A departing diplomat's dispatch

Phyllis Oakley, with a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, joined the United States Foreign Service in 1957, but was forced to resign the next year when she married another diplomat, Robert Oakley. Back then, spouses could not serve with US diplomats. But in 1974, when the rule changed, she rejoined the service. She later became the department's first female deputy spokesman and, just before her retirement in September, assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research. Here are edited excerpts from a recent Monitor interview:

NATO's bombing of Kosovo was intervention in a sovereign state. What should be the rules for such interventions from now on?

It's certainly preferable to have the blessing of the [UN] Security Council. That makes it legitimate in the eyes of the world. We've been very successful in building coalitions to do that.

You have to have very clear, realistic expectations of what you're going to be able to do and not set the bar too high. We've had a lot of loose talk about democracy and stepping into societies to bring forth elections. It just doesn't work that quickly.

We also have to be prepared to use enough force to get the job done rather quickly, because I don't think there's the public support for long, drawn-out things.

Of course, prevention is far better. We talk a lot about conflict resolution, about mediation. But we need to pay more attention to these - why the rise of ethnic hatred and conflict, and how you prevent it - not a year before, but five or 10 years before. The State Department today is threadbare. We're emasculating the UN because we don't pay our bills. What do we have left? The military. And we use the military because that's the tool that is well-funded and ready to go. If we want preventive diplomacy, we have to pay for it.

The tolerance for American casualties seems to be less. Is this going to cause a problem for future interventions?

Yes. We have to accept that there is a price to pay if you are going to be the sole surviving superpower and throw your weight around.

Are we returning to a pre-World War II isolationism in the US?

To use those old labels is not really accurate for today. Some people define it as unilateralism or bilateralism.

This country is very involved in the world, whether it's through foreign students or business. People think nothing of going for a weekend in London. We're not going to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.

Should US intelligence agencies shift toward helping the economic interests of the US?

That's controversial because most economic things are proprietary information. Where is the government's role in this? It's easy enough if we get a tip-off that there's a bribery situation arising. That's different. But everybody was excited about economic intelligence. Then they began to think what it meant in the proprietary realm. People have pulled back a little.

Secretary Madeleine Albright has talked about how, as a woman, she has made a difference as the leading US diplomat. Do you agree?

She brings special skills as a professor. She speaks very well. And professors who spend a lot of time in class are used to speaking, answering questions, discussing, being quick on their feet. Those attributes she really displays in full measure, but not necessarily as a woman.

What will be the legacy of President Clinton's foreign policy?

This president has not really had a sustained interest in foreign policy. He has really focused on the domestic scene. Things like enlargement of NATO, the chemical warfare treaty, NAFTA - there are certain things like this that he's done very well. His report card is going to be mixed. He will be certainly remembered for pushing for the Dayton agreement in Bosnia, and the intervention in Kosovo.

Traditionally, diplomacy hasn't looked at opinion polls to make decisions. But with this president, we have, somewhat, diplomacy by opinion poll. Is that a good thing?

No. Any government leader has to get a team around him, debate the issues, make the decision based on what he thinks is right, certainly taking into account the views of the public. But real leadership is taking some tough decisions and then defending them. It doesn't mean you can't change as you go along, if it really proves to be a disaster.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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