I expected Paul Richter’s The Ambassadors to be a well-written collection of “war stories.” I looked for tales of risk run by four of the best of the Foreign Service: Ryan Crocker, Robert Ford, Chris Stevens and Anne Patterson, a sort of hagiography of officers, three of whom are friends of long standing. It is all this. But what I had not expected, and found as well, was a solid depiction of diplomatic practice, the ways in which senior professionals advance national interests using the tools of diplomacy overseas. The book underscores the value of a professional diplomacy that nurtures top performers to take on the hardest jobs — exactly the sort of experience that has been heavily damaged by recent departures from the top ranks of the State Department. The book makes plain why it is in the nation’s interest for American diplomats to take more risks than a frightened Washington political culture is permitting.
Structurally, the book moves back and forth between the careers of its four main protagonists, focusing almost entirely on their ambassadorships, although Anne Paterson also gives some space to her work as the assistant secretary heading the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement between a tour in Colombia and her subsequent tours in Pakistan and Egypt. For Ryan Crocker, who was an ambassador five times, most of the focus is on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. For Robert Ford, the focus is Iraq and Syria; for Chris Stephens, Libya.
Each of the four was called upon to work in highly nontraditional settings: wars, threats, cooperation with the military. Yet, in these settings, so different from the popular conception of diplomacy, each drew on a vast array of the traditional skills and practices that are the mainstay of diplomatic life everywhere. This is a solid depiction of a professional ethos. Event by event, it amounts to an astonishing tale of courage and risks run; sometimes they succeeded, often they failed, but they never quit trying to serve America’s goals or to understand the foreigners they worked with. By no means were they limited, in the popular depiction, to “observing and reporting.” While they did that with exquisite skill, and often told Washington hard truths as a result, they were also major players in the formation of policy.
A professional ethos or, more simply, professionalism comes up repeatedly. Two examples from Crocker’s career stand out particularly. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he made his disagreement with the contemplated policy clear, to the point of being accused of disloyalty because he pointed out problems. Yet, when called upon to go into Iraq, he was very clear, telling his staff, “This is going to be the biggest fucking mistake that any of us will ever be involved in. We’re each going to have to make a decision whether we can support this, whether we can continue.” But he went on: “I’m a foreign-service officer; I’m going to serve my president.”
The model of service over preference arises often. Robert Ford gave up his ambassadorial title and one of the nicest ambassadorial residences in the Middle East to return for a fifth Iraq tour in a subordinate role. He was part of a buildup of other U.S. ambassadors who similarly agreed to forgo leading their embassies to help in a war when asked to do so. Ryan Crocker had no wish to return to Afghanistan after retirement, but he did when his president asked. During the first stage of the Libyan rebellion, Chris Stevens sneaked into country aboard a Greek cargo ship. He went back to Libya a second time because he knew more about the country than anyone else.
One of the most basic diplomatic skills is learning to listen and listen deeply enough to understand not just what the other party wants or needs, but how that knowledge can be used to advance U.S. goals. It is not about being liked but being effective, about how to succeed on one issue and leave relations in shape to succeed the next time. Each of the ambassadors described was an expert at this and, because of the quality of their knowledge, each gained stature within the Washington policy process.
In Pakistan, Crocker developed close relations with Pervez Musharraf and top leaders, enabling him to continue returning and pressing them to do more. This gained him respect in Washington, as well as Islamabad, and a central place in policy discussions. As one senior Washington officer put it in describing Crocker’s role in Washington policy discussions, “He was very much at the core. I thought that was a bit unusual and a reflection of the sense of people in Washington that he was that good.” In Iraq, Crocker’s policy influence was a major element in raising Iraqi refugee admissions to the United States from 1,600 in 2008 to 17,000 in 2009. Because of his influence, “Ryan really had (a key role) determining our relationship with Iraq,” said a senior State Department officer.
Working with Washington is complicated. When senior diplomats manage to be central policy players, they earn this role with knowledge and judgment. It’s not automatic, and it’s why we need a deeper senior bench than we have. This has been a problem for some time. Note how often the same officers were asked to take on the hardest missions, even called out of retirement to do so. The problem is getting worse, as we see today, with officers again called from retirement to serve in an acting capacity (chargé) in places as critical as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those called to serve are excellent, but the need to recall them illustrates how thin are the ranks of experienced officers at the most senior level.
There could not be many demonstrations of respect and importance in policy making more striking than in Crocker’s first Afghan tour, when he received no instructions. He was just told to go figure something out. This could not be done in an office behind a computer. At one early point, the Afghan warlord Pacha Khan Zadran threatened to block Tajik tanks from moving in to support U.S. troops. Crocker tracked down essential contacts and then spent the night “in a bullet-scarred, unheated building, arguing by the light of a single kerosene lamp” to work out a solution. He was drawn into settling tribal differences, understanding their points of view while pressing what needed to be done.
Another part of the art of diplomacy is knowing which issues to press in public and what to do in private. Each of these ambassadors understood and practiced these distinctions. In Colombia, Anne Patterson avoided public arguments and pushed human rights hard in private; she got results, but it took time. She did the same in Pakistan with frank advice to President Asif Ali Zardari: get back to Pakistan to manage the floods. Because of her stature, she played a role in working between President Zardari and the powerful chief of staff of the Pakistani army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. She was equally involved in military issues between the United States and Pakistan. When Richard Holbrooke took over as the special representative for Afghanistan, he wanted to replace Patterson. However, he got nowhere because she had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. That support was a direct illustration of Patterson’s stature.
Robert Ford had the same ability to get closely in touch with his hosts. He demonstrated this in Syria, Algeria and five tours in Iraq starting with his deployment to the provincial city of Najaf. He was my deputy chief of mission in Bahrain at the time, so I followed his reporting closely. Over and over he got it right but was held back by the team in Baghdad — a subject for another study. Ford built close relations with the principal Shia leaders. His ability to connect with Iraqis of all political persuasions was the basis for his providing essential advice, not always taken. Ambassador Lewis Paul “Jerry” Bremer recalled how in summer 2003, Ford argued for arresting the Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The CIA and the U.S. military opposed the decision and won. Later, Bremer said Ford’s judgment was right. Muqtada al-Sadr has become so prominent that one probably would not urge the same course of action now; however, in support of Ford’s judgment, it is important to note that at the time, Sadr had much less support, and several subordinates were poised to seek control of his movement.
Ford enjoyed his cultural immersion in Najaf, even though at one point he was nearly shot. Yet one of the penalties of having good advice ignored was that Ford left Iraq frustrated. Washington seemed to have little to no accurate information, and the military was painting a favorable picture of developments while bottling up other reporting and points of view. However, I had independently forwarded many of Ford’s emails to the Middle East Bureau, with the result that Ford was asked to return with Secretary of State Colin Powell, quoted as saying, “He’s the only one who understood what was coming.”
Back in Iraq, Ford was involved in all-out efforts to win the cooperation of Sunnis in the parliamentary elections. In the end, it didn’t work, as much because of interfactional disputes among the Sunni as because of their suspicion of us (I was in many of the meetings). Still, Ford was able to get some major Sunni leaders to enter politics. Harsh and contentious meetings, all in Arabic, were common but sometimes effective. It was tough work, and many of his contacts were killed. In Syria, he repeated the process of getting to know the opposition and, at the same time, continually pressing them to strive for achievable goals.
Often the price for knowledge was a willingness to take physical risks. Ford’s trip to Hama in Syria was widely reported, but there were other incidents too numerous to chronicle. Crocker went into danger repeatedly; from crawling out of the ruins of the bombed embassy in Beirut to surviving attacks on his house in Damascus and, later, his embassy in Kabul. Crocker regularly pushed back against the department’s fear of letting diplomats be out in public. He believed strongly that diplomats had to take risks if they were to do their jobs, to develop information and understand what was going on around them.
Anne Patterson worked with limited security in Colombia. She took the same view of the need to be in contact with diverse elements. As she said in a September 2019 article in the Foreign Service Journal, “The rise of risk aversion at the State Department has undermined U.S. diplomats’ ability to work effectively, with serious unintended consequences for national security... This makes it more difficult for us to foresee problems, much less shape solutions. Our aversion to risk means that we know less — in fact we are blind in critical countries.”
Taking risks doesn’t always work out. Perhaps Chris Stevens’s decisions got him killed. But these are the risks professional diplomats have to take if they are to build the understanding and judgment to make them a necessary addition to the policy process. Taking risks, not foolish ones but those necessary to judgment, is an essential part of the profession. By implication, although not a specific theme of the book, it is why the post-Benghazi, Washington-driven fear of risk is mistaken, and why it is hampering the successful pursuit of national objectives and the knowledge of foreign societies so critical to sound policy judgments.
Working with the U.S. military was also an essential element of the effectiveness of these ambassadors. Crocker had extremely effective relations with General David Petraeus in Iraq, shown both in their teamwork and in their joint testimony to Congress. The same quality characterized his cooperation with General John Allen in Afghanistan. Public attention tends to focus on the military. Yet, over and over, one sees how the diplomatic work supports, empowers and makes possible the military operations. In Iraq, Crocker insisted that diplomats and military get along. Such cooperation is by no means automatic. One weakness of our system of government is that there is no point below the president where the lines of civilian and military authority come together. When I served in Iraq and visited Afghanistan after retirement, I sometimes saw relations fray over personal and professional differences. The result was always a loss of effectiveness. In today’s messy world, there are no exclusive “lanes,” and cooperation is essential to achieving national goals. This is not automatic; cooperation takes work on both sides.
The ambassadors reviewed in this book were drawn to understanding the whole society, not just the government functionaries, yet they never lost their objectivity and willingness to report the weaknesses of those with whom cooperation is essential to achieving national goals. They weren’t always popular. Chris Stevens gave an honest analysis of weakness among rebel leaders. Crocker gave bad news to President Bush so often that the president nicknamed him “Sunshine,” but liked him anyway.
Richter notes, “They often had to deliver the bad news that Washington’s plans would take longer and cost more than expected, and sometimes wouldn’t work at all.” As George Kennan said “…diplomacy is always going to consist to some extent of serving people who do not know that they are being served, who do not know that they need to be served, who misunderstand and occasionally abuse the very effort to serve them.” That statement, written in 1961, should remind us that not all our perils are new. Often their advice was ignored. Patterson and Crocker understood how much time would be needed to achieve what we wanted in Afghanistan. Ford argued that providing arms and support for the Syrian rebels was the only way to build influence. But when their advice was rejected, they kept working. Ford was hammered in Congress for the lack of the very support he was privately urging on the administration. This, too, is professionalism, as is a clear-eyed understanding of the limits of U.S. power, but also the need for America to stay involved in the world.
Throughout The Ambassadors, one is reminded of why America needs a professional diplomatic service based on merit and sworn to the Constitution, not to blind loyalty to a leader, yet pledged to carry out the decisions of their elected leaders.