In the spring of 1941, businessman Averell Harriman was assigned by President Roosevelt to coordinate the Lend-Lease program with Great Britain. By all accounts he did a magnificent job, launching one of the most distinguished public service careers of 20th century America.
While in London, Harriman also launched an affair with Pamela Churchill, daughter-in-law of the prime minister. Years later, Pamela Churchill would become Pamela Harriman, and ultimately US ambassador to France.
I thought of that story as I read Fred Kaplan's fierce defense of Brett McGurk, President Obama's nominee as ambassador to Iraq. McGurk's nomination has been derailed—and his career blighted —because of a love affair that occurred in Iraq between him and the woman now his wife. Both at the time were married to other people. Email traffic between them was leaked, and in the embarrassment, McGurk's nomination was withdrawn.
Believe it or not, McGurk's and Harriman's are not the only examples in American history of love affairs in war zones. They happen a lot! (In the single case of Iraq, I personally can think of … no, better not go there.) In the absence of other official misconduct, it seems incredible and impossible that purely personal emotional relationships would have any bearing at all.
This seems a perfect occasion to apply British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone's rule about the relationship between sex and public service. Gladstone was the highest of high Victorians and a devout Christian. But when he was asked to expel the Irish leader Charles Stuart Parnell from the cabinet because of an adulterous affair, he replied, "What! Because a man is what is called a leader of a party, does that constitute him a censor and a judge of faith and morals? I will not accept it. It would make life intolerable."
And in this case, it has clearly badly disserved the public service of the United States:
First, a bit about McGurk, for the story would mean nothing if the end of his career weren’t a loss. He’s 39, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, former director of Iraq and Afghanistan affairs in President Bush’s National Security Council, and a senior adviser to the last three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad (Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey). Under Bush, he played a big role in negotiating the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, which set the terms for the continued presence, and the ultimate withdrawal, of U.S. military personnel in Iraq. For Obama, he suspended a lucrative book contract to return to Iraq and negotiate the 2011 accord that ended U.S. involvement in the war. In short, he’s an experienced, bipartisan, if not nonpartisan, professional who, the White House must have thought, would appeal to players on the ground in Iraq and both sides of the aisle in Washington.
One senior diplomat, who asked to remain nameless so he wouldn’t be dragged into the controversy, told me on Tuesday that McGurk “knows the actors and portfolio better than any other U.S. official,” and called his treatment and withdrawal “a tragedy and a disgrace.” A half-dozen other officials who worked with McGurk, assured anonymity so they could speak candidly, were equally enthusiastic about him and appalled by the process of his dismissal.