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Ghana’s Populist Mystic, Jerry Rawlings

Like many leaders throughout Africa, Jerry Rawlings was a paradoxical figure. He could be calculating and ruthless, as when he ordered a bloody “housecleaning” of those he viewed as corrupt or disloyal. Or he could demonstrate genuine concern for the well-being of Ghanaians as he tried to address the country’s myriad problems.

Jerry John Rawlings was a First Lieutenant in the Ghana Air Force when he and six other soldiers tried to stage a coup against the government of General Fred Akuffo in May 1979; they were all arrested and convicted. While awaiting his execution, Rawlings was able to escape with the help of other soldiers on June 4, 1979 and led the overthrow of the Supreme Military Council. Read more

The Seychelles – Gangsta’s Paradise

A country of white sand beaches and palm trees, the Seychelles is an exotic tourist destination. It also happens to be a haven for international criminals. Ambassador David Fischer describes his time there like something out of “an Eric Ambler novel, where an innocent character suddenly stumbles on something, and he becomes involved in a huge conspiracy.” Fischer became a character in a much larger story that included fraudulent banking, Mob activity, money laundering, drug smuggling, and murder, much of which involved France Albert Rene, the president of the Seychelles.

When Fischer informed Rene that people were plotting to overthrow him, the suspects were rounded up, beaten to death and their bodies disposed of in the Ambassador’s yard. Rene then threatened the Ambassador’s son. (In its wisdom, the Department agreed the son should leave the island immediately; however, it declined to pay for his travel.) Read more

The Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny – “A Master Manipulator and Destabilizer”

The late President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) did not look like a “strong man.” He was small of stature, and he spoke softly. Nevertheless, during his 33 years as head of state (1961–1994) he was one of Africa’s most powerful leaders. He brought prosperity to his farmers and interfered in the internal affairs of his neighbors, often with deadly results. President Houphouët-Boigny is one of Africa’s founding fathers profiled in detail by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen. It is through the one-on-one conversations Cohen had with these leaders that we come to understand why Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world since the end of colonialism a half-century ago. His account of these conversations provides a road map for U.S. policy toward Africa in the twenty-first century. Read more

Responding to the Threat of Mass Atrocities

Drawing on his experiences as U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman highlights the decision making trade-offs he and his colleagues faced when they weighed the risks associated with the various forms of intervention they considered to mitigate the mass atrocities in Darfur. He also discusses similar trade-offs raised about the genocide in East Pakistan in the early 1970s and the decision to intervene in Libya to prevent a mass killing in 2011. He concludes by considering the roles that diplomacy, political pressures, and other factors play in the decision-making process, drawing from his recent study for United States Institute of Peace on “The Effectiveness of Special Envoys in Conflict Situations.”  

This was a keynote address delivered April 9, 2015 to the University of Oregon Workshop entitled To Intervene or Not: Government decision-making in times of genocide and mass atrocities. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Ambassador Princeton N.  Lyman is currently Senior Advisor, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and CEO of Princeton Lyman and Associates. He previously served as United States Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March  2013. He was also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. His assignments at the State Department included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1981-1986), Ambassador to Nigeria (1986-1989), Director of Refugee Programs (1989-1992), Ambassador to South Africa (1992-1995), and Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (1996-1998).   

Read Archer Blood’s account of the massacres in East Pakistan and Prudence Bushnell’s perspective on the Rwandan genocide.

Return to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History 

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Introduction

Thank you to the University of Oregon for sponsoring this workshop and for inviting me to give this address. The workshop deals with a vital topic, protecting the lives of millions of people who may be threatened with mass atrocities. At the same time this obligation is proving difficult for governments and indeed the entire international community to master. I want to express my appreciation to professors David Frank and Paul Slovic and to Ambassador Joyce Leader who organized this workshop.

Before delving more deeply into this question, we should recognize that the tendency in such discussions is to focus on the failures to intervene, especially in cases of truly mass atrocities. But in fact efforts are under way around the world to prevent or contain such disasters.

There are many examples of relatively successful interventions: the combination of diplomacy, U.S. military presence, and West African peacekeepers that prevented a massacre in Monrovia at the end of that country’s civil war;  recent steps spearheaded by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power,  that have at least contained the killings in the Central African Republic and begun a process of political reform; the UN and African military intervention that ended the brutal civil war in Cote d’Ivoire; the special supplemental UN-authorized brigade that ended the depredations of the M-23 militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the combined international response to the violent Kenyan election of 2007 that helped lay the foundation for  constitutional reform and a peaceful election in 2013.

U.S. government departments and government-funded agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year dedicated to preventing ethnic or political tensions from evolving into violent conflict and training civil society activists and government officials around the world in conflict resolution skills. Many potential atrocities may well have been prevented which do not make the headlines, perhaps of which we will never know.

Defining the problem — Little patience or use for the term “political will”

Let me say at the outset that I have little patience or use for the term “political will.” I realize that serious analysts unpack that term to get at the ingredients of a decision to intervene or not. But too often the term is used to convey a simplified definition of decision-making, as if it is a matter just of will and conviction, or of political courage. The term takes on a pejorative tone. But in truth there are few opportunities when decision-makers have the freedom of pure courses of action, when there are not competing interests at stake and practical constraints.

That does not mean that individual beliefs, predilections, and prejudices, and their sensitivity to humanitarian suffering, do not matter. Personalities do matter. They matter not only in individual beliefs and outlook on humanitarian crises, but in the political skills and ability to advocate and win policy debates.

Politics matter also.  In this regard, I have problems too with general references to “national security” and “national interests,” especially when cited as competitive with addressing mass atrocities. Those terms also have to be unpacked.  Narrowly defined national security refers to the safety of the homeland and American lives. But it extends in most policy discussions much farther to include indirect impacts on those objectives, e.g., regional stability, even economic factors.

Recently DOD has declared climate change to be a matter of national security. Especially relevant to our discussions here, President Obama has identified the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide as a “core national security interest.” So at least in theory, addressing mass atrocities falls within “national security,” not outside it.

I prefer to use the term “politics,” to include not only the more narrow definitions of national security, but regional political factors, alliance relationships, competing demands for resources, the likelihood of success, and not incidentally domestic partisan politics. A leader cannot ignore these factors, no matter his or her deep personal feelings of concern.

Finally there are principles involved. Principles do matter. They define a nation’s core. They are essential to being able to mobilize popular support for intervention, and they matter to individual and national conscience. The one that guides most current discussions of intervention regarding mass atrocities is the responsibility to protect (R2P as it is called), the commitment of nations agreed to in 2005 to demand that countries take responsibility for the protection of their citizens, and if they cannot or will not do so, the international community has a responsibility to act to provide such protection.

That principle builds upon the Convention on Prevention of Genocide of 1948, the Convention Against Torture 1987, and other conventions and declarations that set out principles of international behavior. Relevant also are recent definitions of war crimes by international tribunals, to include gender-based violence, attacks on UN peacekeepers, and deliberate targeting of civilians in warfare.  There is also the principle of accountability, of justice. The Obama administration has elevated this principle also to being part of the national interest. The Department of State declared “The United States has seen that the end of impunity and the promotion of justice are not just moral imperatives; they are stabilizing forces in international affairs.”

But there is another principle important to the functioning of the international community that competes with those above. This is the principle of national sovereignty. Lest one think that it has been eclipsed by R2P, one has only to look at the arguments being made today by the U.S. and its allies in opposing Russia’s annexing of Crimea and subsequently its intervention in the rest of eastern Ukraine.

Let me now turn to three cases where the U.S. faced the question of whether or not to intervene in the face of mass atrocities and genocide and if so, how. We can examine how these three factors – personalities, politics, and principles – impacted the decision.

East Pakistan 1970-1971 — The Blood Telegram

Not much attention has been given over the years to the events in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh — in 1970-1971.  It is a case where there was clear evidence of genocide and yet a very determined decision by the U.S. not to intervene. We have new material on these events from a recent book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass. The title actually refers to the name of the U.S. consul general in Dacca at the time, Archer Blood, but the author surely understood the double entendre. The book is able to draw not only on the usual documental sources, but also the Nixon tapes which give us particular insight into the personalities involved.

Briefly the facts are these. Pakistan, upon independence, consisted of two wings, separated by thousands of miles, with India between them. Political and military control rested largely in West Pakistan, while in the east, Bengalis chafed under the situation. In an election in 1970, the Bengali based Awami League won a sweeping national victory and began immediately to call for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. Pakistan’s ruler, General Yayha Khan, refused to allow the Awami League to form a government, sent troops into East Pakistan, and set in motion a vicious attack in particular on Bengali Hindus.

Observers in the U.S. consulate, journalists, and others determined this to be genocide. Important also in this crisis was the role of India. India was inundated with nearly ten million refugees from the conflict, had a large sympathetic Bengali population of its own, and a history of war and tensions with Pakistan. It was the international actor calling the loudest for U.S. action. In the end India intervened with military force to end the genocide and facilitated East Pakistan’s declaration of independence as Bangladesh.

Throughout this period, the American consulate in Dacca sent increasingly alarming reports of the situation in East Pakistan, and urged a strong U.S. response. The consulate’s assessment was backed up by the New York Times journalist, Sidney Shanberg. The army would come through, he wrote, yelling, “Are there any Hindus there?” When they found them, they would kill them. “It was genocide,” he concluded. Senator Edward Kennedy who visited the region drew the same conclusion. The CIA did not go so far as to make that finding, but did call it an ethnic campaign, with 80-90% of refugees being Hindu. Yet Washington refused to act.

Eventually the consulate employees sent a long “dissent” telegram – the Blood telegram of the book’s title – detailing the genocide and objecting to U.S. policy that avoided even putting political pressure on the Pakistan government. The dissenters believed this to be moral bankruptcy on the part of the United States.

The American ambassadors in the region – both, incidentally, political appointees — took opposite positions, not an uncommon occurrence in such situations. The U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, in West Pakistan, firmly supported the White House position against intervention of any kind. He thought the officers in Dacca were out of line and their reporting tendentious. He wrote, “Since we are not only human beings but also government servants … righteous indignation is not itself an adequate basis for our reaction.”  The U.S. ambassador in India, on the other hand, fully supported the reporting and recommendations coming out of Dacca. He reported Indians berating the U.S. “as silent spectators to genocide.”

To all this, Washington leaders seemed impervious. As Bass writes:

The U.S. did not ask [even] that Pakistan refrain from using U.S. weaponry to slaughter civilians. … There was no public condemnation – nor even a private threat of it – from the president, the secretary of state, or other senior officials.

Indeed the administration went further. When in response to public and congressional pressure, the administration slowed down the delivery of military supplies to Pakistan, Kissinger worked around the law to have some U.S. equipment delivered from third countries. When it was becoming clear that India was preparing to intervene, Kissinger urged China to move troops to the Indian border to dissuade India from acting. The only positive response was to provide substantial relief for the refugees.

What was going on in Washington? What was driving U.S. policy? How did the White House reject these pleas from the field, Congress, and increasingly from the public to react to these horrors?  Why in the face of these pressures did the administration not only avoid any intervention but provide political, moral and even arms support to the Pakistan government?

We can now see at work here a combination of strong personalities and prejudices, but also an overarching focus on larger strategic considerations, and finally a contrasting set of principles.

“Why would we give a damn about Bangladesh?”

The most important personalities were of course President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Nixon had a strong personal relationship with Pakistan’s ruler Yayha Khan. He liked him and admired his toughness. That was in contrast to his view of Indians. “I don’t like the Indians,” he declared flatly. Added to this was a personal dislike of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and of India’s policy of non-alignment which both Nixon and Kissinger thought was more pro-Russian than neutral.

Partisan politics entered into Nixon’s thoughts. It didn’t help that John Kennedy had taken a warm pro-India line. Now Edward Kennedy, preparing perhaps for a run for the presidency, was raising public and Congressional awareness of the genocide and pressing the administration on the issue. Nixon’s personal views had relevance in the policy-making environment. More than once Kissinger reminded his restless staff that Nixon had a special relationship with Yayha and wanted nothing done that would disturb that relationship.

Kissinger, for his part, shared many of Nixon’s personal views about India and Pakistan. However, Kissinger had larger strategic considerations in mind and pursued them rigorously and with consummate political skill. Through all the debates over a U.S. response, through all the meetings with his staff and cabinet officials, while debating alternatives for intervention and seeming open to them, Kissinger drove the administration to what one official called “massive inaction.”

The strategic considerations Kissinger was focused on were not small. For exactly as these events were unfolding, Yayha Khan was acting as the principal intermediary for what would be the Nixon opening to China. Yayha had the confidence of both the U.S. and china for this task. Time and again, Kissinger and Nixon concluded that nothing should be done that would upset this relationship and endanger that initiative.

So closely consonant were these events that only three months after the Blood telegram Kissinger would take his first secret trip to Beijing, flying direct from Pakistan, which provided an airplane and a convenient cover story. To Nixon and Kissinger, this was perhaps the most important diplomatic act of the Cold War, one of the most consequential of the 20th century, and would change the course of history. More lives were saved, Kissinger would later argue, by this opening, than were lost in East Pakistan.

Finally principles were advanced in this debate. This was of course well before the commitment to R2P, but it was well after the convention on genocide and the moral issues were quite clear. But in their strong opposition to intervention, Nixon and Kissinger raised a different principle. They argued that the conflict in East Pakistan was an internal matter, and that any outside pressure or action was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Nixon took it a step further as India’s intervention loomed. “If we even allow the internal problems of one country to be justification for the right of another, bigger, more powerful, to invade it, then international order is finished in the world.” We might choke a bit on the context, but we can also hear an echo of the arguments, almost the very words, being advanced today by the U.S. over Ukraine.

It is hard to read the final assessment by the personalities involved, and yet we have to acknowledge that more than personalities and prejudices were involved. There were large strategic stakes at risk that indeed did impact the course of history.

When the crisis had ended, and still smarting from the criticisms over the U.S. failure to act, Nixon, with a touch of conscience, says, “God almighty, we did everything we could possibly do.”

Kissinger concurs, saying, “It was a cold-blooded calculation. … No one has yet understood what we did in India-Pakistan and how it saved the China option….Why would we give a damn about Bangladesh?”

“We don’t,” agreed Nixon.

Libya 2011 — Humanitarian concerns or an “unnecessary distraction”?

Let us turn now to a situation with very different personalities, different geopolitical circumstances, and a very different outcome. This was Libya in 2011.

First the personalities. President Obama early on committed his administration to improving U.S. response to mass atrocities and genocide. He issued a presidential directive in 2010 that looked in detail at how the government could implement the recommendations of the 2008 study directed by Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers. A major outcome of this directive was the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012, a multi-agency senior body in the government to coordinate and prioritize atrocity prevention. As noted earlier, President Obama declared the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide “a core national interest as well as a moral obligation.”

Driving this work was Samantha Power, appointed by President Obama to the National Security Council staff. Power, as most of you know, is the author of Problem From Hell, the Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocides in the 20th century, and which decried the failure of the U.S. to have addressed them. In the administration, Power quickly developed a “tool kit” of actions that the U.S. might take in such situations, from sanctions, to UN resolutions, and other steps as well as ultimately consideration of armed intervention.

Another key Obama appointee was Susan Rice, first as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and of course today the National Security Advisor. Rice had been a member of the National Security Council staff in 1994 when the U.S. failed to respond to the genocide in Rwanda. The memory haunts her. “I swore to myself,” she said in an interview in 2001, “that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic actions, going down in flames if that were required.”

At the State Department, Hillary Clinton upgraded issues of conflict resolution and civilian security to the undersecretary level, and appointed J. Stephen Rapp, a former prosecutor for the special court for Sierra Leone, as Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes and Director of the Office of Global Criminal Justice. Even though the U.S. was not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Clinton promised support for its prosecution “of those cases that advance U.S. interests and values.”

One of the first tests of these pronounced policies and for these officials dedicated to them arose in Libya in 2011. A splendid account of the decision-making in this case can be found in James Mann’s The Obamians. The Arab spring quickly took root in Libya in March 2011. Beginning with demonstrations and calls for the resignation of long-time dictator Muammar Gadhafi, it soon morphed into an armed struggle. (Photo: AP)

Gadhafi fought back. Reports claimed that gun ships and helicopters were shooting down demonstrators and innocent civilians. Soon Gadhafi’s forces were marching toward Benghazi where rebels had gathered. Citing blood curdling rhetoric from Gadhafi and his son about the fate of those rebels, calls began for action to stop what appeared to loom as a major massacre.

On the side of intervention were not only humanitarian concerns. Officials looked at how far-reaching would be the events in Libya, and the consequences of not acting, in the rest of North Africa, or in the Middle East where such uprisings were also taking place. There was also the attitude of key allies. European countries were strongly urging the U.S. to join them in taking action. Maintaining the strength and unity of NATO, and the willingness of members to back up each other, is a cornerstone of U.S. security policy. Pressure also soon came from key Arab countries that were ready to join in a military intervention. Those pressures helped turn Hillary Clinton around to supporting Power and Rice in favor of U.S. military intervention.

But Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, saw Libya as an “unnecessary distraction.” It was not that he was insensitive to the humanitarian situation, but he saw it more of Europe’s responsibility and closer to their national interests than of the U.S. Since Gadhafi had destroyed his stock of weapons of mass destruction and renounced some of his previous support for terrorism, he was no longer a direct threat to the U.S. Gates was particularly worried about the drain of resources from other high priority engagements that would be required for military intervention.

The U.S. was spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan but not yet on a path to victory. The war in Iraq was not over. And U.S. military assets were already being deployed on another humanitarian mission, to Japan to help with the terrible destruction from the tsunami and contain the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

A shift from humanitarian mission to “regime change”

Domestic politics began to play a role. Obama hesitated on military intervention. As much as he had put forward a commitment to preventing atrocities and genocide, he had campaigned as a critic of the rush into wars in the Middle East that had characterized his predecessor.

First, therefore, he supported strong UN sanctions, freezing assets of Gadhafi and his key supporters, and other steps, all part of the “tool box” for prevention that Samantha Power had developed. But these had little effect. In the middle of March, Obama called for Gadhafi to step down and put force on the table. This was not enough however to satisfy the growing voices of critics.

“Has Obama ever been brave?” asked The Economist. “Perhaps more pertinently,” it continued, “will he ever be?” Anne Marie-Slaughter, who had just stepped down as a principle aide of Hillary Clinton, wrote in The New York Times, America was “fiddling while Libya burns.” In the Senate, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry all called for a no-fly zone.

Obama decided to act. But he asked his staff one key question. Would a “no-fly zone” really solve the problem? What of Gadhafi’s tanks and artillery and other ground-based weaponry? So he asked Ambassador Rice to include in the UN resolution authorizing force, not only a no-fly zone, but “all necessary measures.” As Obama had foreseen, once a no-fly zone was in place, the campaign found it necessary to turn to attacking Gadhafi’s basic military structures of command and control as well as his ground forces heading to Benghazi. This would however put the U.S. and its European and Arab allies on a path inevitably to destroy Gadhafi’s military edge and to his ultimate downfall.

It moved the issue, in the minds of many African and other governments, from humanitarian to one of deliberate “regime change” and in their minds called into question America’s real motives. African countries who had wanted a political solution were particularly incensed.

“Never again” said a senior South African diplomat later, ironically using that phrase in this context, “should Africa allow itself to be deceived by the U.S. claiming humanitarian motives when its intentions are otherwise.” This backlash would have consequences when the U.S. sought to mobilize UN support for action in Syria and in weighing options in Sudan.

The tragedy in Libya is that the aftermath of the intervention and of Gadhafi’s fall has not been peace or democracy, but civil war and chaos. Gadhafi’s massive stores of weaponry also turned into a bazaar as various militias from other regions that had worked for him took them home with them and others came in to buy. This fueled growing violence and instability in the Sahel region, Darfur, and elsewhere in Africa and in particular the strengthening of al-Qaeda elements across the Sahel.

Moreover, the goodwill the U.S. appeared to have generated among the rebels, particularly in Benghazi, evaporated in the attack on the U.S. consulate there that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens who had during the war been a symbol of U.S. support for the rebel cause. Thus the Libyan intervention, perhaps the high point of humanitarian intervention in the Obama administration, has become the source of division in the international community, and because of Benghazi has fueled bitter partisan attacks in the U.S.

Sudan — “Not on my watch”

Let me now turn to Sudan. This is a situation that that leaves one with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction despite many forms of intervention, but also perhaps with a recognition of the limits of control over another country’s deepest internal problems.

There have been two major issues of humanitarian concern in Sudan. One was to end a 17-year-old civil war between the north and south that had cost over two million lives and left the people in the south in a desperate state. Slowly by 2005 a peace process was under way but it was fragile.  In 2003 and 2004, however, in response to an uprising in the western province of Darfur, the Sudanese government launched a series of attacks by Sudanese aircraft and by militias known as the Janjaweed that killed, raped, and brutalized the people there seen as supporting the rebel cause.

More than 300,000 people were killed, over two million internally displaced, and 300,000 became refugees in Chad. As the victim populations came largely from African ethnic groups, and the Janjaweed were largely Arab, the situation would soon be described by Secretary of State Colin Powell as genocide, and the ICC would later reach the same conclusion.

Shortly after becoming president, George W. Bush was reading an account of what had happened, or rather not happened in face of the genocide in Rwanda. He wrote in the margin, “Not on my watch.” In his campaign for the presidency Bush had said Africa was not of strategic interest to the U.S.

But over the course of his presidency Bush would double aid to Africa, create a new instrument for aid, the Millennium Challenge Account, which became especially relevant in Africa, and most important initiated the President’s Emergency Plan Against HIV-AIDS and Malaria (PEPFAR) with an initial commitment of $15 billion. PEPFAR has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. George Bush remains one of the most popular Americans in Africa today.

Domestic politics was also influential in Bush’s thinking. Evangelical Christians, who had strongly supported his campaign, pressed for action in Sudan where they saw an Islamic government oppressing the Christian people of South Sudan. Making it bipartisan, pressure came also from the Black Caucus who saw in that same situation a case of Arabs enslaving black Africans.

Thus before Darfur erupted, Bush had already appointed former senator and ordained minister Jack Danforth as special envoy to invigorate and put American weight behind the north-south peace negotiations. When Darfur erupted Bush did not flinch from calling it genocide. (Photo: Vanity Fair)

Much the same policies have been followed by the Obama administration. Samantha Power and Susan Rice have been adamant about the situation there and advocacy groups are strongly linked to members of the Obama administration.

The frustration we feel today is that the situation in Darfur all these years later is not resolved. While not at the same level as in 2003-2004, violence continues and peace proposals have all failed. Two millions people remain in IDP camps and the refugees are unable to return. In addition another conflict broke out in 2011 in two southern provinces (the so-called “Two Areas”) where once again there is bombing, ethnic cleansing, militias burning and raping, and the government refusing to allow in humanitarian relief. Perhaps most frustrating to the international community, Sudan, in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, continues to use it air power to attack and intimidate both armed opponents and civilians in the conflict areas.

I disagree, however, with the assertion that is sometimes made in the face of these realties that “nothing” has been done since that early declaration of genocide. What is most instructive is that the U.S. and UN have imposed many of the measure recommended by supporters of R2P, virtually all those in Samantha Power’s toolkit short of direct American military intervention:

  • The U.S. has imposed more economic and trade sanctions on Sudan than on any other country in the world, including North Korea and Iran.
  • Sudan has been blocked from international relief of its crippling $40 billion debt.
  • It is denied access to funds from the World Bank and the IMF.
  • Sudan remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism which carries its own list of sanctions.
  • The UN Security Council in 2007 established a joint UN-Africa Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has more than 15,000 personnel and is one of the largest in Africa.
  • The UN Security Council placed an arms embargo on Darfur.
  • The U.S. maintains a large humanitarian program in Darfur. Catholic Relief Services alone provides basic needs to 500,000 internally displaced.

It is also not true, though often claimed, that the U.S. has softened its positions on Sudan in return for intelligence cooperation with the Sudanese government.  But in the countless hours I have spent in meetings at the White House, hammering out the conditions for normalization embodied in the roadmaps offered to the Sudan government, not once did the value of intelligence cooperation come into play. Intelligence officials have consistently deferred to the issues of Darfur and other conflicts in Sudan as the overriding conditions for normalized relations and for achieving more valuable intelligence cooperation. That might exclude Sudan from being the subject for juicy spy novels, but it is nevertheless the truth.

Rather, other no less difficult complications and challenges have affected our policy there.

One such complication is that the U.S. has had to devote considerable attention to preserve the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan that ended that 17-year civil war. This meant in effect walking down two policy streets simultaneously. On the one hand, the U.S. continues to advocate that the Sudanese president be handed over to the ICC, and has maintained all the above sanctions and pressure related to Darfur and other conflicts.

On the other, the U.S. needed to convince Sudan that our longer term objective in the Sudan-South Sudan peace talks was to see both countries living side by side, in peace, and with development. Any other premise made the ending of civil war impossible. If it seems hypocritical to walk these two seemingly competing policies simultaneously, it is not. Rather it reflects the necessity to pursue equally imperative objectives, and this is not the only such case. But it does require constant management of the balance, continuing debate over each step taken that would advance one objective or the other.

But second, it has been a challenge to find further ways to address the situation in Darfur and in the Two Areas that would produce a better outcome.

The Obama administration has repeatedly examined what further steps could be taken to pressure the Sudan government. Time after time, the administration examined the prospect of seeking more UN Security Council sanctions that would have much greater impact than just our unilateral ones. But each assessment turned up negative, with both the veto countries of China and Russia, and the African members, surely opposed. We could propose such, but it would be an empty gesture.

The administration also examined what many advocates have called for, a no-fly zone. No-fly zones have become almost a default proposal in such situations. But their effectiveness is often exaggerated. One prominent religious leader told me that if the U.S. could drop just one bomb on a Sudanese airfield, creating a crater on one runway, President Bashir would be at the peace table the next day. Not at all likely. As my military colleagues told me, such a crater can be repaired in a day. But the administration did examine the option of a no-fly zone seriously. What the analysis demonstrated was how difficult it would be and how limited the impact.

“The outcome in Sudan is thus still unsatisfactory” 

First of all, as fallout from Libya, no African country was likely to allow such an operation to be staged out of its territory. For the same reason, authorization would not be forthcoming from the UN. The Europeans were also opposed. That meant staging it alone from offshore, with long flying times and therefore very limited time over the extensive target areas. This also raised the cost of such an operation considerably, again against ongoing demands in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But most of all, Obama’s insight about Libya was pertinent here. Sudan’s bombing attacks are frightening and disrupt planting and therefore create food shortages. But the death toll from bombing has been relatively small.

The major deaths and human rights violations come from artillery, tanks, and the organized militias that go through contested areas killing innocent civilians, raping, and driving people from their homes. A no-fly zone would do nothing to stop these. If there were to be an effective military response to the conflicts in Sudan, it would have to be a much greater one with all the complications and unforeseen consequences that had occurred in Iraq and Libya. No one in the administration or elsewhere really thought this was wise.

The U.S. was able to develop a carefully planned and meticulously executed program that has prevented a projected major famine in the Two Areas where over half a million people were at risk.

But we are still unable to address effectively the more fundamental problem in Sudan, the one that that keeps the country in a state of internal war, with on-going human rights violations and atrocities. That is the problem of Sudan’s governance, its lack of inclusiveness and of democracy.

I took a great deal of flak from some advocates when I told a reporter in 2011 that the U.S. was not supportive of armed regime change in Sudan, which had just been declared to be the objective of the armed groups fighting in both the Two Areas and Darfur.

The U.S.  agreed that there needed to be fundamental political change in how Sudan was governed. But we hoped it could come about democratically, by negotiation. Critics said I was naïve to believe that such change was possible peacefully. But no serious scholar of Sudan I know believes the rebel groups have the capacity to militarily overthrow the Sudanese government. They can only continue fighting — which they do.

Furthermore, one has to be careful about sympathies. Those fighting the government of Sudan have legitimate grievances. But they are not all democratic, and some have committed serious human rights violations of their own. Indeed, I would go so far as to say there are no political parties in Sudan that I am confident have both the capacity and the commitment to rule the country democratically if the present regime collapsed.

What the U.S. has done therefore is to build the capacity and support for an ultimate political transformation. The U.S. has worked with the insurgent groups to help them develop their political platform, their principles for a united Sudan, their views on democracy, on inclusiveness, on the contentious role of religion and the state, and other issues. As they have done so, it has increased their ability to reach out to non-armed opposition parties at the center, and even convince some within the regime that reform is not necessarily a winner take all proposition.

There has been considerable progress in this direction, i.e., a growing alliance of opposition parties and groupings from all parts of the country in favor of negotiated change.

So far, however, the regime, though having announced its intent to initiate a national dialogue that would encompass all these parties, has in practice cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition figures, and initiated yet more military offenses trying to win a military victory, one that is beyond reach as much as the overthrow of the regime is by its opponents.

The outcome in Sudan is thus still unsatisfactory. It is an instructive if troubling example, when even the personalities are aligned and the politics not so inhibiting, of how further more dramatic interventions are still beyond the pale of either possibility or effectiveness. It is also perhaps a lesson about situations of such internal complexity where the U.S. and indeed the international community can have only so much impact, and for which it does not have all the answers. 

Conclusion — It can be done.

Where does this leave us?  I would cite one source of concern, and one of promise.

“Failure,” writes Paul Stares in the recent book Managing Conflict In A World Adrift “could be contagious, with potentially harmful consequences to the otherwise positive forces of globalization.”

Surely the Libya experience, along with all the other fallout from the Arab spring, has had this effect. Just as the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia influenced the Clinton administration’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda, and indeed led to a nearly decade long U.S. resistance to further UN peacekeeping missions, so too Libya has produced more caution in the Obama administration and probably for its successor.

It is telling and sadly ironic that President Obama announced formation of the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very time the crisis in Syria was growing but for which the U.S. still had no answers. There has also been a risk-averse reaction within the administration in the wake of the Benghazi attack on the U.S. consulate. Pressure from both the White House and within the Department of State has been brought to bear to close diplomatic posts entirely at the first sign of possible unrest, regardless of the diplomatic equities involved and the humanitarian programs that would suffer. Only strong push-back from within the Department has abetted this inclination.

But there is a basis for optimism. I noted at the beginning of this talk that the interests of the U.S. in preventing atrocities and genocide have become increasingly institutionalized within the U.S. government.  There is the multi-agency Atrocities Prevention Board. In the Department of State there is an Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes and an Office of Global Justice. There is a Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and another dedicated to conflict resolution and stabilization. There are two bureaus concerned with peacekeeping. USAID has a bureau dedicated to democracy and humanitarian response.  There are similar portfolios within the National Security Council staff.

There are of course other institutionalized aspects of U.S. interests that may compete with atrocity prevention. Regional bureaus in state must examine the full range of relations with particular countries and regions, which sometimes compete sharply with humanitarian concerns. There is the Defense Department that measures carefully the cost and priority of any military intervention, and intelligence agencies that assess not only the threat of mass atrocities but the obstacles and complications in addressing them. This array of bureaucracies may seem to some as a recipe for paralysis. And it can be, and at times can empower people whose interests are more bureaucratic than substantive.

However, I see it more as an opportunity. The concern with preventing mass atrocities is built now into the system. And this institutionalization will span future administrations despite changes of personalities and policy preferences. But it is not enough for advocates for prevention of mass atrocities to be advocates. Those within the administration so determined need to navigate these several institutionalized set of interests.

This requires mobilizing and harmonizing the different parts of the system that are so committed, recognizing at the same time that the competing interests are legitimate and must be engaged. Then preparing a clear and workable plan of action, assessing the risks in the plan and developing ways to mitigate them, ways that reduces the political as well as the material costs, and in the end being persuasive. That is the challenge, but also the opportunity for senior policy officials, special envoys, or whoever is charged with developing policy in these complex situations.

It can be done. Senator Russ Feingold, until recently the President’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes in Africa, overcame a strong, partly personality-driven opposition within the administration to confronting Rwanda over its support of the M-23 militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, secured a U.S. arms embargo on Rwanda that with other pressures led Rwanda to withdraw that support. These steps allowed for the deployment of a special African brigade that took on and defeated the M-23, and finally a peace agreement that included both reconciliation and accountability.

It can be done.

That is the message that we should take away from this conference.

It can be done.

 

We’re Not in Washington Anymore — Culture Shock in Liberia

Adjusting to a new job position or a new town has its challenges, but moving to another country —on another continent — is a whole other adventure. George Jaeger experienced this adjustment shock when he was assigned his first foreign tour as Third Secretary for Commercial Affairs in Monrovia, Liberia from 1958 to 1960. Jaeger recounts his first few weeks in Liberia and the surprises, such as being offered a wife of a local chieftain, disasters, such as the sinking of a new boat during christening, and lessons he experienced during that time. He eventually left Liberia with a heavy heart, as he had come to love the country a great deal. He was interviewed by Robert Daniel in 2000. Read more

The Carnation Revolution – A Peaceful Coup in Portugal

“There was real jubilation in the streets the first few weeks. It’s still known as the Revolution of the Carnations, and is famous for its civility. I have a wonderful picture of my son, who was six years old, standing in between two young Portuguese soldiers. They’re holding rifles, each with a carnation in the barrel and they’re smiling. Steve is there holding a sign saying “Viva Portugal”. From the outside [of the country] it appeared different from what we saw inside. I don’t think Washington really recognized what was happening in the beginning.” – Robert S. Pastorino, Commercial Attaché,  1974-77

On April 25, 1974, Portugal experienced a coup like no other. In an era characterized by the clash of ideologies and power players, the nearly bloodless revolution became known as the Carnation Revolution. What began as a military revolution led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MAF) quickly became a mass movement of civil unrest. Read more

The Irrepressible Prudence Bushnell

As a teenage daughter of a Foreign Service Officer who moved his family from country to country every so often, Prudence Bushnell frequently complained that the Foreign Service ruined her life. It is ironic then — poetic even — that as destiny would have it, Bushnell found herself in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981 on her first post as an FSO, followed by 24 incredible years of service around the world.

During that time, Bushnell confronted misogyny, an embassy bombing, and warlords in several high-threat posts. But Bushnell also experienced the tenacity of women in West Africa, helped fight corruption in Latin America, and witnessed the gradual destruction of gender roles in the Foreign Service.

In her interview below with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2005, Bushnell discusses her time in the Service starting with her decision to volunteer in 1981, the influence from her female predecessors, and working in the African Affairs Bureau, for which she travelled to Senegal, Rwanda, and other West African countries. Bushnell frequently faced skeptics from host governments and even within the Department, even as she pushed for progress on such issues as fighting the AIDS epidemic and empowering women.

Her honest account of the peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda after the genocide holds nothing back and is followed by an equally stirring discussion of terrorizing warlords in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After the devastating bombing of the Nairobi embassy in Kenya, Bushnell was assigned to serve in Latin America where she worked towards positively influencing the corrupt governments—for which she received some criticism. In closing, Bushnell talks about her forward-looking definition of leadership and her work in the Leadership and Management School of the Foreign Service Institute before retiring in 2005.

Read also about her efforts to combat AIDS and the Embassy Nairobi bombing.

Return to Fascinating Figures

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

 

“There’s no way I was going to be a wife of a Foreign Service officer. I was already rebelling against that.”

BUSHNELL: The women I saw [growing up] were either wives and mothers or single women doing secretarial, consular, or personnel work who would come to our house for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. So, these were my role models. There’s no way I was going to be a wife of a Foreign Service officer. I was already rebelling against that.

What else was I going to be? Mom had both Susan [my sister] and me take typing and shorthand because “you can always be a secretary.” Women were still very constrained in their career choices.…

I found Dallas in the 70s to be culturally alien to me, especially since by now I had been working in professional jobs. I had a very hard time finding professional employment and finally decided to go it alone as an independent contractor. I did some supervisory training and the like. The most interesting, and certainly my greatest challenge, was a contract to help the senior engineers at NASA in Houston understand the male midlife crisis and cope with the sense of burnout they were feeling. Both were trendy issues.

So, there I was at the age of 33, spending my waking hours becoming an expert on the development cycles of American men. I can’t believe my chutzpa standing in front of a bunch of 50-something-year-old men. But I was prepared. When the inevitable question, “What makes you think as a woman you can stand up and talk about who we are?”

I was ready with the retort, “How many gynecologists or obstetricians are women?” At that time, of course, there were very few….

Once they got used to me, most were just fine. They recognized I knew what I was talking about and, once they relaxed, enjoyed the experience. I had one encounter, though, that left a significant mark. I met up with the nasty misogynist who made it his business to try to humiliate me as much as possible. It was my first taste of such behavior. It was a difficult and valuable experience to keep my cool, and I survived it. That was the lesson.

I could stand up to sarcasm, rolling eyes, and sexist remarks, maintain my dignity and survive to talk about it the next day. A good lesson in dealing with some of the jerks I later came across.

In 1979, Americans were taken hostage at our embassy in Tehran. All of a sudden a place and life I had put behind were in the headlines…. A day or so later, I heard an ad on the radio; Secretary of State Muskie was encouraging women and minorities who fit a certain profile to apply to a mid-level entry program. All of this was taking place during one of the hottest and driest summers in Dallas history. Dick (my husband) and I decided it was time to move on, and I might as well check out the Foreign Service. So, I applied and became so focused on the entry process I didn’t really think about the possible outcome….

[My parents] were shocked when I told them. After all my complaining about how the Foreign Service has ruined my life as a teenager when we moved from Karachi to Tehran, here I was voluntarily applying to join.

“Don’t let people know how smart you are, because men don’t like to hire women who are smart”

Q: How had the women’s movement affected you by then?

BUSHNELL: I found a whole lot to be sympathetic with. When I separated from my first husband, even though I had been joint and sometimes sole wage earner, I was denied credit. Couldn’t get a credit card. The bank did, however, let him cash our joint tax refund over his signature only. I was furious. They justified it saying he was “the man of the house.”

When I looked for work early on, an employment counselor told me, “Don’t let people know how smart you are, because men don’t like to hire women who are smart.” Years later, in Dallas, I interviewed with a guy who worked for the Office of Personnel Management — a federal agency, mind you. He advised me to wear skirts with longer slits in them so I could attract more attention. Don’t get me started. So, I was very grateful to the courageous women who decided to do something about the way we were being treated. Were it not for Alison Palmer and the women’s class action lawsuit against the State Department, for example, I would never have joined the Service.

There weren’t that many role models for professional married women. You either chose family or you chose career. I had the huge advantage of a husband who truly believed in me and who assisted me in appreciating my value and potential. He is passionate about people and he would push me to take risks and to stand up for myself. After doing so a few times, I did not need his encouragement. That said, in the Foreign Service, I encountered some terrific women leaders, like Roz Ridgway, Melissa Wells, Jane Coon, and others of the generation before me who paved the way.

Challenging Gender Roles in the Foreign Service – Dakar

[One] issue was the fact that my husband came as a so-called “dependent” (now termed “family member”). Remember, until the mid-70’s women officers who married were expected to resign. This embassy had experience with only one other male spouse, and that was not a good experience.

Within the first month of our arrival at post, Dick was offered a job. He had both accounting and legal skills to offer. About a week later, a group of women spouses came to the house very put-out that Dick had gotten the job so quickly when they had been unable to get one at all. They felt, probably correctly, that the administration of the mission had thought that a male spouse had better find decent work soon.

I felt very ambivalent. On the one hand, I understood exactly what they were saying; and on the other hand, I thought, why are you mad at me? It’s not my fault. Do you want me to tell Dick to quit the job? I certainly didn’t want him to….

It was my first post. I was checking things out—how things work, where I fit, and that Dick be accepted. He was. The second year, Dick applied for and got the job as Community Liaison Officer—I think he was one of the first men to have that position in the world—without any fuss.

 “I can’t believe the United States would send a woman to do this job!” – Bombay

BUSHNELL: Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and … U.S. relations were not good. She threw out American businesses, for example. There were significant strains between the Indian government and the United States government, which made us all the more grateful that we were in Bombay and not New Delhi. Bombay was a very cosmopolitan city, home of “Bollywood,” and movie stars. The city was overwhelming….

Professionally, I found it challenging, because I was the first woman to hold the position of Admin Officer. A lot of Indians felt very uncomfortable dealing with a woman and made no bones about it. The first time I met the Chief of Police he stared and said, “I can’t believe the United States of America would send a woman to do this job!” The status of women was abominable.

In addition, there were tensions among the FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals]  that I had not seen in Senegal. I found it difficult to form teams among the people with whom I worked at the Consulate. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy most of the people as individuals; I just couldn’t get the supervisors to see themselves as part of a larger team. So I stopped even having staff meetings. I’ve always regretted that. I think I should have put more effort into it….

Bombay was the point in my career when I began facing disasters. Twice when I was “acting” in the absence of the Consul General, we had crises. First, when Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated and then when the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, which was in our consular district, experienced a chemical leak that killed I don’t know how many people, and injured thousands and thousands more. The British Consul General was assassinated during our tour, and we had the fall-out from President Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya. Lots of demonstrations in front of the consulate.

I was the post security officer, so Harry Cahill, our CG [Consul General] would always send me out to face them. “You’re such a nice lady, they won’t know what to do, and they certainly won’t harm you,” he would say….

“As an ambitious Foreign Service Officer and happily married woman, I decided to turn the job down”

My name was forwarded to the Deputies’ Committee by the AF [African Affairs] Bureau as one of their nominees for Ambassador to Conakry. I was so excited. This is the committee that decides on the names State Department is going to send to White House personnel as its candidate. For some unknown reason, the Committee decided instead to put my name up for Rwanda.

I began filling out forms the likes of which I’ve never seen before:  for the White House, for the Senate, and, of course, umpteen ones for State, including medical stuff. I hadn’t gotten any word from MED, so I called just before Christmas. I was told that Dick had been denied clearance for Rwanda for reasons she couldn’t tell because that was confidential information. I was devastated.

Dick and I had to make a serious decision from pretty awful choices:  me to go to Rwanda without Dick; have Dick come without a clearance on our own dime—and risk the reason for which he didn’t get a clearance; or say “no” to the opportunity. By this time in the bidding cycle … there weren’t that many slots open. So, as an ambitious Foreign Service officer and happily married woman, I had to confront what was most important to me:  meet my values close-up. I decided to turn the job down.

Two weeks later I read in the newspaper that President Clinton, who had just taken office, was nominating George Moose [pictured] as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. I had been George’s DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] only a couple of years before [at Dakar, Senegal].…

It was an unspoken mantra by the White House [that] Africa issues, unless they turned into disasters, seldom made it to the seventh floor, where the top of the hierarchy worked….George offered me the job as Deputy Assistant Secretary, responsible for transnational issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. policies relating to democracy, human rights, humanitarian assistance, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacekeeping, HIV Aids, environment, drugs, bugs, everything that crossed borders for 48 countries. George turned to Ed Brynn as his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary…. Ed had responsibility for all of the daily oversight and paperwork of the Bureau. For more than a year, there were only the three of us….

A good deal of my time was spent trying to get the interagency to agree to sending UN peacekeepers to Rwanda to implement peace accords that had put an end to a civil war between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF…. Eventually, the U.S. government was strong-armed by the UN and the French to support the Rwandan peace….

(Go here to read more about Ambassador Bushnell’s wrenching account on Rwanda)

It was after the Rwanda disaster that the U.S. government became keen about Africa regional peacekeeping, which eventually turned into an arm of the African Union…. Liberia was also in my portfolio, so I would go there now and then.

On one of these occasions I was standing on the tarmac with our Ambassador, Bill Tweddell, watching a plane being loaded up to head back toward Lagos. We were pretty sure the cargo was illicit stuff—diamonds, gold, or drugs. The corruption among the Nigerians in Liberia was well known. On the other hand, Liberia had a multi-faceted civil war going on and the Nigerians were controlling at least part of the country, maintaining a peace of some sorts. So, as corrupt as these peacekeepers may have been, we were even more concerned about what would happen if they left Liberia…. Poor Liberia. It was divided up into territories under the control of warlords who represented different ethnic groups.

We used [Liberia] for our radio relay stations during the Cold War and had strong ties. The Liberians had equally strong expectations that we would intervene in some way, but we did not. George Moose would send me to Liberia now and then to bawl out the warlords but we had no active involvement….

On the other hand we did not want to signal the Liberian people that we were washing our hands of them. Even if we could do no more than be present, we were determined to at least be present. I don’t argue with that as long as there are colleagues brave and willing enough to go there. So, we had a fairly minimal presence that we could pull out and put back in….

“Taylor began to call me ‘my dear.’ [By] the third time, I had had it.”

Q: Who were some of the characters that we were having to deal with?

BUSHNELL: Ha! “Characters” is right, none of them anyone you would want to meet. The most long-lasting warlord was Charles Taylor. I went to … Gbarnga [capital city of Bong County, Liberia], which was in the middle of the jungle, via UN helicopter to deliver a demarche. He made us wait an absurd amount of time and by the time we finally got to see him in his throne room … I was hungry and very irritated.

Then he talked, and talked and talked. I have an agreement with myself that I will allow men to talk at me without taking a breath for only a certain amount of time — usually, 15 minutes for Americans, 25 for Africans. About 30 minutes into his monologue, Taylor began to call me “my dear.” Twice I decided to ignore him. The third time I had had it.

I interrupted him suggesting that he never again call a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States of America “my dear.” He accused me of being culturally insensitive and told me he called everyone my dear. I retorted that I would call him Mr. President and he could call me either Ms. Bushnell or Madame Secretary. By this time, he had lost his rhythm to say nothing of face, and he ordered us out. He told the UN peacekeeping commander never to let me back in. I found out recently that Taylor really did call everyone “my dear.” Still, I have no regrets at my action.

Another warlord was Roosevelt Johnson. I met him on the same trip to Liberia with the same message: stop it. Johnson reveled in telling how Charles Taylor’s soldiers would kill people, slit open their chests, and eat their hearts. I think he was trying to impress me, so of course I refused to show it.

The last one I saw on that trip was El Hadji Kromah in yet another part of Liberia. To get to him we had to go through checkpoints of child soldiers who were often high on drugs. It was frightening. We sat in a living room with walls decorated with bullet shells. I had to use his bathroom and he locked me in. My first thought was that he didn’t like my message and was going to keep me hostage. Actually, he had done it because there was no way to keep the door closed….

“At every stop I would meet with women. It was a real privilege and one of the best parts of my job”

I also spent a good deal of time on women’s issues, which I strongly believed should have been part of our mainstream policy portfolio.

African women play a major role in their societies, even though they are shunted aside. In many countries they’re responsible for raising and educating their children, as well as tending the fields and the home. If you say you want to promote democracy you’d better promote the rights of over 50 percent of the citizenry at the same time or you’re not walking the talk. I spent a huge amount of time traveling, going to countries people from the front office seldom visited—Guinea Bissau, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger… At every stop I would meet with women. It was a real privilege and one of the best parts of my job.

Unfortunately, women’s issues were relegated to the development assistance portfolio. Policymakers too often see women only as victims in need of economic and humanitarian assistance but that’s only part of it. They are also potential political actors. In Rwanda, for example, almost 50% of the parliament is now made up of women because so many men died in the genocide. So, one of the things that I wanted to accomplish in these countries was to bring the Ambassador face-to-face with women as political actors and not just as the subjects of need.

Q: But, when you start talking about giving women more power you’re upsetting the male dominance and I can see where an ambassador saying, “I don’t want to tackle this sort of thing” or feel uncomfortable about doing it. Were you able to both move our own apparatus and do anything else about it?

BUSHNELL: You know, the first human rights reports I worked on in ’82 did not include domestic violence because it was considered a cultural issue. So I can’t say that the Department or our ambassadors were particularly forward-leaning. On the other hand, the Clinton White House was serious about women.

Prep for the Beijing Women’s Conference had started and people were recognizing a shift. Some ambassadors would quietly go with me or host an event. A couple of them, who just didn’t get it, had their spouses host something.

“I was beginning to understand how to use power.”

As a senior government official I had the power of position. By going out to meet and show respect to women I could bring not only the U.S. Ambassador but also the local press, which helped them. I feel strongly that it’s in the interest of the United States Government and certainly is a moral imperative to deal with issues of women.

J’aime avec prudence

The United States was targeting resources to it. There was a certain amount of rhetoric given by other countries, but we were the ones who were most actively and strategically engaged…. It was a huge problem. Africans, like a lot of Americans, are very conservative and do not talk about these things.… Also, you cannot talk about HIV and AIDS without getting into the issue of women’s empowerment—or lack thereof….

We were into commodities big time, promoting safe sex. We were also into education. In Central Africa, the most popular condom was called “Prudence.” You can imagine what a wonderful time people had with my name. When I left the African Bureau I had a drawer full of Prudence condoms, Prudence aprons, Prudence t-shirts. These were francophone countries and the tag line in the advertisements was “J’aime avec prudence.”

(Read more about how Ambassador Bushnell and others tackled the AIDS crisis when it first appeared.)

“I had been patronized for addressing an issue others, men especially, had put in the category of ‘too hard’”

BUSHNELL: Daniel Arap Moi was Vice President under Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. When Kenyatta died in office, Moi stepped in and never stepped down. He continued to rule through a coalition of small tribes…. He also played the U.S. pretty shrewdly during the Cold War. In return for his support, we turned a blind eye to how he ruled domestically. When the Cold War ended, we began to insist on democratic elections.

In order to “stay at the table,” which is how Kenyans referred to presidential politics, Moi and company held fraudulent elections in ’92. We showed our disapproval by withdrawing aid and giving Moi the cold shoulder. By the time I arrived in ’96, we were down to about 19 million dollars in bilateral assistance directed through non-governmental organizations. Nothing went to the Moi government….

What bothered Kenyans most was the effect of corruption on schooling, which they valued highly and the abominable condition of roads. Stolen road taxes meant greater difficulty getting goods to market. Among diplomatic colleagues, I found huge frustration both with the level of corruption and Moi’s reaction should anything be said about. It usually entailed public blasts about interfering in domestic affairs.

The game was pretty simple: the Moi government would steal assistance money, then insult us if we said anything. People would suffer, the government would go to more donors to get more money which they could steal, etc. I decided to try to change the dynamics by taking on the game. I was lucky that our embassy had a large and experienced Country Team, so there was plenty of experience, support and enthusiasm for confronting corruption.

This was hardly the first time I had been patronized for addressing an issue others, men especially, had put in the category of “too hard.”

I began talking about corruption in my speeches — something Kenyan people could not do with impunity. Pretty soon things were showing up in media and more and more people, including my diplomatic colleagues, began to chime in.

It was an attitude I had seen before – “This is Africa; what can you do?”…

President Moi —“Corrupt to his soul”

Initially, he [Moi] wouldn’t see me. I was the second consecutive woman ambassador, and Moi was not at all pleased to have another female.

Q: Elinor Constable had been there before that too.

BUSHNELL: And then Smith Hempstone, who caused an enormous great controversy by going head-to-head with Moi, then Aurelia Brazeal and then me. Moi was convinced that the U.S. Government was intentionally sending him women as a message that he was just not good enough to merit a white male. Nor, evidently did he like what he heard about my promotion of human rights. After presenting credentials, I had a hard time getting him to see me. Once I did, we crafted an interesting and rather strange relationship.

It started when I invited him to the Residence for breakfast one day. That one-on-one started a precedent which led to some very heated discussions. Respectful but blunt.

He would fly into tantrums sometimes, or just get mad and cranky. I’d bring him up straight by asking point blank, “Why are you yelling at me?”

Once I stopped an argument in mid-stream and asked if he enjoyed fighting with me. “Yes,” he responded, “I am a democrat.” I think he rather enjoyed our interchanges….

By the time I got there he had been in power for 20-some years, far too long for anybody. He was in his 70s, in good health physically and mentally, still very shrewd and fairly competent. Sometimes he’d ramble, but then don’t we all?

I think he is corrupt to his soul and had found a way to bring his actions into harmony with his evangelical religion. I think he really believed that he was beloved by his people, clueless that the opposite was true because he surrounded himself with sycophants. Domestically, he was shrewd and ruthless; around the region, Moi behaved as statesman. He used this to his advantage to keep us in his debt. We would ask him to pull together the Somalia warlords, and he would do it.

He was sympathetic to our efforts to bring peace to Sudan and, at our request, would talk to his crony, Mobutu, president of Zaire. Like a lot of presidents, Moi wanted to be known in history as the elder statesman and a regional peacemaker….

U.S. ambassadors need to be fairly circumspect. When the Country Team and I decided to take on the issue of corruption, we had to be clever about it….

The World Bank was going to provide around $100 million dollars in an energy sector loan. Given the government’s proclivity to steal, to say nothing of their lousy completion rate (something like three percent) my colleagues in Washington and I decided to do something. I knew the U.S. delegate to the World Bank. With other colleagues, we decided she would vote “no” on the energy loan. That got a lot of attention. Both the World Bank and other governments took notice that we were serious about corruption….

The proposal put to the Kenyans was to direct the energy sector loan through a private sector bank that would ensure transparency.

A social friend of mine arranged a meeting with Moi on a Sunday afternoon at his private residence – very hush-hush – to discuss this. I was struck by how sterile and lonely the house appeared. He said to me, “If I agree to this it’s going to set a precedent, and I’m worried.

I said, “You’re right, it will and I’d be worried about it too if I were you, because it means doing business differently.”

He said, “I don’t want to do business differently.”

And I said, “Then you’re not going to get the money. There you are, Mr. President, you need to choose. I know life is unfair and this doesn’t seem good and right, but you need to understand our perspective and you have a choice to make. That’s what leaders do, they make difficult decisions.”

He called me after I got home, about an hour later and said, “I’ve decided to do it.” And I said, “Good for you, Mr. President, you’ve made the right choice.”

I felt like a life coach.

Nairobi Embassy Bombing – August 7, 1998

On Friday, August 7, we started another business day as usual. The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] was on leave. Our Political Counselor was acting DCM and I had asked him to preside over the Friday Country Team meeting [with senior representatives of the sections and agencies at post]. I was finally successful in scheduling a meeting with the Minister of Commerce to talk about an upcoming U.S. trade delegation, a big deal given how we stiff-armed Kenya –so I was not present.

I remember asking that the Country Team discuss how our newcomers were settling in and whether we were reaching the right balance on issues of security alerting but not paralyzing people to the dangers.

In retrospect, that was a very ironic conversation….

As was the case in many official meetings, the Minister had invited the press to ask questions and take photos before the real talk began. A few minutes after they left, we heard a loud “boom.”

I asked, “Is there construction going on”? It sounded like the kind of boom you get when a building is being torn down.

The Minister said, “No, there isn’t.” He and almost everybody else in the room got up to walk to the window.

I was the last person up and had taken a few steps when an incredible noise and huge percussion threw me off my feet….

(Read the rest of her account on the bombing here.)

That summer was very difficult. I had spent so much time in Nairobi in the aftermath of the bombing focused on my leadership responsibilities that I did not fully appreciate how hurt I was — not physically hurt, but how wounded I was. I never had the chance to be a victim. When I came back to the U.S. the world became surreal. I sensed that somehow I was not behaving the way a proper victim should—whatever that meant….

When Secretary Albright visited Kenya after the bombing, she asked about my next assignment. My husband, Dick, and Linda Howard, who had been my OMS [Office Management Specialist] for years, had already decided they wanted Guatemala. So, when the Secretary asked where I wanted to go, Guatemala was what came out of my mouth.

It was a complete accident. She thought I’d be good in Guatemala, so that was it. WHA, the Western Hemis

phere Affairs bureau, was less than thrilled to have an interloper come into their turf and let me know that in no uncertain terms. I was told they already had their “minority candidate.”

We left Nairobi in May 1999 and I had my confirmation hearing within two or three weeks of our departure. I then went into Spanish language training….

I also had yet another run-in before the first anniversary commemoration. I was told that the grand invitation-only event to be held in the Benjamin Franklin Room [at the State Department]  was in part a response to family members of the Americans who were killed, some of whom remained very angry at the way they were treated by the Department. In other words, it was a rather forced event.

Space was obviously limited and I kept submitting names of people from Nairobi who had not been invited. I was told that I was ruining the seating chart and hit the ceiling. Then, of course, I was told I was over-reacting. So, the tension continued….

“I reminded him that this was the United States and as an American citizen I could say whatever I damn well wanted”

During courtesy calls to the Hill before my confirmation hearing I was specifically told that I was not to talk about anything that did not deal with Guatemala. Nevertheless, I mentioned my concerns for security because the Department still did not ask for or receive fund adequate to address the problems embassies had around the world. Got into big trouble.

In those days, you had to have someone from H [Department’s Congressional Liaison] accompany you. I was with a political appointee seeing a powerful Senate staffer, and began to talk about security. The baby-sitter interrupted and said, “Ambassador, you’re not allowed to talk about that.”

When we left the staffer’s office I reminded him that this was the United States and as an American citizen I could say whatever I damn well wanted.

Later that summer I ended up in the Department’s medical unit with a terrible, terrible earache. The doctor who saw me said it was TMJ [Temporomandibular joint dysfunction] and asked if I was clenching my jaw a lot. I’ll say! Anyway, after about six weeks of one-on-one Spanish at FSI, I got my 3/3 rating, and headed to Guatemala.

The WHA helped prepare me very well, though I have to say I was shocked to learn during the last days of consultations that I would have 24-hour security guards, because one of our ambassadors [John Gordon Mein] had been assassinated in 1968.

Thirty years later, Guatemala was still a violent country and bodyguards were not unusual among the elites and diplomats. It was so different from my experience in Kenya—I had an advance car, an armed guard in my vehicle and a chase car with more armed guards….

Guatemalan President Portillo — “What a guy. Actually, he was more of a little popinjay with a big ego”

BUSHNELL:  Washington had given me two charges:  To put pressure on the government to improve its human rights record – specifically, to get to the bottom of the murder of Bishop Gerardi, a human rights activist — and to persuade the government to disband the Estado Mayor, the Presidential Guard, which had a lock on the Presidency both literally and figuratively.…(Photo: AP)

It doesn’t take long to see the disparity of incomes. There are a few very, very wealthy families, some middle class and a mass of very poor people. Guatemala was second only to Haiti in statistics regarding poverty, maternal death, infant deaths, etc. It was second only to Columbia in gun ownership, violence, and kidnapping. And yet, perhaps this is apocryphal, I was told the country had the highest per capita rate of privately owned helicopters in the world. It did not take long to pick up a virulent strain of racism among some Guatemalan elites, nor the hard, cold mistrust of the Mayan people….

Regardless of their personal roots, the military was responsive to the elites. It a symbiotic relationship— elites allowed the military to go keep the government and countryside under wraps and in return, the military ensured that reforms— labor reform, tax reform, any kind of reform—were kept at bay so the elites could make the money they wanted….

But let me talk about Guatemalan elections first. The candidate who won, Alfonso Portillo, was a populist and a horror in the eyes of the elites. His political party was run by Efrain Rios-Montt, a military dictator who had seized power in the ‘80s and went on to sponsor the most bloody and most repressive years of the internal conflict.

He supplemented the military with civilian militias, giving them guns and saying, “Okay, go kill people in the villages over there.” He had Mayans kill other Mayans and implemented a deliberate strategy to accomplish three things: engage in conflict in the countryside; keep the mayhem away from the Guatemala City; and punish the people fighting the military — punish them, their families, their children, their fields, and their villages. People were baffled that Mayans would vote for the very man who created such horrors. But they did.

The elites decided that the sky had fallen, that hell had frozen over, that nothing worse could ever happen and that the American ambassador would, of course, have nothing to do with him. I didn’t have that option, nor would I have chosen it initially because, as I said, Portillo was mouthing all of the right things about human rights, tax structures, reforming the presidential guard, implementing the Peace Accords—everything the U.S. government wanted to hear. I was lambasted in the press for dealing with the new government.

Portillo didn’t speak a word of English, which was good for my Spanish, and was clueless about putting a government together. He had been a university professor in Mexico and made no bones about the fact that he left Mexico before he was brought to justice for killing. What a guy. Actually, he was more of a little popinjay with a big ego.

He lived near the Residence and would frequently come for breakfast. Over the period of two and a half years, my end of the conversations deteriorated. At the beginning of his administration I would start with something like “So, Mr. President, wonderful that you’re saying all these good things. Certainly hope that you will implement them.”

This morphed into “Mr. President, it’s now been six months, eight months, nine months, twelve months, two years since you have been talking about reforms but you still haven’t implemented them. Things are getting serious.”

“Women can say things that would get other men in big trouble

I initially thought part of the reason he couldn’t get anything done was an ignorance of basic management. I invited Portillo and his vice president for breakfast one day and asked each of them to answer the two things in writing:   1) Three things I want to be sure to implement during my term of office. And 2) I would like to be known in history as….”

Once they wrote their answers down I asked them to exchange papers. At one point I thought to myself, “I can’t believe that I’m doing this.’

Q: Sounds like one of your management sessions.

BUSHNELL: It was, but it sure didn’t accomplish anything of particular good. As time went on, conditions in the country degenerated further. One of my last private conversations with Portillo ended with the following. “Mr. President, we know for a fact that your personal secretary is accepting money from drug dealers.”

Portillo responded: “So that must mean you think that the money ends up with me.”

I shrugged and replied “Mr. President, what can I say?”

Q: He would accept this and still come for breakfast?

BUSHNELL: Yes, he would. I think that women can say things that would get other men in big trouble. Women colleagues have noted that, as well.

Trust at some l

evel is easier to establish; men do not feel as threatened by women, and a particular tone of voice can allow us to say the kinds of things, like “Mr. President, stealing isn’t going to do you any good. You don’t want to end up in history as one of the greatest thieves in the country, do you? No? Well, then, you just have to stop.”

Q: My definition would be nagging.

BUSHNELL: That’s what men always say when women give negative feedback. Think of it this way:  the U.S. Ambassador is advising a head of state to stop stealing while continuing her ability to influence. When National Geographic did a video called, “Inside an Embassy,” Portillo was asked to say a few words on camera.

Know what he said? “Relations between our two countries have never been as good and this ambassador, she’s really good. You know, she pulls my ear now and then and tells me to shape up.”…

“I had never been so vilified on the one hand and yet satisfied about what we accomplished”

Alien smuggling was another big issue that got a lot of our attention, although it did not directly connect to any particular funding program…. We dealt with boatloads of Chinese and mixed groups including Iranians, Egyptians, and even an Australian — people from all over the world….

I also tried, as I did in Kenya, to organize a group of the key donor countries. We called ourselves the Grupo de Dialogo and were quite successful in getting attention in the press to issues of corruption and other Peace Accord issues. Unfortunately, the multilateral banks, like the World Bank and Inter-American Fund consider it their job to give out money, so we only had a minimal impact in using funding as a lever of influence.

As we speak, the man who was Vice President of Guatemala at the time I was there is now in jail. Former President Portillo slipped over the border back to Mexico with the posse behind him…literally. So much for the gang I dealt with….

I left Guatemala [in 2002] with mixed feelings. I thought that the mission team could point to significant achievements but I was personally exhausted from the efforts. I had never been so vilified on the one hand and yet satisfied about what we accomplished. Even one-time critics in the media admitted I had made a positive difference.

As to Guatemala as a whole, I felt that the level of mistrust and violence would shackle it for years. Yet, I was also struck by the sense of optimism among so many Mayan people who had and continue to suffer the most. Most of all, I left with a sense of having survived one tough assignment….

“When I was a little girl I never could have dreamed of being a leader”

The kind of leadership that makes an activist ambassador effective is neither welcomed nor rewarded. In Washington, senior career people are expected to be implementers and managers of policy, not leaders of people or policy. We still have an old-fashioned system in which the most important work is done by the most senior level people. Everyone else is expected to feed the next level up. It’s a huge expenditure of time for possibly minimal results. But there you are.…

Q: Pru, you’re getting out of the garden spot of Guatemala and leaving your bodyguard behind I guess and heading for the more dangerous area of Washington, D.C., the political swamp.

BUSHNELL: The job as Dean of the Leadership and Management School… a gift of the cosmos. The last three years turned out to be among the best of my career…. It was … management and crisis training divisions into the newly created Leadership and Management School—LMS.

The notion of leadership has changed dramatically in my lifetime and therefore yours. When I was a little girl I never could have dreamed of being a leader because the notion at the time was that you were either a born leader or you were not — it was not something that could be taught. Plus, with rare exception, leaders were men.

The leaders engaged with people from the top down, keeping a distance to maintain a certain aura, had access to information that others didn’t, and were deemed to have all of the answers. They would make the decisions for everyone else to implement. In return, they were given the attention, resources and respect from below.

With technological changes, new demographics in the workplace, globalization, specialization and a host of other differences in our world, new concepts of leadership have emerged. Among them is the notion that a number of leadership behaviors can be learned. Also, that leadership means motivating and enabling others to go in a certain direction. The effective leader leverages team’s efforts toward an accomplishment, rather than going it alone. This is a different notion of leadership….

The whole point of leadership, and why I have such passion about it, is to make it easier for the people who want to make a difference to do so. Without leadership, we will still attract smart and committed people but they will end up doing a job with one hand tied behind their back. It’s the loosening of the hands that my job was all about these last three years.

(Below, Ambassador Bushnell receives the Service to America Career Achievement Award in 2004, with CNN’s Judy Woodruff and State Department colleague and Embassy Nairobi survivor Stephen Nolan.)

 

 

 

No Good Deed – Cattle, the French, and Getting PNG’ed from Madagascar

While U.S. diplomatic missions attempt to build relationships with the nations in which they maintain embassies, these relationships don’t always work out. Sometimes, diplomats are PNG’ed or declared persona non grata – a nice way of saying they’ve been kicked out of the country. Such was the case with Ambassador Anthony Marshall.

While serving in Madagascar from 1969-71, Marshall worked with the government, the French, and some Americans to create a cattle project for the island. However, as well-meaning as the project was, it met with some resistance from the French, who were concerned about what the potential threat American success with the Malagasy could mean. Read more

The Reign of the Snake – The Seedy Tenure of Togo’s President Eyadema

Extravagant dinners with Dom Pérignon and caviar, rampant corruption, political assassinations, a starving populace. Togo had been a small jewel in West Africa in the 1960s, a tourist destination for the French, with fine hotels, a reputation for stability, and a bulwark against Communism. And then it all went to hell. General Gnassingbé Eyadema served as the President of Togo from 1967 to 2005 and was involved in two successful government coups before coming to power. He established the Rally of the Togolese People (RPT), culminating in an anti-communist regime led by his party. Eyadema is remembered as having one of the longest presidential reigns in African history, and for the lavish life he led throughout his rule. Read more

Celebrating the Leadership of America’s Ambassadors of African Descent

Ask any five people on an American college campus or maybe even on the streets of any major city, to name the first Black American that comes to their mind when they think of U.S. foreign affairs. I can almost guarantee that the majority of them will mention the names of either Secretaries of State, General Colin Powell or Dr. Condoleezza Rice. Those well-versed in U.S. diplomatic and foreign affairs may mention Dr. Ralph Bunche, who was the first Black American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his efforts in the Arab-Israeli conflict negotiations during his time at the United Nations. (At right, Ambassador Terence Todman with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall)

The careers of these three Black Americans are well documented, and they are among our most accomplished, recognizable (and rightly so) leaders where U.S. diplomatic and foreign affairs leadership are concerned. However, there are still many of their Black diplomatic peers and contemporaries who are less known, explored, or celebrated. One such important historical group is those who have served – and continue to serve – the United States as its leaders in official diplomatic missions, international organizations, and on designated global policy issues of critical national interest across the world – United States Ambassadors.

Carlton McLellan is a Senior Advisor at Global Ties U.S. and founder and President of the nonprofit consulting firm MYinternational, Inc. His Ph.D. is in international education policy studies from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. As a Senior Fellow at ADST, he focuses on educating, celebrating, and critiquing the lives and impacts of Black Americans who have held the rank of U.S. Ambassador, and also building the ADST’s Bunche Legacy Project, which seeks to education the public on the important contributions of Black/African Americans to U.S. diplomacy and foreign affairs.

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Prominent Black Ambassadors

The title “Ambassador” was first used in official U.S. diplomacy over 124 years ago, in 1893. It was given to the individual that the U.S. President appointed as the highest official diplomat and representative in a given country, which in that year happened to be the United Kingdom. Since that time, there have only been 151 Black American women or men (less than 7% of the nearly 2,200 total Americans appointed historically since 1893) who have officially held this distinguished position. (At left, Ertharin Cousin, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome from 2009-12; currently Executive Director for the World Food Programme)

These 151 Black Americans have served on 213 different occasions in over 100 ambassadorial postings worldwide; and approximately 40 of them have served multiple tours as U.S. Ambassador at different postings.

Among the current list of Black Americans who have officially held the position of Ambassador, 98 (65%) have been men, while 53 (35%) have been women. Geographically, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have hosted a Black American Ambassador most frequently (128 times or 60% of the total postings), with Liberia topping the country list with eight (8). The Caribbean has been the other active region with 13 Black American ambassadorial appointments; while the United Nations has also seen several Black Americans serve it as U.S. Permanent Representative with the rank of Ambassador, having hosted nine (9) across its portfolio of agencies.

Politically, Democratic presidents have appointed and successfully had a Black American confirmed as U.S. Ambassador by the U.S. Senate on 114 occasions, while their Republican counterparts have done so on 99 occasions. President Barack Obama was the most active and successful appointee of Black Americans to the ambassadorship, having done so 45 times. However, President George W. Bush was close behind with 44 successful appointments of Black Americans to the rank of Ambassador.

Professionally, Black American Ambassadors have come from a diverse background of disciplines and gone on to represent the United States as its Ambassador in an equally diverse array of postings. Many chose international affairs as their profession, as 85 (56%) have been in the U.S. Foreign Service (known as Foreign Service Officers) and often referred to informally as career appointees. However, 66 (44%) of the Black American Ambassadors have come from sectors such as business, medicine, law, academia, religion, community organizing, and other disciplines illustrating significant diversity in their backgrounds and training. Their classification is often referred to informally as non-career or political appointees.

It is not clear if it is because of the small and exclusive nature of the Black Ambassadors’ “club” – less than 7% of the number of all U.S. Ambassadors historically – or because historians and scholars have not yet seen the importance of a specific and focused exploration of the contributions of these Black leaders, but regardless of the reasons, many of the names, faces, and accomplishments of these 151 men and women are not well recognized, particularly in the Black community.

Exceptions might include Ambassador Andrew Young (United Nations, 1977) because of his work as a civil rights activist, or as Mayor of Atlanta helping to bring that city the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Those in the corridors of the State Department, or with broader diplomatic knowledge might know the names of Ambassadors: O. Rudolph Aggrey (Senegal and the Gambia, 1973; Romania, 1977); Aurelia Brazeal (Micronesia, 1990; Kenya 1993; Ethiopia 2002); Ronald Palmer (Togo, 1976; Malaysia, 1981; Mauritius, 1986); and Ruth Davis (Benin, 1992) because of their, and many of their other colleagues’  direct impacts on moving forward the agenda of a more representative Foreign Service.

But, lesser known are milestones such as:  Edward Dudley (Liberia, 1949) becoming the first Black American Ambassador; Clifton Wharton, Sr. (Norway, 1961) becoming the first Black American to be appointed U.S. Ambassador to a non-African country; and Patricia Roberts Harris (Luxembourg, 1965) becoming the first Black American woman to serve as U.S. ambassador (above right).

Ambassador Terence Todman achieved the amazing diplomatic feat of being appointed on six different occasions in six different ambassadorial postings (Chad, 1969; Guinea, 1972; Costa Rica, 1974; Spain, 1978; Denmark, 1983, and, Argentina, 1989), giving him the distinction of being the Black American with the most such leadership postings, and only second to one other U.S. Ambassador in history who had seven.

Just as impressive are the careers of Ambassador Edward Perkins (Liberia, 1985; South Africa, 1986; United Nations, 1992; Australia, 1993, at right) and Ambassador Johnny Young (Sierra Leone, 1989; Togo, 1994; Bahrain, 1997; Slovenia, 2001) – with four such appointments each in their Foreign Service careers. Later, Cindy Courville would become not only the first Black American to be appointed U.S. Ambassador to the African Union (2006), but the first American period. A few year later, in 2010 the three most powerful Americans within the United Nation’s structure, were Black women U.S. Ambassadors:  Susan Rice (U.S. Mission to the UN, New York, appointed 2009); Ambassador Betty King (U.S. Mission to the UN, Geneva, appointed 2010); and Ertharin Cousin.

In addition to these milestones, many Americans may not be aware of the significant roles that Black American Ambassadors have played in influencing high-profile and important international events. For instance, how many know that Ulric St. Clair Haynes, Jr., while U.S. Ambassador to Algeria from 1977 to 1981, was instrumental in the negotiations that ultimately led to the 1981 release of American hostages in Iran during the well-documented Iranian Hostage Crisis? How many know that Ambassador Todman was also one of the first high-level American diplomats sent to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where he led negotiations for the establishment of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana? And that while Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (the first Black Foreign Service Officer to become an Assistant Secretary), he helped negotiate the treaty that ultimately resulted in Panama’s assuming ownership of the Panama Canal, and later while U.S. Ambassador to Spain (appointed 1978) he was instrumental in the negotiations that led to Spain’s entrance into NATO.

How many know that Edward Perkins, with his 1986 appointment, was the first Black American to be appointed as Ambassador to apartheid South Africa? According to former Secretary of State George Shultz in his forward to the book Mr. Ambassador: Warrior of Peace, Ambassador Perkins’ performance in South Africa helped lay the groundwork for the end of apartheid. Perkins also played a vital role in the diplomatic process that brought about independence in Namibia.

How many know that James Joseph was the only U.S. Ambassador to South Africa (appointed 1995), who had the honor of arriving and presenting his diplomatic credentials to President Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s global human rights icon and first democratically elected leader? How many know that Ambassador Betty King (at right), while serving as U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), was the principal U.S. negotiator on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a global agreement to reduce poverty and human suffering through multilateral actions?

Vital Sources of Information

Although mainstream media has paid little (if any) attention to the accomplishments and influences of these Black leaders, publications geared toward a Black readership have thankfully attempted to keep us informed. For instance, the Afro American has printed stories about Black American leadership in diplomacy, such as article about four Black women ambassadors (October 28, 1986); or a recent articles about Ambassador Susan Rice’s return to the Obama foreign policy team in the White House (June 7, 2013).

Jet magazine has possibly been the most engaged over the years, beginning such coverage in the 1960s, with pieces on Black ambassadorial nominations, confirmations, and swearing-ins (i.e., Jet May 12, 1977 and November 15, 1999); stories of arrivals at ambassadorial postings (i.e., Jet October 5, 1998 and December 21,1998); stories of activities while serving as ambassadors (i.e., Jet June 23, 1977 and May 31, 1982); post-ambassadorial activities (i.e.,  Jet August 25, 1986 and August 6, 2001); awards they have received and celebrations of their service (i.e., Jet January 18, 1979 and April 9, 1990); and obituaries announcing the passing of these important Black leaders  (i.e., Jet  October 26, 1967 and May 14, 1990).

Similarly, Ebony magazine has tried to cover aspects of Black American Ambassadors. For instance, it has profiled Carl Rowan, U.S. Ambassador to Finland (appointed 1963) in its January 1964 issue (in photo, speaking at an NSC meeting in 1965); Hugh Smythe, Ambassador to Syria (appointed 1965) in its December 1966 issue; and Donald McHenry, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations with rank of Ambassador (appointed 1979) in its March 1980 issue.

More recently it covered stories related to Susan Rice and the challenges she faced as her name was considered as the next Secretary of State following her tenure as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in its November and December 2012 issues.

Other vital sources of information on Black American Ambassadors can be found through reading and hearing their own words in oral histories conducted by ADST and others. These oral histories are excellent sources of rich data and first-hand accounts from Black American Ambassadors, and provide insights into U.S. relations with countries and institutions around the world. Research and cultural centers also offer countless sources of resources and materials, both online and in person.

For instance, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City is one. There is also the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, which holds important papers such as those of Ambassador Todman. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University also houses the papers of Black American Ambassadors, such as those of Ambassador Ronald Palmer (at right), who served in Togo (1976), Malaysia (1981), and Mauritius (1986).  But, even with such rich data sources, what seems missing is more focused study of who these men and women were and what contributions they have made to Black History and beyond.

The professional diversity, common capacity for leadership, and varying personal characteristics of these individuals suggest that their stories as Black American leaders, appointed by the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, may be valuable to those in foreign policy and international affairs, and also to those interested in leadership studies, inspirational stories of achievement and success, or challenges and hurdles faced by those in such positions.

Since little is known of the personal journeys of many of these Black American diplomats, uncovering and illustrating more of their stories can serve as intellectual, personal, or professional motivation and stimulation for future generations. As we reflect on the history of Black contributions to American society during Black History Month, let’s make a late resolution:  to read, learn, and speak of Black contributions and leadership in U.S. diplomatic and foreign affairs, and we can start with speaking about those that have climbed to the leadership positions and guided the way:  Our American Ambassadors!