Ronald E. Neumann, a veteran U.S. diplomat and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, is convinced that U.S. foreign policy is at its most effective when skillful diplomacy is harnessed to strong military power. The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan also believes that careful implementation of policy by experienced diplomats and soldiers is nearly as important as the overall policy itself.
“The military and diplomatic efforts have got to work together. You can’t have a diplomatic lane and a military lane. The two are completely interwoven,” Neumann said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.
A career U.S. diplomat who retired in 2007 after his Afghan assignment, Neumann has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California at Riverside. After completing his studies, he enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, serving as an infantry officer who earned a Bronze Star and other combat awards.
“When President [Lyndon] Johnson enlarged the war in Vietnam, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and joined the army. I had been a supporter of the war and felt this was the right thing to do,” he said.
Neumann entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1970 just weeks after returning from Vietnam. Following an initial posting in Senegal, most of his assignments pertained to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. He served in Tabriz, Iran, in the early 1970s, was later posted to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and in 1991 headed up the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, focusing on Iran and Iraq and working to assist Kurdish refugees.
Neumann served as the U.S. ambassador to three nations: Algeria (1994-97), Bahrain (2001-04) and most recently Afghanistan (2005-07). He also served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, first working with the Coalition Provisional Authority and then in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he was deeply involved in coordinating the political part of military.
In addition, he has held important State Department jobs in Washington, including as the Jordan desk officer, staff assistant in the Middle East Bureau, political officer in the Office of Southern European Affairs, and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near East Affairs.
In 2007, Neumann became president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, where his main goals have been to push for increased staffing at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“Our niche at the academy is to support and strengthen diplomacy. All of our programs are oriented around explaining diplomacy. A lot of people talk about the need for more diplomacy, but very few have much notion of what that actually means,” Neumann said.
Founded in 1983, the American Academy of Diplomacy is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan elected organization whose active membership of about 100 is reserved for people who have held senior positions of major responsibility in formulating and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
Its members include all living former secretaries of state, several former secretaries of defense, CIA directors, national security advisors and chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees. About two-thirds of the members are former career diplomats.
Initially, the academy offered assessments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the quality of presidential ambassadorial nominations. It no longer does this, except in rare cases.
The academy pushes for adequate financial and other support to implement U.S. foreign policy and preserve the professionalism and attractiveness of the Foreign Service. It holds annual meetings on Capitol Hill, informal lunch seminars, and an annual awards luncheon to recognize important contributions in diplomacy.
Neumann noted that the academy also organizes programs to analyze issues that challenge U.S. diplomats: terrorism, democracy promotion, genocide prevention and conflicts in Africa.
He is particularly proud of an academy initiative that was begun under his predecessor, Ambassador Brandon Grove, to rigorously study national security funding. Organized in concert with the Henry L. Stimson Center and published in October 2008, the study concludes that the United States needs to roughly double the current number of diplomats, foreign assistance professionals and public diplomacy experts to achieve national objectives and fulfill the country’s international obligations.
The study further argues that important diplomatic work is migrating by default to the military, which has the staff and funding, but not sufficient experience or knowledge for tasks such as building civilian police forces, judicial systems and basic services following conflict or disaster.
Neumann agrees with the report’s central conclusions and is concerned that the militarization of U.S. diplomacy is accelerating. “We worked hard on this study and continue to push for its implementation. For us, writing the report was the end of the process. It was a way station. We continue to push it forward,” he said.
The academy helped to organize briefings about the study for the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns in 2008, the Obama transition team, and key leaders in the State Department and Congress. It also sponsored more than 20 public events across the country to explain the report’s findings.
“The State Department has never been resourced to carry out what people want it to do,” Neumann contends, noting there are only 6,500 Foreign Service officers and 2,200 USAID staff to cover a complex and dangerous world — compared to roughly 3 million people on the Pentagon’s payroll.
By some estimates, there are even as many military band members as there are American diplomats (also see “Defense, Development and Diplomacy: Experts Want a Return to the Last Two” in the February 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
In addition to supporting U.S. diplomacy, Neumann is busy discussing Afghanistan. He has recently written a book, “The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan,” which chronicles his time as the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. The book is a compelling, trenchant account of how diplomacy works in a war zone. Writing with candor and wry humor, Neumann describes the difficulties of alliance warfare and the delicacy of trying to encourage a fractious nation to rebuild itself amid raging war.
Neumann said the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, which he calls armed state building, has been deeply flawed. But he also believes that winning the war remains very important because a splintered, violence-torn state in the heart of Central Asia would threaten American national security by giving al-Qaeda a formidable base for further attacks on the United States.
Neumann supports a comprehensive and ambitious strategy along the lines of that outlined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. In addition to his well-publicized request for roughly 40,000 more troops, McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan recommends a determined U.S. and international effort to protect Afghan civilians, expand the Afghan army and police, reform the corruption-riddled Afghan government, provide economic development assistance, separate Taliban fighters and leaders from al-Qaeda, reconcile them with the government, and target those who refuse to work with the government.
This approach is fundamentally correct, Neumann said, arguing that the United States would not benefit from pursuing more limited goals such as just training the Afghan army, relying on drones to attack al-Qaeda, seeking a deal with Taliban or buying off various warlords.
“It’s going to be slow. It’s not a matter of creating a nation. A nation exists. It’s a matter of a weak government, which has been destroyed by 25 years of warfare. An enormous amount has been built. A lot still has to be built,” he said.
“I don’t think we have a choice between success and failure,” he added, noting that ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become closer over the years. “There is no limited option. Some talk about an exit strategy, but you have to exit to a destination. Having a major victory of jihadism and for people who want to continue to attack us doesn’t seem like a place where we want to be.”
Neumann says the United States needs an effective Afghanistan policy coupled with a sound regional policy in Southwest Asia, noting that failure in Afghanistan would have devastating consequences across the region and for America’s broader struggle against terrorism.
“I don’t think you can run a Pakistan strategy without prevailing in Afghanistan. The idea that a Pakistan government would commit to an all-out war against the Taliban — when they still see India as its major threat — if they think we’re leaving is utter nonsense,” he said.
“Our strategies in Afghan and Pakistan need to be much more connected than they have been until now. It’s a real trap if you think you can shift resources and do one thing instead of the other. All of the basing, training and planning of big attacks of al-Qaeda have come from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The heart of al-Qaeda is there. If the U.S. loses, it has given a huge victory for extremists that will give new momentum to the al-Qaeda movement.”
Neumann also believes that the Obama administration must work with the government of President Hamid Karzai, even though the 2009 election process in Afghanistan was hugely flawed.
“The election was clearly troubling. But the way we’ve pressured Karzai, going back to the Bush administration, has created a question in his mind as to whether we’re maneuvering to get him out. That has pushed him back on the very warlords we’d like him to fire. I don’t absolve the Karzai government. There has been a huge problem of corruption,” Neumann told The Diplomat. “We’ve got to be more artful at this. Afghanistan needs to have a more efficient, more honest government. At the same time, we need to be sensitive about how much change you can push how fast in Afghanistan.”
Neumann said that during his time as ambassador to Afghanistan, he came to fully appreciate how important careful implementation of policy is to successful U.S. foreign policy.
“Americans, by and large, don’t understand how much a thing like Afghanistan is not about the policy but how you implement it. Very few Americans understand the complexity of implementation. So much of our policy discussion has been divorced from how you implement policies,” he lamented.
“One of the most important parts of good implementation is not to become so attached to your programs that you have to defend them and can’t recognize when things aren’t working. You have got to be constantly open to whether your programs are working and more importantly to whether they are sufficient.”
Despite its growing reservations, Neumann believes the American public can be brought along to support the Afghan war and state-building effort there. But Americans need to see tangible successes before they decide the effort is worth more of their blood and treasure.
“Public support is a dynamic not a static issue. If you show progress, people are willing to give you more space and time to work. If they think it’s hopeless, that detracts. Most of what we need to do is not a matter of grand strategy or policy, but of how we apply resources.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.