Richard Grenell went from being US ambassador to Germany to serving as acting head of national intelligence and has now been nominated to sit on the Holocaust Memorial Council. Ambassador Grenell spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson about calling-out Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization; the underutilization of US embassies; sitting down with antisemites and explaining why foreign policy should matter to Americans.
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The interview took place on December 31, 2020.
To hear the interview, go to The Hill on the Middle East podcast. A transcript of the interview follows.
TML: Richard Grenell wasted no time during his tenure as America’s ambassador to Germany. Newly appointed, he criticized his host country’s open-border policies for Syrian refugees and Germany’s policy vis-à-vis Iran.
Despite the criticism he drew from his actions, Ambassador Grenell has earned high praise from others, notably Israeli diplomats who laud his willingness in the fight against terror and for human rights. He served as acting director of intelligence and has now been nominated for a seat on the Holocaust Memorial Council.
Ambassador, thank you for joining us on the Hill on the Middle East.
Ambassador Grenell: I am so excited to be here. Thank you for asking and it’s a real pleasure.
TML: Well, nice to have you with us! Ambassador Grenell, you developed quite a reputation for undiplomatic diplomacy. You let Chancellor Merkel know in no uncertain terms how you differed on her open borders policy and Iran. Was that undiplomatic?
Ambassador Grenell: Look, I actually think… look, we spent a long, long time actually talking about diplomacy is and what the purpose of diplomat is, and I think that the purpose of diplomat is to represent your country’s views and to make progress on both views. Too many people actually think being a diplomat means a lot of dinner parties and promoting the country to which you go to. And I’ve just never really viewed that, and the reason why is because I feel really strongly that the US State Department and diplomats are designed to avoid war and to make sure that we make progress on all of the issues that we’re faced with.
I could talk a long time about America First policy which is I believe is a policy which every single country around the world embraces. It’s Germany First. It’s Israel First. It’s the UK First; for all of these countries. I’ve been in thousands of diplomatic negotiations, but have never been in a single one where someone from the other side doesn’t ask the United States to do something for them. This is the selfishness of the diplomacy is actually a daily thing and the United States is the only country that gets in trouble for acting for progress from other countries on issues that are important to them.
So, I went to Germany as America’s ambassador with really the full intention of just making progress on US policies and the first day I showed up was a change in policy on Iran. We were going to implement full sanctions and we’re asking our allies to join us and the reality is Felice, that Germany is a great ally for the United States. We provide a lot of financial help in terms of troops and NATO spending.
Germans do not pay their fair share at NATO. They are probably the country that gets the most benefit from NATO and it’s something that multiple administrations, multiple US governments have been asking the Germans to do, so I see it in a very kind way, a very thoughtful way, but a very direct way and I think the directness of asking for something that the American people had been asking for and drawing a line.
This is important for us. This is an important issue that the American people are feeling like the Germans are being hypocritical on not supporting us on Iran, or not supporting us on NATO policies. I think when you say it with passion and clarity, and you also say it as a priority message, not as an afterthought but a top priority message, then it does shake people in a way that [they go] “Wow, this is really blunt.”
And so, I don’t find that to be undiplomatic at all. I think that that feeds successful diplomacy to the American people.
TML: So you’re known for calling a spade a spade, and recently you’ve talked about the underutilization of the embassies that are throughout the world on behalf of the United States. Can you elaborate on that?
Ambassador Grenell: Yeah, I really… This is an issue that I’m really passionate about. I spent more than 11 years at the State Department, at the US State Department, so I know them really well, and we have wonderful diplomats at the State Department, some of America’s smartest people, young people, join the foreign service and really are passionate about making a difference. And I want to turn that passion and that expertise into youthfulness.
You know, there’s the term many MBA types use which is nice-to-know versus a need-to-know content. And for me, I think that the State Department has now been entrapped in a whole bunch of content that’s just nice to know. And I’ll give you an example in running the embassy in Berlin.
We would have a lot of our political officers go out and time in the fields gathering political content about the different political parties that are trying to understand how the German process was working and while it’s super interesting and incredibly important for political scientists, it’s largely useless for the American people. It doesn’t benefit them. They can actually read all of that information a couple of days later in news reports if they really wanted to.
And what I think we have to do still to build up our economic department in the State Department, is that we have to recognize that trying to push American jobs overseas creates American jobs, creates a better economy for the American people. That’s why foreign embassy officers and cadets exist; to serve the American people. And I think that we’ve just got to figure out how do we make our embassies, many US offices overseas, how do we serve [the] American people better? How do we make our national security stronger? Our economy stronger? Because our economy and our national security are definitely tied together.
TML: One of the areas where you’ve been highly praised is your efforts to get European governments not to recognize the Hezbollah terrorist organization. In fact, to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization exposing Iran’s malign influence and allowing the fiction of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah having political and military arms. How do you convince the Germans?
Ambassador Grenell: Well, this was a top priority for me and I go back to what I said previously. We make issues a priority, not an afterthought. I think that there is a recognition that this is an important issue and as allies, the Americans and the Germans, we really did want to find ways to work together and so I articulated to [Chancellor] Angela Merkel and to the entire team there that we felt that it was pretty hypocritical to pretend that Hezbollah could be split into two. They, obviously Hezbollah does not do that themselves, so why would Europeans allow that to happen?
And so, we had a team sort of goal-focused and so we had a great team, people who I put in charge. I said this is the team and we’re going to benchmark ourselves. How do we get the German government to move towards banning Hezbollah? And so, it took us more than a year, about a year and a half, but our team did a great job. And every morning when we met, we would say, “What’s next? Who can do what? What department can bring it up again?” And it was much like what we did on bringing the Nazi prison guard home from New York back to Germany. It was the same thing. We really pushed and had a team every day.
When it comes to Hezbollah, I think we were able to find that the missing piece was that the Germans didn’t believe that they had the authority, the legal authority within the German government system and the German rule of law system to do it. And so, we ended up hiring a German lawyer to map it out with us, and we presented a white paper that we did, that my team did. And when we presented this paper to top German authorities, interestingly enough, they liked it. And they said, “Yeah, I think this is true. This is, this is a path.”
And they use that to then go out and begin to make it happen. And then it was a long process of political trying to make way politically with the Bundestag and that took more time. But eventually I think what we had laid out is that Hezbollah would be using front companies and money laundering schemes to raise the funds for their terrorist projects in Germany. And we proved that this was happening within the country. And, and then of course the Germans wanted to stop that and so they reacted accordingly. When the German did ban Hezbollah, we asked them to take the same team and the issues to Brussels and I traveled to Brussels a couple of times to meet with the committees and try and further this German step at and try to get the EU to do it.
We were starting to make some progress, and then the president asked me the temporary DNI job, but I did when I was at DNI pick this up with the EU and we have a team at DNI that’s also pushing for a Europe-wide ban on Hezbollah.
I hope that there’s still being a meeting and pushing on this issue. France of course, is a country that we really need to push and make progress on because, I think what works is to prove that Hezbollah is doing these activities within the country, so that Hezbollah is doing money laundering, Hezbollah is doing front companies within France. We know that they are. We can give specific examples, and when we show that, then I think you get a reaction from the French government and from any European government that this shouldn’t be happening in their country.
TML: Do you feel you actually influenced other nations to try to decipher whether they should come on board?
Ambassador Grenell: Well, I leave that to others. I certainly just focus on what our goals were, as the US government. We believe Hezbollah is a terrorist organization clear cut, and that they are working in Europe. And so European governments should look at the facts and we push them hard to say, join us, join us as Western allies and stopping Hezbollah, squeezing them. You know, there is this idea that I would say excuse that was pushed back on us originally and we had to confront it and I’ve seen it now the same excuse in many other countries in Europe is that they don’t want to destabilize Lebanon.
And so, there’s this concern that if you squeeze too hard on Hezbollah, that somehow that’s going to affect or impact on Lebanon. And so, what the arguments that we made back is, well, first of all, the United States is one of the largest donors, if not the largest donor, I think, to Lebanon.
And we bifurcate Hezbollah from the Lebanese government. We are able to say, we’re not giving money to certain agencies or the secretaries that are linked to Hezbollah. And so, we were able to already distinguish between the two and bifurcate them. And so, does the UK government. And to be honest, the Germans were doing that as well. And so, I think the point is, is that we all know who is Hezbollah and who was linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And so, we’re already doing this in practical form. We should just solidify it by just not giving the money and finding ways to support Lebanon without supporting Hezbollah.
TML: We’re speaking with Richard Grenell, Ambassador Richard Grenell, who will be heading the Holocaust Memorial Council. [He was] appointed to sit on a seat there. When President Trump appointed you acting director of intelligence, were you able to see evidence of results from your earlier actions?
Ambassador Grenell: Well, I can say that progress is being made throughout the US government, so yes, we do see progress, certainly. I was also the president’s envoy for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, and we could see progress there and it was encouraging. I tried to also set up teams of people and really empower the teams that were working on these issues. People carry their passion to whatever job they go to next, so it wasn’t that unusual or surprising for the intel community to see that my passion for Kosovo and Serbia and the Balkan region, and for progress, for economic progress, economic normalization would become a priority at DNI as was the Israeli team and the teams in the Middle East recognize that I really wanted to make progress on Hezbollah.
I’m also passionate that the president put me in charge also of the decriminalization of homosexuality around the world. And so, I led that charge for the US government. And that too, I think, is also one of the issues that the intel community can really make progress on because we need to be able to work with countries and share information and work as allies with countries progressing on certain issues that we care about. And we need to make sure that countries are not criminalizing homosexuality. That somehow, you’re not thrown in jail for being gay, or in some instances pushed off buildings or killed simply because you’re gay.
This is barbaric and, and we shouldn’t be making, countries completely change their laws just because we want them to. We need to show these countries that having these policies makes them less safe, and we need to make it a priority for us to say, we encourage you to make changes because this is really barbaric behavior.
TML: Your work to fight against anti-Semitism and for human rights is legend. Is it the same fight?
Ambassador Grenell: Absolutely! I think, for me as a gay man, I’m passionate about anti-Semitism because quickly behind anti-Semitism, or maybe it’s in front, or maybe they’re right next to each other, there’s homophobia, and I’ve seen it firsthand. There are groups in Germany that are doing great work fighting anti-Semitism, and they will tell you when you get down and you have conversations, I’ve participated in conversations with young men and women who were raised to hate Jews, and yet have seen the light and they realized that the way that they were trained was just an awful way.
And it’s so fascinating to sit down with these converts. And that’s what I call them is converts, because they’re young people who have through education and through meeting new people, have realized that the way that they were trained and raised by their parents to hate is just not helpful and not right. And to sit down with these folks, which I did on multiple occasions in Germany; there are some really great organizations doing good work, they would say, you know, there was a moment where I had to challenge my parents, and I don’t want to do that because I honor my parents, I love them. And of course, we all understand that emotion, but they realized that they were trained, in a terrible way. And they have to reject their family training.
I think it’s pretty powerful, but I remember one instance where one young man in talking about being raised to hate Jews, also said gays. He said, “I’m sitting with a gay man and you’re normal,” and that was a surprise for him. And so, I think that when it comes to all of these issues, we have to remember that it seems scary to people who are raised in ways to hate, and they feel comfortable with that because it’s, for whatever reason, they think that’s the right path.
And when they meet people and it challenges the way that they were raised, I think it’s a pretty powerful moment and they need time to overcome and challenge their parents. And so, the work that we do on human rights, I think has to be individual and has to meet people where they are. It’s tough work. I think we need to support the people that do it because it’s emotional. I just don’t think that we live in a world where you can have politicians call out anti-Semitism. I used to say this at the embassy all the time, when we see a homophobic or an anti-Semitic act and we call it out, it’s incredibly important to call it out, but it’s also really empty. It feels too late to me. And I don’t get a lot of joy out of just calling out an anti-Semite or anti-Semitic behavior or act.
I feel empowered to do something more, to kind of catch it before it happens. And I think of this line that I learned in the Bush Administration about 9/11, which is if you wait until the person is climbing into the cockpit, it’s too late. It’s too late to stop the acts of terror. You’ve got to get them much sooner. And so, I think of anti-Semitism and homophobia and all these human rights abuses that way is that it’s important to have a human rights council that would be effective.
The worst thing in the world is to rubberstamp councils and human rights organizations as authorities, and then they not use that authority to call out the acts, because then that gives aid and comfort to those who are making those attacks. And so, I want to work with the organizations that are actually trying to educate and get to people so we get them before they climb in the cockpit.
TML: Speaking about attacks. You were recently attacked. You were accused of being a Nazi sympathizer by a political foe. What did you think when this happened?
Ambassador Grenell: You know, I’m so used to attacks that I’ve got really thick-skinned. It doesn’t bother me. I try to use humor to show the outrageousness of it, and the idea that someone like me would be a Nazi sympathizer is ridiculous. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s a political attack, and then you look at the person who made it. She’s a hardcore, left, progressive who just hates the fact that I’m a gay conservative and I think that many times that’s kind of at the heart is that the visceral and emotional attacks on me are generally like, how could this gay guy be a conservative? It’s an affront to everything that they see because identity politics is all they have.
So, whether it’s a Black conservative, Hispanic conservative, female conservative, these are issues for the far left that they feel very strongly that all of those groups should be progressive far left. And so, when they see somebody like a gay conservative, it really could then mean that somehow, I’m a traitor to the gay community. And I, I actually could talk all day about how ridiculous that is and how much progress we’ve made but the reality is that we are everywhere and gay is not an ideology and I’m a vocal conservative,
TML: You’re listening to the Hill on the Middle East. We’re speaking with Ambassador Richard Grenell. What do you feel you’ll be able to accomplish as a member of the Holocaust Memorial Council?
Ambassador Grenell: I have so many ideas. I want to work with my colleagues there on what their priorities are, and I want to be a productive member of the group. Howard Lorber, who is the chair, is an amazing leader, and I’m so excited to be working with him. What I bring, I think, to the table is just a unique perspective on human rights. I’ve spent eight years at the UN, [and] certainly know the failures of the UN, but there are some programs that work and we need to be able to go and find the programs that work and double down on those and find ways to support them. I’ll give you one example. I’m a Christian and I’m a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged and murdered in Flossenbürg concentration camp.
He was a part of a group that felt compelled, and this is super fascinating Christian theology, but he felt compelled by God to be a part of a group that would assassinate Hitler as a Christian minister in Germany. He saw what was happening and the evilness of it, and felt that the end justifies the means. He was caught and by order of Hitler was sent to a concentration camp and then moved to Flossenbürg.
When I was in Germany, I traced a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer steps and went to his church many times, spoke at his church. I spoke at his church on Christmas Eve, which is one of the highlights of my career there. And we developed a program at Flossenbürg for visitors to Flossenbürg to have an audio tour and understand that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was there and what his impact was on Hitler and the Holocaust. And I think it’s incredibly important to tell these types of stories because somebody like Dietrich Bonhoeffer is going to bring in a whole new generation and a whole different group of people in to see and learn about the Holocaust.
If we’re going to say never again, then I think that we have to do the hard work of educating people so that they’re outraged so that their never again statements are more than just a tweet or social media posts, but that they feel it and are moved to action when things start to bubble up. And when we start to see somebody learning to climb into the cockpit, we’ve got to find them early, and I think educating people and moving them to action early is really the goal.
TML: Then my next question to you is how is today’s anti-Semitism different from past versions or is it?
Ambassador Grenell: I don’t think it is different. I think that it’s a human problem, and I don’t think it’s a generational problem. I don’t think it’s unique to any one country. I see it rear its head. It’s a human problem. And frankly, Felice, it’s taught because you can’t teach children. Children naturally do not hate, you have to teach children to hate, and so I believe that it’s an all-encompassing human problem that we need to recognize and therefore keep to it early on.
TML: What do you say to critics who charge that American foreign policy is in shambles?
Ambassador Grenell: Well, I wrote a very long intellectual piece for Carnegie Mellon [University’s] Institute of Politics that I would refer people to because that’s a really long answer to show all of the great things that the Trump Administration has done. It’s a defense of America First. I will finish by saying that I believe that America First has unleashed such popular sentiment across America, that the America First foreign policy of Donald Trump will never be put into a bottle again.
It will be front and center for every administration. People have now learned what it means to put America first when it comes to national security and foreign policy. And too many elite in Washington, DC have tried to capture America’s foreign policy [and] keep it in Washington, keep it amongst a small group and pretend that the American people don’t need to know about it because they can’t understand it. And what Donald Trump has done is really demonstrate that America First impacts everyday Americans.
He’s brought foreign policy and national security to every single home in a way that they understand the importance of putting America first, that knowledge, that education, can never be taken away. It will never be put back, because now we have millions of people in America that understand the foreign policy and that national security is assessable to them through the America First lens. And they will not back down.
TML: If the Biden Administration readdresses the Iranian nuclear agreement, what do you think the result might be?
Ambassador Grenell: I hope that we don’t allow Europeans and the UN Security Council to dictate US policy, because when we enter into this idea of consensus with people that don’t share our values or don’t share our policies, then we water down our own policy and we leave it to others to change. And that’s not America First.
America First means that we push hard on our policy with the Europeans or with the UN, and we say this is our policy. Too many times diplomats have walked into a room to find consensus just means splitting everything in half and I think that’s a really easy thing to do. We wouldn’t really need diplomats to travel and have their kids’ education paid for and housing paid for overseas, if all they’re going to do is walk into a room and cut in half what the policies should be.
That seems like a mathematical equation, not a diplomatic negotiation. And so, I hope that the Biden Administration understands that asking for consensus of people that don’t share our values is a dangerous thing.
TML: Ambassador Richard Grenell, it’s been a pleasure having you on the Hill on the Middle East. And thank you so much for shedding light on the role of US foreign diplomats. Much luck with your seat on the Holocaust Memorial Council!
Ambassador Grenell: Thank you for having me!