The highlights reel of Dennis Jett's foreign-service career would screen like an action film – saving journalists from warlords, calling out power-hungry foreign leaders, pushing peace between rebels and governments, even helping rescue hostages. Such drama is not usually the stuff of diplomacy, but Mr. Jett wasn't your usual diplomat.
During a 28-year career with the State Department, he walked the fine line between emissary and maverick. Jett eschews the latter word – John McCain's failed presidential bid made the term too narrow, he thinks – but not necessarily the sentiment. "I was trying to say what I thought needed to be said, even though it made some in the State Department uncomfortable," says Jett, now a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University in State College.
Uncomfortable as some may have been, others also recognized Jett was right. Jett is a recipient of the Christian A. Herter Award, given annually to a high-level US State Department employee for an accomplishment rather unorthodox in an institution rooted in obedience and hierarchy: effective dissent.
"It's one of our most significant awards ... because it's given to a senior foreign-service officer [who] basically opposes policy in a constructive manner," says Perri Green, who coordinates the award for the American Foreign Service Association. That person, she says, "has an amazing impact on the policy."
Jett's recognition, for a decision he made as ambassador to Mozambique in 1995, had roots in work he'd done a decade earlier in a neighboring country. In Malawi, in the late 1980s, his cowboy instincts turned into quiet heroics. Kindra Bryan, a young Texan nurse working as a missionary, was kidnapped with five other missionaries by rebels fighting the government of Mozambique. The rebels marched the hostages hundreds of miles across Mozambique and, near the Malawi border, decided to free them. Jett volunteered to meet the captives after they crossed to safety at a remote river crossing on the border.
"I thought I was going to stand there and people would come across, and I would say, 'Hi, how are you. Welcome to Malawi. Now get in my car and we'll go to the capital,' " he remembers.
But the rebels had a different idea. Jett's emissary to the rebels, an American missionary, told him that the rebels wanted to meet him; Jett agreed, saying: "Just tell them to come over."
The emissary dissented: "They can't enter Malawi. You have to cross over into Mozambique."
Jett was in a bind. "I need permission from Washington to leave the country," he protested. But the rebels wouldn't return the captives unless Jett came across.
"The border is a river, and it's raining, so the river is really running very high and fast," Jett recalls. "I get in this little boat, and we go across ... and we go about 50 yards into Mozambique. There's guys in flip-flops and T-shirts carrying AK-47s saying, 'Hi, how are you....' "
The trip broke all the rules – not just because Jett lacked permission for international travel but because a US diplomat wasn't allowed to meet with an unrecognized rebel group, to say nothing of the obvious risk. He remembers thinking, "What if I get over there and the guys with the guns say, 'We want you to spend some time with us...?' "
The risk paid off; the missionaries were freed.
Six years later, Jett was back in the region, this time as ambassador to Mozambique. A peace deal had been brokered between the government and the rebels who had kidnapped Ms. Bryan, and in his new role, Jett had to keep it on track. But the government of Mozambique was dragging its feet on decommissioning its excess soldiers, a key part of the peace agreement, and an election neared.
Jett pressured the government indirectly, at first. He says he forwent "the usual blather" of a Fourth of July address to warn that voters would "remember who ... supported the peace process and who ... jeopardized the peace process and risked returning to civil war." In conflict-averse diplomatic circles, "that was taken as a direct slap at the government, which it was intended to be."
But nothing changed. So later, when Jett received orders from Washington to sign a $20 million aid deal with the government, he pushed back: "I said it would send exactly the wrong signal; it will encourage them to put the peace process at risk, not discourage them" from doing so. "I got a message back saying, 'Sign it; we're not interested in your opinion.' "
Jett persisted, knowing the deal would undermine the stern signals he, and others on his behalf, had been sending. He enlisted help from a senior US diplomat, and the next message from State, he recalls, said, "You can refuse to sign the agreement, and you can let the government know why."
The pressure helped push Mozambique toward peaceful elections and win Jett the Herter Award.
"It helps to be on the winning side of history," he acknowledges. But Jett also thinks there are times leadership calls for the kind of friction he created in his career. "There's a time when you have to ... make some noise," he says. "Washington considered you a success if you never appeared on their radar.... But it seemed to me that if we were serious about things like democracy and human rights, we had to defend them and not just with words behind the closed doors of bureaucrats."