The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2021

42 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL them against attending; the one person he did not reach was the only attendee. Diplomats should always remember what Michael Cor- leone told his brother: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Sfax’s governor was a Ben Ali loyalist—that’s why he had the job—and his point was not to slight me or the U.S. embassy. He just wanted to stay in the good graces of his ever- suspicious boss. The adage cuts both ways, of course; people seeking to curry favor may be more interested in an expedited visa interview or an invita- tion to the Independence Day reception than in your sparkling personality. 2. Focus on civil society. One can’t overstate the importance of reaching out to civil society, which is what took me to Sfax in the first place. Ambas- sadors William Hudson and Robert Godec, my two immedi- ate predecessors in Tunisia, not only established a dialogue with opposition figures but supported their efforts, as well. Our human rights officer was usually the only foreigner who observed the sham trials of Tunisian human rights activists. He was the sole diplomat who tried to attend the anniversary celebration of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (known by its French acronym as LTDH), the oldest such organization in the Arab world. Rings of plainclothes police stopped him from entering. They could not, however, stop news from spreading that the United States stood for Tunisian human rights. Five years later, the LTDH was one of the civil society organizations in the “Tunisian national dialogue quartet” that received the Nobel Peace Prize for its leadership in breaking the political deadlock in the early years of the country’s transition. The most astute political operators inside the Beltway main- tain good relations with both parties, knowing that those out of power one day might be on the rise another day. Diplomacy is no different. The opposition fig- ures Jeffrey Feltman befriended when he served in Tunisia from 1998 to 2000 were cabinet ministers when he returned to Tunisia as assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs 10 days after Ben Ali fled. The pro- democracy elder statesman I had invited to lunch before Ben Ali left Tunisia became the number two official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the time the lunch took place a few days later. 3. Silence can be golden: What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. When the October 2009 rigged election came to its inevita- ble conclusion and Ben Ali was declared president with “only” 89 percent of the vote, our embassy recommended to Wash- ington that President Barack Obama refrain from sending the routine congratulatory message. We knew that no matter how exquisitely nuanced it would have been, the regime-controlled press would have splashed it across the front pages of all the newspapers with photographs of the two leaders and headlines suggesting that Obama supported Ben Ali. Our recommenda- tion was received with virtually no bureaucratic resistance, and no message was sent. While a seemingly minor gesture—one that a more confi- dent regime would have shrugged off—it apparently infuriated the Palace, which blamed its hapless ambassador in Wash- ington and recalled him. On the other hand, while Ben Ali received congratulations from many other countries (including a warm telephone call from the French president) , Tunisian civil society noticed the absence of any message from the United States and rightly interpreted it as a sign of support and encouragement for them. Anti-government demonstrations during the Tunisian revolution, January 2011. WIKIMEDIACOMMONS/M.RAIS