A tearful James Warlick struggled, and occasionally lost, in a battle to keep control of his emotions at a valedictory news conference at Sofia Airport as he readied himself to board an aircraft, signalling the premature end to his term as United States ambassador to Bulgaria.
Early on in his remarks, the first wavering of voice and prick of tears at the corners of his eyes showed. After concluding his answer to the last of two questions, he moved away – across a background of US embassy staff who had been lined up for the occasion – and near-sobbingly laid his head on the shoulder of his long-serving interpreter.
When it emerged that Warlick was to leave Bulgaria just two-and-a-half years into his term, there was a flurry of speculation in the Bulgarian-language media as to why this had come about. Theories abounded in newspapers and on websites, with reporters claiming to have authoritative information that he was being replaced because of failing to drive home US priorities in energy policy; claims also were made that he had stepped on too many toes with his public statements intervening in Bulgarian domestic affairs.
There was the Stuklen Dom (“Glass House”) theory, that Warlick’s cameo acting appearance – playing himself – in the popular television soap on a commercial channel had not been well received by the state department. There is no confirmation of this theory, which may be referred to as the “ambassadors in glass houses have stones thrown at them” scenario.
Warlick declined to be drawn on the matter of why he was not serving out his full term, saying that he served as the discretion of the president. Warlick will return to Washington DC where he will immediately serve as deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a senior policy position in the office of the secretary of state.
In Warlick’s term in Sofia, highlights included a visit to Bulgaria by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, CIA director David Petraeus and a number of other senior officials. Warlick refurbished the residence to make it energy-efficient. He was out front in supporting Sofia’s annual Pride march. He joined other ambassadors in speaking out publicly to encourage Bulgaria to succeed in its process of attempting to reform the Supreme Judicial Council. And he presided over a number of other initiatives, in the cultural and arts field.
His public battles with ultra-nationalist Volen Siderov and with former interior minister Roumen Petkov, after the latter was denied a visa to visit the US, allegedly having not passed a background check (Petkov had left the cabinet of the previous government after it emerged he had held meetings with people of questionable reputation) kept Warlick in the headlines. Warlick, a dynamic user of social media, maintained an open and high profile in Bulgaria’s media.
So it was that journalists were invited to the farewell news conference, which Warlick opened by introducing his country team, telling journalists that they always saw him out front, but that these were the people – Americans and Bulgarian embassy staff – who were responsible for the strong relationship between the two countries.
After Warlick got out the words, “this is the hardest thing that I have done in my entire time in Bulgaria,” the water began to lap over the dam wall and reporters were faced with the unaccustomed prospect of seeing an ambassador cry.
Recovering himself, Warlick said, “I had many things that I wanted to say to you today but I don’t think that I can do it”. His next words underlined that the emotion that he was showing was born not in frustration but in love.
Bulgaria would always have a special place in his heart, he said.
Warlick paid tribute to his successor, Marcie Ries, due to arrive in a few weeks time. He had known Ries (a former US ambassador to Albania and an energy issues expert) 20 years, he said, and praised her professionalism and the prospects that Ries held out for further strengthening of US – Bulgarian relations.
Addressing himself to the folk with the pens, notebooks and cameras, Warlick said, “I would also like to thank all you”. Some of those present had been so when he had arrived at the airport to take up his post in Sofia.
“You followed me, sometimes around the country, and I thank you for that.”
Accepting questions, he was asked about the episodes with Siderov and Petkov and his outspokenness, responding, “I am very proud of my time in Bulgaria.” When he had arrived, he had said that he would be straight with the Bulgarian people.
“I have always spoken to the Bulgarian people honestly and from my heart.” There had been those uncomfortable with what he had to say. “Believe me, I had the interests of the Bulgarian – US relationship in front of my mind always.”
Asked to respond to allegations about Prime Minister Boiko Borissov relayed in a US embassy cable sent by a predecessor, and disclosed through Wikileaks, Warlick responded that he had “enormous respect” for the Prime Minister, and that they would remain good friends even when he was out of office.
Warlick concluded, almost abruptly, “I’d like to thank all of you for coming today,” and the moment of overwhelming emotion returned.
Elsewhere in the Balkans, his spouse, Mary Warlick, ended her term as US ambassador to Serbia. News of Mary Warlick’s replacement emerged in a twitter message from the embassy in Belgrade not long after the news that her spouse was to leave Sofia.
(Archive photo of James Warlick at the US embassy celebration of Independence Day 2012: US embassy)