He is a large man who doesn't seem so, a man on a mission who seems not a zealot. "None of what I've done is what you think of when you think of a Foreign Service career," he says, and from his tone and expression it is difficult to tell if he is pleased with his iconoclasm or surprised by it. Typically, he says, employees of the Foreign Service will visit a region, observe the events and political climate, then dispatch their findings back to Washington.
Becker's first post with the Foreign Service was in Honduras in 1983: "I went there because that seemed to be the place where things were happening," Becker says, adding, ironically, "We were busy stopping communism in Central America."
In truth, Becker says, his work there had little to do with fighting communists, or with defending the rightists who controlled the country: "We were really there to ensure that violent change-at the point of a gun-did not win.
"And a lot of us there felt that the rhetoric in Washington had little to do with what we were actually doing in El Salvador or Central America," he says. "There were legitimate needs for reform that had not been met by the oligarchs, and we could effect those changes with the impetus of the war."
From Honduras he jumped the border to El Salvador (85-87), then to Burkina Faso in Central Africa (87-90), then returned to Washington (90-92) and helped develop drug policy for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. He spent the next four years in Guatemala, where he managed a program designed to improve drug interdiction in Central American by strengthening local police forces.
Becker's resume reads like a Graham Greene novel: In Honduras, served as assistant refugee officer. In El Salvador, was instrumental in designing a small town development program that became the linchpin of the pacification and counter-insurgency effort, growing from $500,000 to $35 million in 5 years.
Like the best novels, which propel the plot by engaging your imagination, you glean as much by reading between Becker's lines as you do from the concrete details: Developed extensive contacts within the political and economic elite in countries that were internally unstable or at war. Analyzed and reported on events, used personal and political leverage to encourage needed reforms in politically polarized societies.
Leverage, which Becker defines as using a little to get a lot, has become his M.O. In El Salvador, a tiny country Becker calls "the center of our foreign policy conflict with the Soviet Union," he turned traditional development models upside down to help the State Department defeat the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional) communist guerrillas. Using strategy reminiscent of Saul Alinsky, the legendary populist community organizer, Becker sidestepped the central government and set up a meeting with 20 small town mayors, most of whose communities had been damaged by guerrilla attacks.