by James Carden
Friday, 24
September 2021

Daniel Foote: yet another US diplomat gone native

The resignation of the special envoy to Haiti over expulsion of migrants is typical
by James Carden
Daniel Foote receives his commission as Special Envoy to Haiti (credit: Getty)

This week, thousands more undocumented Haitian migrants made their way to the Texas border town of Del Rio. ‘Open borders’ advocates claim the migrants are fleeing from political persecution in their native Haiti which is going through yet another period of turmoil, this time in the aftermath of the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse on July 7.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that Biden’s response to the Del Rio invasion was in keeping with that of his immediate predecessors: he ordered their expulsion. After all, there is little basis on which to grant the migrants political asylum — there is no evidence they will face persecution when they return to Haiti. Further, despite the terrible conditions in Haiti, the migrants in Del Rio did not come directly from Haiti but from Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico, none of which, it should be noted, have offered asylum. Simply put, the Haitians migrated to Del Rio when their employment opportunities dried up.

Biden’s decision is eminently defensible. Yet he received immediate blowback from one of his own appointees, Daniel Foote, a career foreign service officer who, until Wednesday, had been serving as the Biden administration’s special envoy to Haiti. In his resignation letter Foote said he would “not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs to daily life.”

Foote’s resignation is a classic case of a diplomat ‘going native’ — also known as ‘clientitis’ —in which the diplomat champions the interests of the country they serve in rather than the interests of the country they serve.

Sadly, Foote is far from the first American diplomat to suffer from a bout of clientitis, nor will he be the last.

US diplomats going at least as far back as Stalin’s show-trial apologist Joseph E. Davies have fallen prey to this tendency. But it was not until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the threat of nuclear annihilation dissipated, that clientitis starting spreading through the diplomatic service.

In recent years, a series of US ambassadors to Ukraine, including Geoffrey Pyatt and William Taylor regularly overlooked US interests in their enthusiasm for a war with Russia over the Donbas, an economically depressed strategic backwater with no bearing on US national security. As Ted Galen Carpenter observed of Taylor’s time in Kiev, “it seemed as though Taylor was Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States rather than the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.” Then there was Trump’s personal envoy to Israel, David M. Friedman, who routinely conflated the whims of the host Right-wing Likud government for American interests and in doing so bestowed an ‘endless list of political giveaways’ to Benjamin Netanyahu.

These cases are all symptomatic of the underlying arrogance in America’s diplomatic corps. Certain diplo-officers believe they are endowed with a higher purpose and that only they know what’s best for for their country, and not the president who they serve.

In the end this is what the Foote affair comes down to: a high-ranking US diplomat resigning because he disagreed with a sensible and legal decision made by a duly elected president; a president who decided to place the interests of his own citizens over those of thousands of economic migrants who illegally crossed the sovereign border of the United States. One can only hope that Foote’s replacement will be better suited to the task at hand and serve the president’s interests, not his own.

Join the discussion

  • I’m a retired diplomat. Leaving aside the specific issue for a moment, on the basic principle it looks like Foote did the honourable thing here and chose to resign over a policy he could not support.

    What are the alternatives? Implement a policy that he can’t square with his conscience? Or stay and try to undermine a lawful decision taken by his democratically elected boss?

    Part of a diplomat’s job is to understand the country they deal with well as the country they come from, and then to advise HQ on the policies that will best serve their own country’s national interest and values. In a democracy, this requires a sense of the politically possible as well as a sense of proportion about best fit with your own country’s wider interests, which can sometimes conflict with its specific interests in your narrow patch.

    A good professional will properly seek to shape the policy they are asked to carry out – this is sometimes called ‘writing your own instructions.’ That’s not the same thing as ‘going native.’

    But yes, once your government has taken a lawful decision, the diplomat’s job is to own and carry out that policy, and to defend it loyally in public and in private. If they can’t do that in good conscience the right course is to resign and make way for someone who can.

    As it happens, I personally believe strongly that every state has the right and duty to control its borders, including illegal migration across them. Under the 1951 Convention on Refugees the basis for asylum is a well-founded fear of persecution on protected grounds (race, religion, political opinions etc). Economic migration is not covered. While I am not familiar with the situation in Haiti, I have no reason to dispute James Harden’s suggestions in the article that the Del Rio migrants do not face persecution if deported, and in any event have already travelled through safe third countries to reach the US border. In Foote’s place, I don’t expect that I would have seen any reason to resign.

    Of the other diplomats cited for clientitis in the article, Pyatt and Friedman seem to have been fully aligned with the different Administrations they served. Maybe the policies were wrong, and maybe criticism of them is due for their roles in devising and implementing those policies. But there doesn’t seem to have been any disloyalty. To the contrary perhaps there was ‘trop de zèle.’

    The Taylor case is much more complex, and as the subsequent impeachment proceedings revealed seems to have been more about domestic US politics than any clientitis.

    (I don’t personally know any of the individuals named.)

  • We seem to have ended up in a situation where any kind of violence (gangs etc) in the home country is considered grounds for asylum in a Western country, even if no specific threat because of “race, religion, political opinions”.

  • Exactly how I see it. Also, trust, but verify. Sadly the BLM flag story is true. Google the memos.

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