Budapest is a long way from Baghdad, but in May 2003, a U.S. Foreign Service officer in the Hungarian capital became convinced that American policy in Iraq was going awry. And he spoke up.
In a cable routed through the State Department's "dissent channel," Keith W. Mines argued a case -- long rejected by the White House -- that the United Nations should be given control over Iraq's political transition.
"There is no value in imposing an American lead if the American lead would be less effective than a U.N. Special Representative," Mines wrote. "At some point, it would seem that the reasons for going it alone in Iraq would be overshadowed by the need to create a viable Iraqi state."
For his willingness to challenge the Bush administration's conventional wisdom, Mines collected an award for "constructive dissent" from the State Department's professional association last week. The citation called his ideas "prescient" and noted that "some have, belatedly, been adopted."
Accepting a plaque, Mines said he hoped U.S. authorities had learned some lessons from the troubled Iraq occupation. Speaking to a knowing audience in the department's elegant diplomatic reception rooms, he said issues in Iraq are "too important to allow ideology to trump experience or imagination to trump reality."
It has been a rough two years for American diplomacy and a dispiriting period for the State Department, where diplomats have witnessed a sharp decline in respect for the United States abroad and a loss of influence on high-profile matters at home.
Earlier this month, 27 former senior diplomats and military commanders released a statement accusing the Bush administration of going astray on foreign policy, saying it is unable to handle "in either style or substance" the responsibilities of world leadership. The group said the United States had become "overbearing" in foreign affairs, "insensitive" to allies and "disdainful" of the United Nations and NATO.
Frustration with the approach directed by the White House was an undercurrent at the awards ceremony, which John W. Limbert, president of the American Foreign Service Association, opened with a wisecrack about some of the best-known purveyors of current U.S. foreign policy.
Noting that he was a hostage in Iran with L. Bruce Laingen, who chaired the committee that selected the award winners, Limbert said to laughter, "While Ambassador Laingen and I are ex-cons, neither of us are neo-cons!"
The two principal citations went to Mines and Ronald L. Schlicher, the former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and a leading political adviser in postwar Iraq. He now leads the State Department's Iraq effort in Washington.
Schlicher was credited with "intellectual courage and integrity" for his efforts on the West Bank when Israeli-Palestinian relations were reaching new lows and the Bush administration was bitterly divided over how to respond. At a moment of crisis, he recommended a controversial transfer of Palestinian prisoners under U.S. auspices.
The committee of former diplomats also said Schlicher "thoughtfully challenged" the conventional U.S. thinking on Iraq several times, most notably when he argued for a strategy that included leaders from the country's Sunni minority, largely dismissed after Saddam Hussein fell. He said there was no alternative, despite widespread distaste for many Sunni figures.
Schlicher said he was surprised to receive the award, because he never sent a cable through the dissent channel, which allows diplomats a way to register views they believe are not receiving adequate attention in Washington.
"In my case, it's more a frankness award," Schlicher said.
Laingen said Schlicher and Mines represent the best tradition of the Foreign Service, in which "we signed on for a career that has a larger cause, whoever is the occupant of the White House. Frankness is a form of dissent."
"These people stood up for views that differed from the White House. . . . That's constructive dissent," said Laingen, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, a society of about 170 former ambassadors and senior government officials.
Two other awards went to Elizabeth A. Orlando, a diplomatic courier who interceded with managers to win overtime pay for other couriers; and Steven T. Weston, a junior officer in Luxembourg, who stepped in to advise a new ambassador in the absence of senior diplomats.
Mines, 45, had served in El Salvador, Honduras, Somalia and Afghanistan when he found himself working in political-military affairs in Budapest last year. Disappointed by the administration's decision to take charge of the political transition in Iraq, he drafted a cable titled "Let the U.N. Manage the Political Transition in Iraq."
"I wanted to go on record, in a formal channel, where people couldn't say, 'I didn't see that e-mail,' " Mines said. He explained in four detailed pages what he thought experienced U.N. officials could deliver that Americans could not, and why.
"Anyone who has worked with the U.N. agencies knows how slow and even occasionally inept they can be. At times, one wonders if things could be worse. They can," he wrote. "It is slow, but over time does yield results, often producing minor miracles in the process."
Unbowed, Mines recently sent another cable through the dissent channel. This one argues for a stronger commitment to an Iraqi national political gathering similar to Afghanistan's loya jirga, along with a phased, scheduled withdrawal of occupation forces into bases in Iraq, where they would be a less divisive force.