For three days in the 1990s, U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray traveled in an old Russian helicopter flown by a South African mercenary pilot, leapfrogging over rebel-held territory in Sierra Leone. His goal was to meet with military commanders and convince them not to interfere in democratic elections that could bring the country together after years of civil war.
After two of the three flights, the passengers found fresh bullet marks on the chopper’s fuselage.
Ray served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone from 1993 to 1996 during the country’s civil war between government forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel paramilitary group that drew support from the president of neighboring Liberia, Charles Taylor, who himself had risen to power by leading a rebel military force that instigated Liberia’s civil war from 1989 to 1997.
Ray arrived in Sierra Leone a year after a group of young military officers, disgruntled with the government’s attempts to defeat the RUF, had staged a coup d’état and installed a military junta. As a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army who had served two tours in the Vietnam War, Ray was tasked with being the liaison to the military government.
This person-to-person diplomacy was part of a larger effort that ultimately succeeded: The country’s first democratic elections were held without military interference in 1996.
But Ray’s diplomatic mission is one that, he and other retired diplomats insist, would not be greenlighted today.
“You can’t influence a person talking to them on a video chat,” Ray told policy advocates and House and Senate aides at a briefing titled “Why Diplomats Need to Accept More Risk and Why Congress Should Let Them,” hosted by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the advocacy organization Foreign Policy for America.
“[If] you want to influence people, change their ways of thinking, you’ve got to have eyeball-to-eyeball contact, you’ve got to shake hands, you’ve got to feel warm flesh. And this is what true diplomacy is all about: developing people-to-people contacts to influence events,” Ray said.
This was the message of four retired veteran diplomats, including Ray, who held two roundtable discussions, one in the House and one in the Senate, to share their experiences and shed light on the fact that diplomacy is a dangerous business — and a true public service.
Ronald Neumann, previously profiled by The Diplomat in the December 2018 issue, moderated the discussion, which also included Anne Patterson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the Arab Spring as well as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and North African affairs from 2013 to 2017, and Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates whose final assignment was as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan before retiring in 2016.
“We have become so restrictive in the security of our diplomats that we are depriving ourselves of information which allows us to head off crises and prevent problems from getting worse,” said Neumann, who served three times as ambassador, to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, and is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
The organizers brought this message to Capitol Hill because, in Neumann’s words, “Congress has helped bring on the fear that is immobilizing us, and Congress will therefore have to be part of helping us get out of it.”
He noted that the congressional and media response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya — which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith — has had a chilling effect on two administrations of two different political parties.
The result, according to Neumann, has been a retrenchment of U.S. diplomats into “fortress embassies” (also see “America’s Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad” in the April 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Patterson said she has seen the consequences of this retrenchment particularly in U.S. reactions to the turmoil in the Middle East.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Patterson said, arguing that the lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence in the parts of countries that ultimately sway their politics results in a lack of useful knowledge about how the U.S. should engage those governments.
For example, by not allowing diplomats to travel to the rural areas of Saudi Arabia, the State Department lacks critical knowledge about the motivation and activities of influential Saudi clerics, according to Patterson.
“I would argue that we missed the phenomenon of Mohammed bin Salman,” Patterson told House staffers, referring to the rapid rise of the 34-year-old crown prince who has become the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Patterson also noted that the U.S. didn’t know that Egypt’s al-Nour Party, the country’s ultraconservative Salafist Islamic party, was going to win 24% of the seats in parliament in the country’s 2011-12 elections.
Patterson served in Egypt during its 2011 revolution, which saw the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the installation of a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood after the country’s first democratic election and the subsequent military coup that ousted the Islamist party from power. Patterson said she decided to expand the U.S. consulate in Alexandria, a “Salafi seat,” to better understand the Islamist forces at play in Egypt’s shifting political landscape, but that consulate is now closed.
“It was very erratically staffed after Benghazi, but it was closed for security reasons, so that line of communication is now cut off,” Patterson told the Senate session.
This is drastically different from when Patterson served as ambassador to Colombia in the early 2000s, when Colombia was still in the throes of a decades-long conflict with FARC guerillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The FARC insurgency grew throughout the 1990s and the country suffered thousands of deaths in the early 2000s. Because the U.S. was actively giving military and other foreign aid to the Colombian government through Plan Colombia, U.S. personnel were often targets of FARC attacks.
Patterson ticked off a list of attacks — a bombing that killed 36 at El Nogal Social Club in Bogotá in 2003; an unexploded car bomb outside the commercial office building that housed the local USAID office; and a small bomb in the Drug Enforcement Agency headquarters in Cartagena. She pointed out that none of these attacks led to a knee-jerk reaction to recall diplomats or DEA agents from the country.
“Rockets were periodically lobbed at the embassy, although sometimes they were probably aiming for the Colombian prosecutor’s office next door,” Patterson said.
Despite these threats, the embassy continuously had about 1,000 employees and always had dependents and children of embassy workers in country, according to Patterson. (The State Department typically does not let Foreign Service Officers take family members to postings it deems too dangerous.)
“Throughout this we were on the ground everywhere. We helped train the Colombian bomb technicians. We trained the prosecutor to actually prosecute terrorist attacks. We uncovered through our intelligence apparatus many failed terrorist attacks and bombings,” Patterson said.
“This is why Plan Colombia was successful, because we were there on the ground the entire time and we gave the Colombians confidence,” she added.
The changes in U.S. diplomacy over the last decade are particularly striking in Libya and Yemen, two countries that Patterson said “have disintegrated into a horrible playground of regional rivalries.”
Although she admits it is hard to prove, she believes U.S. diplomats could have made a difference in these conflicts if they had had a presence on the ground.
“We’re simply not there. All the work is done out of Tunis or Riyadh or offshore, through WhatsApp and phone calls. Our people do as best they can, but it’s simply not enough. You can’t influence a situation without being on the ground and talking to people face-to-face, and you simply don’t know what’s going on,” Patterson said.
“When, some day, a secretary of state and an administration is prepared to lead in this, they’re going to have to have support in Congress,” Neumann said.
Unlike many policy changes in government, diplomats’ forced retrenchment is not due to a lack of funds, the envoys noted.
While the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed drastic cuts to the international affairs budget — including a one-third cut to State Department funding — Congress has refused to pass those cuts. Regardless, recent restrictions on the movement of diplomats are less of a monetary calculation and more of a political calculation to prevent situations like Benghazi.
When Olson served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2012 to 2015, he said he felt that the embassy had “outstanding understandings of national-level politics in Islamabad.”
“But Islamabad is a very artificial capital, and it’s very disconnected from the rest of the country,” he said.
While there are consulates in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, the one in Lahore was shut for 18 months because there was an al-Qaeda threat to the city, Olson recalled.
“And yet the [al-Qaeda] cell was wrapped up by the Pakistanis within a couple months, but the consulate stayed closed for 18 months because of the stickiness of security procedures.”
Similarly, Olson described the Karachi consulate as “remote” and “a bit of a fortress,” making it difficult for Foreign Service Officers to regularly engage with locals and develop an understanding of the politics motivating the public outside of Pakistan’s capital.
“I think the biggest problem that I saw was that although we had the urban centers more or less covered, we really had very little idea what was going on out in the countryside,” Olson said.
Patterson recently wrote about this development in The Foreign Service Journal. In reflecting on why Foreign Service Officers have become less effective, she wrote that senior officers point to “the inability to travel or meet people outside the embassy” and the “constant churn of supervisors.” Moreover, diplomatic tours are now being shortened or rotated more frequently; however, officers who have been in a country longer “are simply more productive.”
“In turn, foreigners friendly to the United States see closed embassies, evacuations and withdrawals as abandonment. One Saudi told me he used to know people in the embassy when Americans spent years in country, but with the short tours imposed after the attack on the Jeddah consulate in 2004, he hasn’t bothered much to get to know any American diplomats. Anyone he met would be gone soon, and they weren’t much interested in meeting with him, either,” Patterson wrote.
Patterson also pointed out that this hunker-down diplomatic approach is undercutting America’s advantage on the world stage. “For many years, the value added of U.S. diplomats was knowing more about foreign countries and foreigners than any other countries’ diplomats. American embassies were larger, better financed and better prepared than any other diplomatic service on earth,” Patterson wrote. “We were called on to prevent international disputes and help our allies (and foes) navigate their internal disagreements. Every day, American embassies took thousands of small steps to build institutions to serve and protect American interests. It’s what ‘preventive diplomacy’ is all about. That was then.”
Olson says the U.S. needs a cultural shift in how it views the work of ambassadors.
“Diplomacy is a hazardous business,” he said.
Olson noted that he has served during wartime — including at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2011 to 2012 — has been shot at twice by AK-47s and once even “talked someone out of shooting me.”
“American diplomats do extraordinary and heroic work, and their service to our country should be recognized in the same way we recognize the service of our military veterans,” said Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, an advocacy organization that hosts events with ambassadors across the country to encourage citizens to support U.S. diplomacy and promote America’s engagement with the world.
U.S. diplomats work every day “to advance the safety and prosperity of Americans, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for choosing the careers they do,” Albertson said. “By recognizing their work, we can also call attention to the incredible value of diplomacy to advance American interests and values around the world.”
The information that diplomats transmit back to Washington plays a large role in directing U.S. policymakers’ decisions about where to spend resources and how to assess threats and conflicts that could spiral into wars.
In this way, U.S. diplomatic missions act as early-warning systems.
Olson’s concern is that, with a country like Pakistan, which is home to a restless population and a government-controlled press, the U.S. would be blindsided by a revolution like the one in Egypt that caught policymakers by surprise — because of a lack of diplomatic information-gathering outside the major cities.
“We have become so risk-sensitive that we are becoming more and more ignorant,” said Neumann. “You cannot guarantee that if you have good information, your government will pay attention to it. You can be absolutely sure that if you do not have the information, nobody will pay attention,” he added.
“Part of what’s needed today is to ensure diplomats have the resources and the freedom they need to get outside embassy walls and foster direct connections with citizens, even in challenging countries like Pakistan or Honduras,” Albertson said.
“The only way you can avoid risk 100% in a country is to not be in that country,” said Ray. “You cannot eliminate risk. You can mitigate it.”
For his mission in Sierra Leone, mitigating risk meant flying in a helicopter that had a reinforced, armored fuselage.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.