Some retired diplomats walk around with business cards that read: U.S. Ambassador (Retired). Robert V. Keeley considers that “a bit gauche.” Instead, the three-time ambassador hands out cards with the title “consulting iconoclast.” Why? “Because I think I am one,” says Keeley, who retired in 1989.
Keeleynow a Washington author and publishergrew up in Lebanon, Canada, Greece, and Belgium, the son of a career U.S. diplomat. Keeley did not immediately follow in his father’s illustrious footsteps, however. At Princeton University, he was severely disciplined for printing a satiric item in the Daily Princetonian. Then his thesisthe first-ever work of fiction accepted as a thesis at the universitywas nearly published as a novel by Simon & Schuster until Keeley, a self-described “arrogant young man,” refused to make changes requested by his editor.
It was only a few years later, frustrated in his attempt to become a professional journalist, that Keeleyby then a Korean War Coast Guard veterantook the foreign service test “out of desperation.” He passedand stayed for 34 years. Posted initially to Jordan, he requested a reassignment after realizing how hard it would be to escape his father’s shadow in the Middle East. Keeley instead volunteered to go to Africa, where a spate of new embassies were opening. After a stint in Mali, Keeley’s postings became increasingly harrowing: military-controlled Greece, Uganda under Idi Amin, and Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge swept to power.
Keeley later served as ambassador to the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius (“two years of delightful R&R,” he says) and to the newly independent Zimbabwe, where he worked hard to stop the flight of white farmers. Keeley’s final ambassadorship, in Greece again, was the “pinnacle” of his careerthanks in part to Keeley’s bond with Greek leader Andreas Papandreou, whom he had helped when Papandreou was being hunted by the country’s earlier military leadership. (Ironically, that early assistance nearly torpedoed Keeley’s career, because it flouted U.S. policy.)
Keeley is now writing memoirs of his difficult tenure in Uganda as well as his comical experience smuggling 36 Mauritian geckos into the U.S. for a friend. An earlier attempt, in the mid-’80s, to publish a Ugandan memoir ran into opposition from State Department functionaries, who worried that he was giving away too much inside information.
Keeley was relieved to find no such roadblocks earlier this year, when he edited First Line of Defense: Ambassadors, Embassies and American Interests Abroad for the American Academy of Diplomacy. The volume argues that, despite advances in communications technology, on-the-ground diplomatic personnel are still crucial. To back up that proposition, Keeley collected reminiscences by almost three dozen distinguished diplomats, including a number of high-drama tales about hostage situations and other crises that had not been widely circulated.
Keeley’s other major project these days is Five and Ten Press, a one-man operation he founded in 1995 to publish “articles, essays, novellas, stories, memoirs, or other original literary works that were suitable for printing in booklets or pamphlets…[and] that were being either rejected or ignored by the media and mainstream publishers…” Some of the dozen titles published so far recount Keeley’s experiences at Princeton, in the Coast Guard, and as a diplomat. Another volume collects Keeley’s unpublished letter-to-the-editor rants. Still others feature reminiscences and essays by other retired ambassadors.
About 200 people now shell out $25 in advance to receive the next $25 worth of the press’s offerings. Single copies are available through leading Internet booksellers. In a tongue-in-cheek letter to subscribers, Keeley muses about how he could have easily engineered a $90-a-share stock offering and used “unsophisticated, Internet-mad speculators” to rake in $900 million and retire to Bermuda. After all, he says, Five and Ten, “like Amazon.com, has yet to show a profit.” Still, Keeley concludes, “I’m already retired, I don’t want to live in Bermuda, and $900 million would be such a burden that I’d stop writing and publishing to concentrate entirely on handling all that money.” Louis Jacobson