The Ambassador’s Tale: Lessons I learned about Success and Scandal

Howard Gutman (Ambassador to Belgium, 2009-2013)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Gutman’s July 16, 2015 special to the Washington Post.

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I first thought Dickens had characterized my time in Belgium succinctly: “It was the best of times” (four years), “it was the worst of times” (two months). I then considered Howard Beale’s “I am as mad as hell” and Raymond Donovan’s “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” But in hindsight President Obama may have said it best: “Just watch ESPN.

Most Americans might imagine the biggest challenge facing the U.S. ambassador to Belgium as fighting through the chocolate, beer and waffles. But during the Bush tenure, Belgium had been at the European forefront in its opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and its cynicism about America. Before I arrived, Belgium had sought to close the port of Antwerp to U.S. ships, ban American planes from Belgian airspace, and apply its law of universal jurisdiction to indict senior U.S. Defense Department officials, including then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The Gallup poll of foreigners’ views of America, taken in 2007 (less than two years before the Obama administration and my arrival in 2009 in Belgium), revealed that 65 percent of Belgians held an unfavorable view of U.S. leadership.

The U.S. Embassy and I understood that, to achieve our policy goals, we needed to change public opinion about America.

Much of the cynicism had been caused by what Europeans had perceived as unjustified American arrogance. The embassy and I emphasized transatlantic partnership and mutual respect. We learned Belgian customs and studied both of the country’s major languages, French and Dutch. Soon, popular television programs in both linguistic jurisdictions were filming “Day in the Life” segments of our work, starting with our language lessons.

I vowed in interviews to visit every official Belgian municipality, 589 in all. The embassy tracked each visit, and over time, more of the country tracked them as well. We postponed the usual appearances at the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium and the think tanks to make our first public address at a technical school in Charleroi, a city — much like Newark — for which the future threatened to leave many in the past. We were greeted by thousands.

Success bred more success and improved relations. We worked seven days a week, with news programs and Sunday talk shows calling often, and with each appearance and growing trust, controversial topics became far less so. By 2011, the Belgian equivalent of the Grammy Awards (for the Dutch-speaking half of the country) selected me to present the award for song of the year, presented the previous year by one of the two Belgian princes.

The popularity was a welcome respite for the embassy’s career State Department officers, used to taking public relations beatings. And it translated to results. Belgium for the first time accepted a transferee from Guantanamo. We blanketed the talk and news shows in pursuing Obama’s request that NATO allies commit new “surge” troops to Afghanistan, a hard ask for an antiwar Belgium that was made that much harder when two of its neighbors — the Netherlands and France — initially balked.

With the leading Belgian newspaper declaring “U.S. Ambassador Charms Parliament,” Belgium agreed to send the troops. The State Department followed up by asking the French to match “the Belgian example.”

The embassy and I could not have been more proud … until the lone major U.S. news report appeared. Missing the months of hard work, the forest of blooms and the success of the Afghanistan ask, The Washington Post’s Al Kamen reported on the backlash I had received in Europe over the troop request. Though he did say I had been “something of a rock star” in my first six months, the embassy and I worried that people back home might believe I had fouled up when the truth was so different.

Yet nothing could have prepared me for the two tsunamis that lay ahead.

Of all the links I had built with different groups in Belgium, the bond with the Jewish community was one of the strongest. I was the son of a Holocaust survivor, the valedictorian of my after-school Hebrew high school, a member of two synagogues back in Washington, and an ardent supporter of Israel who had accompanied candidate Obama to two conventions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I had attended dozens of events held by members of the Jewish community in Belgium and was a frequent speaker.

It was not a surprise, therefore, that a new European Jewish group asked me to speak at its conference on anti-Semitism in 2011. As with all my formal speeches, I tried to say something that mattered. As usual, the speech was carefully edited and cleared by my senior embassy team.

The speech covered not only the problem long presented by skinheads and haters who attack all minorities, but also, following State Department guidance and Israeli and Belgian security policy, the problem of the rise in anti-Semitic events in Europe that accompanies increased hostilities in the Middle East. When tensions rise or fighting breaks out in the Middle East, Israel, Belgium and most countries in Europe anticipate an increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

A freelance journalist reported that I had blamed Israel (rather than the increase in hostilities) for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Going one step further, a newspaper put quotation marks around the paraphrase.

Truth often loses its way in Washington and never more quickly than during a presidential campaign. As the embassy was receiving first wind of the misquote, then-candidate Newt Gingrich tweeted that I was wrong about anti-Semitism and needed to be fired immediately. The rest of the Republican field — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman — joined the chorus of critics. Within hours, the story that I was an anti-Semite spread on the Web, onto cable news and across the conservative weeklies, making cameo appearances in mainstream newspapers, and even a front-page splash in North Dakota. A Jewish Republican group soon took out a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and calling for my firing. The message traveled to newspapers in China, India and Thailand and continued to reverberate among bloggers throughout the world.

Political tidal waves cannot be reversed easily. The first night, the State Department let the embassy release a two-sentence statement regretting that my words had been misinterpreted and reiterating my long support for Israel. I was allowed to try to stop a 100-year flood with a Kleenex.

Still, having spent a career building significant friendships on both sides of the political aisle, I expected that some major Republican would read the actual speech, check the State Department guidance, learn about my background and beliefs, and end the nonsense. My first hope was candidateHuntsman, a measured politician who knew me from ambassador school. But Huntsman quickly got swept right in, joining the call for a firing.

From my days appearing on HBO’s series “K Street,” I had become friendly with Stuart Stevens, Romney’s lead campaign strategist. Mutual friends asked Stevens to have Romney correct the record. Expressing his sympathy with my plight, Stevens responded that, though he could not help, please tell Howard that it’s not personal.

One of my Republican predecessors as ambassador — a friend — was scheduled to introduce Romney the next day at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum. Proclaiming “I am sure it will blow over,” the former ambassador stuttered as he searched for the words to explain that he, too, would not help.

Several of my friends tried to rally the president’s support, but I knew no one from the White House would publicly walk into what was to them a minor story. Indeed, when discussing such personal attacks before I was selected for the ambassadorship, the president had once told me simply not to watch or listen, to instead turn the channel to ESPN.

As the onslaught continued, elements within the serious press and informed Jews tried to push back. The Economist, Mother Jones and Salon all wrote stories explaining what I had said and the mainstream nature of the remarks. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish movement; the Rabbinical Centre of Europe; and Sen. John Kerry all issued statements of support.

Amid the up-to-then deafening silence from the State Department, Deputy Secretary Tom Nides finally called to tell me that I had done nothing wrong and that he would defend me on the Hill. Meanwhile, the Belgian media, public and government officials rallied to my defense, with a leading daily running a headline: “Our Ambassador Under Attack.”

The small chorus of well-informed voices could simply not be heard over the thunder of the partisan lynch mob. My senior embassy colleagues did all they could to keep me going forward, but for weeks I could no longer watch television or surf the Web. I found little solace in the absurdity that two Mormon, two Catholic and two evangelical Christian candidates were telling me how to be a good Jew.

As with all hurricanes, the rain finally stopped. Belgium remained solidly behind me, and, as the racket back home finally faded, we continued to amass a record of success. A weekly magazine published a profile titled “The Ambassador Who Makes Us Love America Again.” Three years into our service, Gallup reported that, out of more than 140 countries, Belgium finished first in the world with the highest increase in its favorability rating toward U.S. leadership.

After four U.S. senators attended our Memorial Day commemoration in 2011 in Belgium, Sen. Patrick Leahy placed a copy of my speech in the Congressional Record. And having read another of my speeches on the relationship between economic prosperity and good climate policy, Prince Charles visited me to discuss ways to move forward. Organizations grouped in the European Union Jewish Buildings presented me with their first “Friendship Award.”

And months after the uproar, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a senior minister to ask me to open a back-channel mediation between Turkey and Israel aimed at resolving the “flotilla” dispute (in which Israeli soldiers had boarded a Turkish vessel resulting in the deaths of civilians).

With each passing day, I was able to add to the good works in Belgium, generating story after story that slowly buried the venom.

With three months to go until our four-year anniversary — I had already served a year longer than the ambassadorial norm — it was time to toast Belgium goodbye and plan for my future. I announced my departure date and shortly thereafter, in a celebration attended by the prime minister, completed my four-year “partnership tour” of visiting all 589 municipalities. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story titled “Every Day Is Someplace in Belgium for an Ambassador Keen to See It All,” and Time magazine sent a reporter to write on the four years of success. We had handled the WikiLeaks, spying and Benghazi crises, and both Clinton and Kerry had paid tribute to our achievements.

My first preference for life after the ambassadorship was to become a paid television commentator and to leverage it to join the speakers’ circuit. Given the constraints of the ambassadorship, I had limited time to return to the States to interview and could not negotiate a final agreement until I had left the government. To my delight, having lined up a day of interviews that turned into auditions in New York, I secured commitments from three competing networks. And the CEO of a Belgian American consumer brand company proposed that I lead its soon-to-be-formed advisory board.

Less than two weeks later, in June 2013, with six weeks to go in the ambassadorship, my life imploded. Back in 2011, I had been called back to Washington to answer questions about reports that I had been seen without my security and possibly talking to drug dealers or prostitutes in the park on which we lived. I had explained to two senior State Department officials the rules in Belgium as to when ambassadors could be without security, and said I had talked to hundreds of people as I walked through the park over the years, but none was a drug dealer or prostitute that I knew of.

I had heard nothing more about the questions for nearly two years, when a former member of the State Department’s inspector general office claimed that Clinton had covered up eight cases of alleged wrongdoing, including one ambassador who had “solicited” prostitutes in a park. A New York tabloid named me as the ambassador, creating a near-deafening roar in Belgium, across the Internet and throughout my world.

The leading Belgian newspaper filled the front four pages with coverage (though many of the stories were helpful, including one explaining that there had been no reports of any illegal activity in the park in the four years I had lived in Belgium and another quoting Belgian security officers explaining that they had often watched me without my knowledge, even when I did not have security, and that I had never engaged in any questionable activity). As the days passed, the stories online morphed as if part of an Internet game of telephone, growing uglier and more disgusting.

Fully aware of the truth, the State Department raised no questions or concerns, informing me simply to go about my business as ambassador. It requested that I limit my denial to a two-sentence press release and refuse to be distracted. I agreed, even as my voice too-often quivered with a combination of rage and forlornness.

Over the next weeks, I lost 17 pounds, relying principally on a diet of Xanax. My wife and family, who knew the park and thus knew the truth, were sources of great encouragement but, like me, could do virtually nothing to prevent the continuing devastation. I tried my best to serve the remaining month and a half with dignity, refusing to miss a single event, and got the sense that, seeing that I remained ambassador for my full term, Belgians were beginning to understand how unfairly I had been treated. I prayed that the State Department would exonerate me quickly, but bureaucracy moves slowly.

Not surprisingly, the consumer brand company decided to take its advisory board “in another direction.” And it would be impossible to finalize a contract with any of the three networks without exoneration and while my Google page was on fire. But some Belgian officials, business people and friends understood that I had been mistreated, and came forward with opportunities, ensuring that I at least would be able to proceed into private life with a seat on two boards, several consulting projects and my own transaction practice.

Pete Rouse was until recently in charge of triage at the White House. One by one the political appointees entered Rouse’s office — reputations hemorrhaging, the victims of the ongoing Washington political bloodbath, from Solyndra and Benghazi bystanders to victims of ugly confirmation fights. Gruff but gentle-hearted, Rouse tried his best to handle the flow during his years by the president’s side.

Having completed my service and returned home, I turned to Rouse in the White House in the hope of securing the magical suggestion or action that could turn back time and allow the truth to be heard. His voice laced with equal parts sympathy, anger and exasperation, he said he felt genuinely sorry for me, but my problem was pretty low on the casualty list.

Weeks later, with the Internet still full of trash that threatened to follow me for life, I took one more shot. As Obama thanked me and my wife, Michelle, for our service and said he had heard that we were pretty popular in Belgium, I thanked him for the opportunity to serve but noted that I had been rocked a couple of times by the political process and could use some White House support.

Always unfazed, the president responded that these things come with the territory.

“But, Mr. President,” I tried to protest, “you should see my Google.”

“Howard,” the most powerful man in the world responded, “you should see my Google.”

Fifteen months after the leak of the long-discredited allegation, the State Department without notice released the words I had long awaited. As written in the Nelson Report, a daily newsletter on international events for political Washington:

“State Department Apologizes to Ambassador Howard Gutman.

“When good people get smeared by leaks, it is a rare sunny day when they are publicly exonerated. But with the release of the Office of the Inspector General report covering the wrongful leak 15 months ago of previously-discredited allegations of wrongdoing, the Department of State put out the following statement apologizing to former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman and others:

“ ‘The Inspector General’s report makes clear there was no wrongdoing and that the allegations wrongfully leaked from internal OIG documents were in fact unsubstantiated. It can’t erase the pain these leaks caused those public servants who were falsely accused, but it does vindicate them and puts an end to a painful chapter for many.’ ”

Largely ignored here, in Belgium the State Department’s apology made prime-time news. Facebook and e-mails would have to suffice to get the word out here, and cleaning up the Google page will be a lifelong project. But Obama was right. Deeds and accomplishments, not a Google page, define a person. And my world, having waited patiently to see the color return to my face, responded with joy and congratulations. Fifteen months after getting punched in the gut, it was time finally to take a breath. And maybe even to watch the TV news stations.

And along the way, there had always been “SportsCenter.”

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