If you noticed that the American press—electronic and print—struggled to maintain a semblance of balance in reporting the war between Israel and Gaza, chalk it up to the complexity of the conflict. Moral ambiguity is always a tough one. This was a confrontation marked by stunningly bad leadership on both sides—the same leadership that now intends to sit down for peace talks in Cairo.

Let’s start with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Before it began its rocket barrages into Israel last month, Hamas popularity among Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants had plummeted. Unemployment—much of it induced by Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the borders—was hovering at around 50%; Hamas couldn’t pay its 40,000 government workers their salaries; it had lost its main political patrons in Egypt and Syria. Things had gotten so bad that it even agreed to form a new government with its archrival Fatah, the party that controls the West Bank.

Cue the rockets.

For those of you living in tornado-prone areas, think of how your heart races when you hear a siren sound during storm season. Or any siren, for that matter. Now multiply that feeling by 100 or so—and you’ll get a sense of what it was like to be in Israel on the receiving end of those missiles. On July 10, for instance, Hamas launched 197 rockets at Israel; 162 rockets on July 17; 141 rockets on July 30; in just the last 45 minutes preceding the start of Tuesday’s ceasefire, Hamas fired 13 rockets at Israel. By the time the ceasefire took hold, Hamas had shot nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars into Israel.  Miraculously, only three civilians were killed, mostly because of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and the prevalence of bomb shelters throughout the country, both public and private. (Another 64 Israeli soldiers died in the ensuing battles.)

Hamas embarked on its deadly fireworks campaign knowing full-well that it would invite a lethal response. How could the Israeli government not hit back? And here’s where the cynical use of war as a tactic is most appalling: hide your fighters and weaponry among the civilian population—in schools, mosques, near hospitals—and you’ve set the scene for a disaster. And disaster it was when Israel’s armed forces let loose. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed more than 1,800 people, over 70% of them civilians; injured an estimated 9,800; laid waste to entire neighborhoods; destroyed already-meager infrastructure in the direly impoverished territory. A United Nations official said that the war had had a “catastrophic and tragic impact” on Gaza’s children and that reconstruction would cost billions of dollars.

War, by its very nature, is indiscriminate. This is not to diminish Israel’s culpability for the deaths and horrific destruction wrought. But you only have to look at the results of the unmanned drones that the U.S. has used against terrorists to debunk the myth of “precision” or “pin-point” bombing. The Council on Foreign Relations figures that of the 3,400 or so people we’ve killed over the last 10 years in such strikes, at least 12% were innocent bystanders. (“Collateral damage,” in Pentagon-speak, that bland, actuarial-esque term intended to sanitize the unintended and tragic consequences of such actions.) This, when we were targeting only one or two people and not responding in real time to attacks.

Politicians have used war to divert attention from their own failings since the inception of the city-state. Among the most blatant demonstrations I witnessed as a journalist occurred in Argentina in 1982, when the despised ruling military junta invaded the Falkland Islands. One minute there were almost a million people out in the streets of Buenos Aires, calling for the heads of the generals—and the next thing you knew, the country had invaded the Malvinas (as the Falklands are known in Spanish): a clump of wind-whipped rocks in the South Atlantic, inhabited by about 1,800 English-speaking farmers and 600,000 sheep, which Argentina has been claiming ever since the British occupied them in 1833. This flagrant appeal to nationalism worked–that is, until the British arrived to retake the islands, and young Argentine soldiers began returning home in body bags by the hundreds.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. Hamas—and the Palestinians as a whole—have desperately real and legitimate grievances against Israel (which I’ll get to below). But the concept of employing war as a tactic is the same. And what of the 32 elaborately constructed tunnels, running from Gaza deep into Israeli territory, that Israel’s forces found and destroyed? In all likelihood, they would have been used to devastating effect to launch terror attacks inside Israel. What if Hamas had instead funneled the resources and ingenuity and energy used to create those tunnels into bettering life in Gaza? (Or at least diverted some of the cement to build bomb shelters for its people.)

And yet, and yet. None of this happened in a vacuum. The past several years have brought little but despair for Palestinians: continued Israeli intransigence on curtailing settlements in the occupied West Bank; a peace process, so assiduously pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, that fell apart earlier this year. The people of Gaza suffered continuous fuel shortages, daily electrical outages, failing sanitation systems and water treatment plants, a collapsing economy. In the absence of hope, the Hamas strikes against Israel seemed like a bold gesture to some Gazans.

The magnificent Israeli writer and peace activist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent New York Times op ed: “,,,,,I ask the leaders of my own country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people—an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?” (Grossman speaks with tragic authority; his son, a tank commander, was killed in 2006 in Lebanon in the waning days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.)

So there you have it: a month-long war, whose inevitability was created by the leaders of one side and set in motion by leaders of the other. And these are the same people who are now going to talk peace.

Where, oh where, are the Nelson Mandelas of the Middle East?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Of the myriad bills that Congress didn’t pass this year and issues it didn’t address—thereby earning it the dubious distinction of being the least productive in the legislative body’s history—leaving fully one-quarter of our 169 embassies without ambassadors stands out as a huge failing.

Consider where the vacancies are: until last Tuesday, there was no U.S. ambassador in either Honduras or Guatemala—both countries from which tens of thousands of children have washed up on the Texas border. (The Senate did confirm the nominee to Honduras; the ambassador-designate to Guatemala has yet to have a vote.) In Africa, 13 of our embassies are without top envoys. They include such critical countries as Niger, which the Obama administration sees as vital to fighting terrorism in the Sahel region. (That’s where Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in neighboring Nigeria last April, operates.) Even the ambassador-designate to Russia –Russia!—may not get voted on before the congressional August recess.

The reason for the vacancies is the usual partisan food fight between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, which controls the confirmation process for all ambassadors. That, and the perception that President Obama is allocating an inordinate number of the top embassy positions to political benefactors instead of career diplomats. (One example: Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who contributed or raised $800,000 for the Obama campaign and apparently had a less-than-stellar performance when she appeared recently before the Foreign Relations Committee to be grilled on her nomination as ambassador to Hungary. The committee approved her nonetheless, but she’s still awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.)

Do these vacancies matter? Having worked as a foreign correspondent and been married to a U.S. ambassador, I’ve seen both sides of the profession. Just as there are bad butchers and dental hygienists, so too are there lousy ambassadors. Many are preening peacocks with an inflated sense of self, more interested in the trappings and perquisites of the office—having traffic stopped for their convoys, flying the flags on their limousines, staging grand parties in their grand residences—than in the substance of their work.

(Those characteristics aren’t limited to our envoys. I once had the privilege of witnessing the wife of a European diplomat throw a world-class hissy fit when her country’s entire delegation was inadvertently denied seats at a luncheon following the inauguration of an African president. “We give so much fucking money to this fucking country,” she announced loudly, flouncing out of the venue, “you’d think we could get a fucking seat at a fucking table!”)

But I’ve also encountered many dedicated and brave practitioners of diplomacy, men and women who care deeply about the power the U.S. can wield for good in the world, and have used the position of ambassador to further that aim. It’s not always easy. They have to navigate the delicate balance between the dictates of their boss back in Washington, and the sensibilities of their host country. Often times they are required to take actions that seem, from their vantage, counterproductive or a violation of personal principles. The courageous among them will find a way to stand up to Washington; some will even go so far as to quit. For them, the position is almost one of a sacred trust.

And when these posts go empty for months on end, it matters–even in this era of instant communications. Yes, you could send in the deputy-ambassador to deliver a stern message to, say, President Putin of Russia that the U.S. is not going to countenance him arming rebels in Ukraine—but Putin knows that the deputy- ambassador isn’t Obama’s man (or woman.) The deputy wasn’t specially appointed by the president, wasn’t vetted by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t have a confirmation vote by the full Senate. The deputy doesn’t possess a document, signed by the president, declaring him to be “extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” For career diplomats, who historically have filled about 70% of all ambassadorships, attaining the title is a huge feat; only about 5% ever achieve it.

By contrast, the deputy is just another bureaucrat who obtained his position by having served long enough in the State Department to rise to the proper rank. No matter how talented or intelligent the deputy may be, a head-of-state isn’t going to be inclined to invite him for a quiet drink or a one-on-one lunch or a round of golf in which to develop an intimate working relationship; second-in-command just doesn’t cut it. It’s the equivalent of consorting with a colonel instead of a general. The title bestows authority: a foreign president or prime minister wants to talk to someone who ostensibly has our president’s ear. Or, at least, that of the secretary of state.

While it all may seem antiquated, a holdover from the days of morning coats and top hats, this is the way nations have always dealt with one another—and still do. (In fact, many countries—Norway, Thailand, Spain and Japan, to name a few–continue to require the ambassador to don a morning coat when presenting his or her “letter of credence” to the head-of-state. Here’s what the Dutch government says about the ceremony: “The king puts a gala carriage drawn by two horses at the disposal of every ambassador that present their credentials and, if appropriate, a so-called blue carriage for the embassy staff. Ahead and behind every cortege ride two Military Police riders in ceremonial uniform. At Noordeinde Palace, a guard of honor and a military band is drawn up. Following a salute by four drum-rolls and the national anthem of the ambassador’s country, the guard of honor is inspected, after which the ambassador and retinue goes inside. On departure, the ambassador is again given four drum-rolls. The dress code for the ambassador is morning-coat or traditional dress of their country.”)

Pomp and circumstance aside, you’d think that with Russia meddling with deadly results in Ukraine, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists running amok in parts of Africa and thousands of Central American children turning up on our doorstep–Congress might have figured out that ambassadors do matter.  Why send colonels to deal with these issues when we’ve got dozens of generals waiting to go?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Amid the myriad stories about the Arab spring–which has segued into summer and fall– the Washington Post ran a piece last month about a former high-ranking State Department official who reportedly met with aides to Moammar Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan uprising to advise them on how to keep their boss in power. I’m not going to mention his name because the Post reporter was unable to contact the diplomat for comment and based the story on minutes of the meeting unearthed by an al-Jazeera journalist from the ransacked headquarters of Libya’s intelligence agency. Still, the specter of an ex-U.S. diplomat shilling for a blood-drenched despot (and one who had the whole of NATO and the U.S. against him) unfortunately rings true.

Full disclosure: my husband was a foreign service officer for 27 years. As his wife for part of that time–and as a journalist–I watched the various ways in which American ambassadors lose their sense of integrity and judgment and succumb to terminal cases of clientitis. It’s easy to see why. Theirs is the life style of the rich-and-famous, courtesy of the U.S. government: enormous houses, phalanxes of servants, bodyguards, limousines flying the official flag, constant rubbing of shoulders with those in power. It’s difficult not to internalize these trappings and begin to think of yourself as powerful. The State Department’s culture of conformity only reinforces such perceptions.

Indeed, this is an institution that values conformity so highly it created a special honor to acknowledge those who stray. The State Department’s Christian A. Herter Award is given to senior diplomats who speak out or otherwise challenge the status quo. It’s awarded for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.” (Apparently, the Department has had a hard time finding worthy recipients in the last several years.) What does it say about an institution–and its employees–that bestows special recognition upon those who haven’t sold their souls?

It’s difficult for these diplomats to give it all up when their careers are finished. Short of being a dictator of a small, corrupt country, there are few jobs in the world that can compare to that of being a American ambassador. All that power, all that glory. Besides, what actual skills do they posses other than a Rolodex–or its electronic equivalent–full of names and the promise of access? Sadly, it’s all part of a broader Washington phenomenon, whereby everybody uses the contacts they’ve gained to their advantage. This is what it has come to: generals retire and become part of the military-industrial complex. Congressmen retire and become lobbyists. Diplomats retire and do the same.

Still, shilling for Gaddafi has to represent a new low.