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Santa Fe is ‘The City Diplomatic’

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Santa Fe – officially nicknamed The City Different – might soon warrant an extra moniker to reflect the growing number of current and former U.S. diplomats hailing from the northern New Mexico town.

Maybe we could dub the beautiful and perpetually sunny city that sits at 7,200 feet “Not Foggy Bottom” in reference to the low-lying, often hazy Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that houses the U.S. State Department. At least three of our nation’s most high-profile diplomats now call Santa Fe home.

Everyone knows that Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Africa and Iraq, and his wife, Valerie Plame, an ex-CIA agent, traded Washington’s glamorous party circuit and vicious political backbiting for a much more serene existence in Santa Fe after Plame was outed as a CIA agent during President George W. Bush’s second term.

But did you know high-profile career diplomat Vicki Huddleston retired to Santa Fe last year after a distinguished assignment in the West African hot spot of Mali and serving as deputy assistant secretary in the Departments of State and Defense? Huddleston told me her brother attended prep school in Santa Fe decades ago and she fell in love with the place during visits to see him as a kid. She and her husband bought a house in the city about a decade ago as a “retreat” from her assignment in Mali from 2002-2005.

Huddleston, who is frequently interviewed in the national media about the militant Islamic threat brewing in Mali, lives in Santa Fe full-time now.

Patricia McMahon Hawkins, another career foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Togo from 2008 to 2011, also calls Santa Fe home these days, while former U.S. Ambassador to Spain Ed Romero lives in Albuquerque.

I’m also informed that more than a few former CIA agents – aside from Plame – live in Santa Fe. But if I told you their names, I’d have to kill you.

Now, another Santa Fean is poised to take on one of the most challenging diplomatic posts in the world – ambassador to Libya.

President Barack Obama has nominated Deborah K. Jones, a New Mexico native and career diplomat who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Santa Fe, to become our nation’s top envoy to the troubled north African nation.

Jones’ nomination is up before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the committee, is scheduled to introduce her. If confirmed – and there doesn’t seem to be much outright opposition to her nomination as yet – Jones will have her work cut out for her.

Congress is still demanding answers about the debacle in Benghazi last year, when Islamic radicals stormed the U.S. diplomatic mission and killed four Americans, including widely respected Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Obviously, Jones wasn’t on the job during the Benghazi massacre, but it will be interesting to see how she handles questions about it, as well as the future security of America’s diplomatic mission in Libya.

Jones has been with the U.S. Foreign Service since 1982 and taken on assignments in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Baghdad, Iraq; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Syria. She served as principal officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul from 2005-2007 and as ambassador to Kuwait from 2008-2011.

Jones, a New Mexico native who attended high school in Arizona, didn’t respond to my requests for an interview. It’s common for White House nominees to duck the press in advance of potentially contentious confirmation hearings. Udall’s office tells me Jones’ mom is also a Santa Fe resident.

Huddleston, who did a stint on Capitol Hill in the office of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico in the late 1990s, told me her former colleague is up to the tall task of serving as America’s ambassador to Libya. Huddleston met with Jones on Wednesday for what was surely a fascinating conversation about foreign affairs and U.S. diplomacy.

“Deborah will do an excellent job,” Huddleston said. “She is smart, qualified, and knowledgeable. We are fortunate that she will take on this challenge.”

Huddleston also offered some insight about why so many highly accomplished American diplomats find respite in The City Different.

“Santa Fe is a great escape from D.C.,” she said. “It provides the wide open spaces needed to think and reflect. The added attraction is a diverse culture and many accomplished and creative full time and part- time residents.”

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