 percent. That would give them the capacity to be very tough with bundlers and say you really have to have some experience here.”
So what would Pickering say to young Americans contemplating a career in the Foreign Service?
“You have an enormous opportunity to serve your government,” he said. “You can do it in a way where you and your ideas really count, whether it’s changing a mistake in the administration or bureaucracy or changing of foreign policy. You can make a real difference. It’s a highly competitive service, but if you work hard, you can find your way to the top.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.