The Renegade Diplomat

By Chandrasekaran, Rajiv | Newsweek, November 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Renegade Diplomat


Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, Newsweek


Byline: Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Kael Weston risked his life on the front lines in Afghanistan--and reached his own, unusual conclusions.

Racked by post-traumatic stress after a harrowing tour in Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Matthew O'Hara figured his best medicine would be the companionship of Sgt. Rocky, a black Labrador retriever who had been his inseparable partner for eight months on the battlefield. But O'Hara assumed it was impossible. The military had given Rocky a prestigious canine promotion: his new mission was to scare away birds at the Virginia base housing President Obama's Marine helicopter squadron.

Then fortune barked at O'Hara. He received a package in the mail from Kael Weston, a former State Department officer who had been a political adviser to Marine units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inside was a documentary about dogs that served alongside U.S. troops on Pacific islands in World War II.

O'Hara had never met Weston. A few months earlier, at a benefit dinner for wounded Marines, Weston was introduced to one of O'Hara's fellow dog handlers, who had been trying, with little luck, to get his pooch back from far less august circumstances. Weston volunteered to help. As he delved into that case, he stumbled upon the documentary--and decided to buy a half dozen copies to send to the Marine's buddies as a gesture of gratitude. When the video arrived at O'Hara's house, his mother wrote a note to Weston, who latched onto her son's cause. He tirelessly lobbied senior commanders, sometimes firing off middle-of-the-night emails. "The president can have any other dog he wants to chase birds," Weston told one of them. "This Marine deserves his dog."

A month later, Rocky returned to O'Hara's side. Weston's willingness to take on the White House and call in chits with generals, all for a lowly grunt he didn't know, was hardly surprising to those who have served alongside him in the nastiest corners of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of his fellow diplomats refused to stir trouble, lest they be denied cushy postings in Europe after their war-zone tours. But Weston had no interest in cocktail parties or a long career in the Foreign Service--and no qualms about fighting for the interests of ordinary Afghans, Iraqis, and Americans, whether it meant crossing his bosses at State, powerful local chieftains, or four-star commanders.

Weston stands alone in the annals of modern American diplomacy. He spent more time in Iraq and Afghanistan-- seven consecutive years--than any other

State Department officer. What he did there couldn't have been more different from traditional cocktail-party diplomacy: he was a political adviser to combat units on the battlefield, where he forged uncommonly honest and effective relationships with top commanders, giving him unrivaled influence in shaping war policy on two fronts. His bravery and persistence awed his fellow diplomats and prompted several generals, who reserve praise for only the most deserving, to consider him an American hero. When other officers asked Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who commanded a Marine brigade in Afghanistan, why he brought Weston on every trip and into every meeting, he told them his political adviser was "the sharpest civilian I know." After he spent two and a half years in the Iraqi hellhole of Fallujah-- before, during, and after the bloody operation to retake it from insurgents--his boss at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, political counselor Robert Ford, said Weston "had the toughest, most dangerous assignment of any State Department officer worldwide." Ford, who would

later be named ambassador to Damascus and would refuse to be intimidated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's thugs, called Weston braver than any other State Department official he had ever met.

All that time on the ground led Weston to adopt an extremely unusual position in the debate over the Afghan war. A lifelong Democrat and staunch Obama supporter, he nevertheless broke with the president over the decision to approve a 30,000-troop surge in late 2009. …

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