New ambassador asks Belgium to ante up in Afghanistan

By Al Kamen
Friday, February 19, 2010

Prominent Washington lawyer and actor (roles in the HBO series "K Street" and a couple of movies) Howard Gutman has been something of a rock star in his first six months as ambassador to Belgium. He has broken from the usual diplomatic mold, traveling extensively, speaking to students, workers and business groups, as well as to the Belgian parliament.

But he has been pummeled in the media of late for a speech he gave last week to Cercle Gaulois, a business group. A typical headline: "Elephant in Porcelain Shop." In the speech, Gutman said Vice Premier Laurette Onkelinx could be "the most powerful woman in the world," just behind the still wildly popular man (in Belgium) Barack Obama. All she has to do, he said, is persuade Belgium's coalition government to send up to 50 more police trainers and 120 more troops to Afghanistan.

Belgium, with one-thirtieth the population of the United States, has about 600 personnel there.

"And if Belgium marched forward, " he said five times, "if Belgium . . . led, who in Europe . . . would not join?" (Well, maybe the French, or the Germans?) He also asked Belgium for a little help in closing Guantanamo Bay by taking a couple of residents of that facility.

Though his views were hardly new, reaction about the speech exploded for days on Belgian television and on newspaper front pages and among the commentariat.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme, reportedly irritated, airily dismissed the speech, noting that Gutman can make any proposals he wants, but that the Belgian government calls the shots. One newspaper pundit said that, in diplo-speak, this amounts to a "sharp reprimand."

Others considered the speech an undiplomatic foray into the complex world of Belgian politics. A longtime commentator wrote that there was never much chance that Belgium was going to up its ante in Afghanistan or take any more Guantanamo Bay prisoners, but now Gutman has "messed it up in an expert way."

Onkelinx, who rejected Gutman's Afghan/Guantanamo Bay requests when they met last month, said the ambassador is definitely not a "traditional diplomat," but added that she is not upset about the media fuss. He's "very open," she said, though he greatly overestimated her ability to move the government.

Gutman's superiors in Washington would not allow him to chat with us. His general view, he told a Belgian newspaper in a recent interview, was that, given all the enormous challenges confronting Washington and Brussels these days, "we do not have the luxury to lose much time. Let me be a mediocre diplomat; I prefer to be an effective ambassador."

An embassy spokesman said Afghanistan is "not a front-burner issue in Belgium." So "if this reaction gets them to talk about Afghanistan, great." He added: "If we had to do it over again, we would" give the speech. "It hasn't hurt his relations with the government."

And we'll see if the Belgians come through.

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