Chapter 1: The Best People for the Worst Places CHAPTER 1 The Best People for the Worst Places
On a mild day in February 2009, President Barack Obama appeared before 2,000 camouflage-clad Marines in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to announce plans to wind down the Iraq war. American and foreign audiences had been waiting for months to hear how the new president would deal with the six-year-old conflict, and his remarks drew worldwide attention. Almost unnoticed in the text was a line thanking a career diplomat who as ambassador to Iraq helped shape a successful effort to check the country’s bloody insurgency. Americans owed a debt of gratitude to Ryan C. Crocker, an “unsung hero” who had always sought the toughest assignments and was “an example of the very best our country has to offer,” Obama said.
Crocker and a small number of seasoned diplomats like him were central players throughout the long campaign that America waged in the greater Middle East in the decade and a half after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of 9/11, the country began dispatching waves of troops and civilian specialists to the Middle East and South Asia to try to overcome security threats and steady fractured societies. These ambassadors, practicing a new diplomacy of the front lines, became Washington, D.C.’s preeminent troubleshooters and primary links to foreign leaders. Presidents and secretaries of state sometimes heeded their advice and sometimes didn’t. But even when they chose a different path, they continued to seek out these ambassadors to ask their guidance and recruit them for new assignments. Although their names were unknown to most at home, they became a crucial line of national defense.
The American leaders these diplomats served never solved the puzzle of the greater Middle East. Two presidents of different parties blundered getting into conflicts and stumbled trying to exit or avoid them. They were overwhelmed by the dysfunction of the world’s most volatile region and buffeted by the pressures of U.S. domestic politics. Now Americans yearn for an end to the “forever wars” in the Muslim world. Yet the nation can’t retreat from the effort to stabilize weak countries. This mission, the foremost task of these diplomats, is more important than ever. Unstable lands continue to threaten—not only those in the Muslim world’s long arc of instability, but also in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and other regions. Washington needs to find ways to steady these countries using diplomacy and political and economic leverage, if not American armies. Left alone, they will menace their neighbors and the distant American homeland, too, with extremist violence, mass migration, economic turmoil, and transnational crime. The threat they pose remains among the most urgent of security challenges.
The story of these diplomats’ experiences offers a window onto the history and lessons of America’s long struggle. Dispatched repeatedly to the most important and difficult posts, these foreign service hands saw the conflicts from all angles. They met with warlords and terrorist chiefs and witnessed bloody civil strife from street corners. They heard the whispered secrets of Arab rulers and took part in White House strategy sessions. They did not have all the answers, they are the first to admit. But through their many tours they learned at closest range what happened in embattled capitals and on the far sides of the blast walls and razor wire. They saw which of Washington’s decisions brought progress and which led to disaster. After decades in the region, they returned home with an unmatched understanding of the capabilities and limits of American power.
The diplomats were present as the new era of U.S. involvement began after the shock of the September 11 attacks. As years passed and Washington’s interests in the region shifted, they moved from capital to capital and remained at the center of the action.
The first American intervention came within a month of 9/11 when U.S., British, and Afghan forces routed the Taliban government, which had provided a haven for the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the United States. Within days after the Taliban fled the capital of Kabul, a small landing party of U.S. diplomats arrived there to help set up the replacement government that had been organized by world powers.
Eighteen months later, 177,000 U.S. and allied troops invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, whom they incorrectly believed to be developing nuclear arms that threatened the world. Saddam’s fall left the country in chaos and opened years of bloody struggle among Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups. The Pentagon was first put in charge of running postwar Iraq, but U.S. diplomats took an ever-larger role over the next eight years in efforts to build a functioning state.
By the end of the decade Washington’s attention turned back to South Asia, where the Taliban and allied militant groups again threatened the weak Afghan government from the countryside and havens in neighboring Pakistan. The Bush and then Obama administrations added U.S. troops and turned to a new style of counterinsurgency warfare that relied on armed drone aircraft and special forces troops. U.S. diplomats helped guide the new war in the shadows.
In 2011, Washington’s attention shifted to a wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East that came to be called the Arab Spring. In February 2011, crowds of thousands in Cairo’s streets forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler for the past thirty years. For the next two years U.S. diplomats tried to steer the most populous Arab country toward a more democratic government. But in the summer of 2013 the military seized power from a democratically elected Islamist government and imposed the harshest rule the country has had in modern times.
In 2011 the Obama administration was also drawn into a revolution in Libya, which had been ruled since 1969 by the erratic Muammar el-Qaddafi. U.S. forces joined a Western bombing campaign that protected the rebels from Qaddafi and enabled them by August to topple his government. But after the war ended and world powers turned their attention elsewhere, the country descended into bloody factional fighting and lawlessness that continues.
The Obama administration sought to avoid a large military role in the civil war that broke out in Syria in the summer of 2011. As the war became the most devastating of the new century, a divided administration carried on a prolonged internal debate about military involvement. It chose to focus instead on unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a peace between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel opposition. By the close of Obama’s second term, the Assad government and its Iranian and Russian allies had gained the upper hand in the war.
The Obama administration found getting out of wars was harder than getting into them. After withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, the administration was compelled to return some forces to the region in 2014 to halt the advance of a new insurgent group that was seizing land in Iraq and Syria. The so-called Islamic State, heir to the Sunni insurgents who ignited civil war after the Iraq invasion, controlled at its peak territory as large as Britain. U.S., Iraqi, and allied forces gradually reclaimed the land. President Donald Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on bringing an end to the Middle Eastern wars, was still wavering in the third year of his presidency on how quickly to withdraw the last U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
The diplomats sent on the Middle Eastern missions were a small part of the more than 3 million Americans on the expeditions. The vast majority were military, but they also included intelligence officers, aid specialists, drug agents, and others. The biggest frontline embassies—in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—were sprawling frontier forts with thousands in staff from more than thirty U.S. agencies. In 2008, when the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was the largest in U.S. history, the country was host to 170,000 U.S. troops and 154,000 U.S. contractors, but had only 140 officers handling the core diplomatic work.
Yet the top foreign service officers were mainsprings of these missions. In battle zones where most in the U.S. military knew nothing of the locals, the ambassadors understood language and custom and could lead Washington around the blind curves of local politics. They were confidants of local leaders, able to steer them through crises. They sat with U.S. generals and spy chiefs to decide how to wage war, as well as how to end it. When Washington had no plan for dealing with a country on the edge, they could improvise.
This style of statecraft did not resemble diplomacy as outsiders imagined it—a decorous pursuit carried on in the gilt halls of foreign ministries and at glittering dinner parties. The foreign service officers who thrived in sandstorms and the smoke of battle became known among insiders as “expeditionary diplomats.” They were the best people for the worst places.
Ryan Crocker was one of them. The son of an Air Force bomber pilot from Spokane, Crocker became a rising star in the U.S. Foreign Service with his first assignment, in provincial Iran in 1972. Before the September 11 attacks, Crocker was already a three-time ambassador, with experience tangling with Saddam Hussein’s regime and Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian police state. He was nearly killed in the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. After the Taliban was ousted in 2001, Crocker was sent to run the U.S. embassy in Kabul and help organize a fragile new Afghan government. He was among the first U.S. diplomats detailed to Baghdad after the 2003 invasion to help run the chaotic occupation. In 2004 he was appointed ambassador to Pakistan, which had become a key player in the fight against Islamist militants. President Bush sent him back to Iraq in 2007 as ambassador and partner to General David Petraeus as Bush began a high-stakes strategy to suppress the insurgency with a surge of U.S. troops. In 2011 he was brought out of retirement by President Obama to again lead the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan and to help lay the groundwork for an exit from America’s longest war.
Another drawn to the toughest jobs was Anne W. Patterson, an Arkansan who learned to wrap Washington’s demands in the soft accents of her native state. Patterson made her reputation leading the embassy in Colombia from 2000 to 2003 when the government in Bogotá was buckling under a drug-financed Marxist insurgency. The multibillion-dollar aid program overseen by Patterson seemed to bring it back from the brink. The assignment made her reputation and earned her appointments to a series of the State Department’s toughest and most important posts. In 2007 she was made ambassador to Pakistan, replacing Crocker, when Washington was expanding its campaign against the country’s militants. Patterson was dispatched as ambassador to post-revolutionary Egypt in 2011, at a desperate moment when the Obama administration was divided on how to promote democracy while preserving an essential alliance. In 2013, when her tour was done, she served for three years as the top State Department official for the Middle East.
Robert S. Ford, the son of a Colorado geologist, was first noticed by the State Department brass for the insightful reports he wrote while a one-man provincial government in Iraq in 2003, in the dark early days of the U.S. occupation. Like Crocker, Ford ended his first Iraq tour in despair over the chaotic mission and vowed never to return. But his bosses wanted him back and he accepted four more assignments in the country. As the embassy’s top political official and then its deputy chief, he decoded Iraqi politics for Washington and found ways to open a dialogue with the insurgency’s supporters. In 2011, Ford earned a worldwide reputation as the American ambassador who stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad when Assad began slaughtering protesters at the start of the Syrian civil war. Ford fled Damascus in early 2012 amid threats from the regime, but he continued for two years in Washington as the administration’s chief point man on Syria.
J. Christopher Stevens became the country’s most well-known frontline diplomat when he was killed in the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. A charismatic Californian, Chris Stevens served three tours in Libya, which for Americans had long been unknown and hostile terrain. In his first tour, which began in 2007, Stevens sought to improve ties with a country that had been for four decades one of America’s chief foes in the region. His second tour came during the 2011 Western air campaign against the Qaddafi government, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enlisted him to sneak into the country to serve as Washington’s link to the Libyan rebels. The following year, after Qaddafi’s fall, Stevens returned as U.S. ambassador to try to steady the country. After he and three other Americans were killed in the terrorist attack, Stevens’s name became a partisan war cry for Republicans who blamed Clinton. In Benghazi’s aftermath, the State Department tightened security rules and made diplomats stick closer to their fortified embassies. But inside the diplomatic service he remained a symbol of the opposite philosophy: to do the job right, diplomats needed to get past the barricades and make face-to-face contact.
These four diplomats crossed paths repeatedly. Ford worked as Crocker’s number two in Iraq after serving with him at the start of his career as a junior officer in Egypt. Patterson succeeded Crocker as ambassador to Pakistan when Crocker was sent to Iraq in 2007. Crocker had a long friendship with Stevens, starting when they both worked in Washington in the 1980s.
All four had long experience in the kind of assignments that led Ronan Farrow, a State Department official turned journalist, to write that the diplomat’s life could have the feel of “Thanksgiving dinner with your most difficult relatives, only lasting a lifetime and taking place in the most dangerous locations on earth.”1
U.S. diplomats in the Middle East had faced risk since the day in 1786 when consul general Thomas Barclay arrived in Morocco to begin negotiating with the Barbary pirates. But this generation of foreign service officers lived with danger like none before. In this era American diplomats were always on the extremists’ kill lists. Like the troops working alongside them, they lived with the daily reality of truck bombs, rocket barrages, and sniper fire. Since 2001 there have been more than four hundred “significant” attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel, data from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security suggest.2
Terrorists have killed more than 166 diplomatic personnel, contractors, and local hires since the 1970s.3
In 2012, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen offered 6.6 pounds of gold to anyone who could assassinate the U.S. ambassador, Gerald M. Feierstein. U.S. diplomats are injured or killed far more often than American generals.
Even before 9/11, top State Department officials understood that the diplomatic corps was going to have to find new ways to deal with the growing threats from disorderly states that were breeding grounds for extremism. Marc Grossman, the top manager of the Foreign Service in 2000 and 2001, proposed creating a corps of rough-riding diplomats who would be the civilian equivalent of the military’s elite Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Delta Force. They would be an advance guard tasked to do more than the traditional observing and reporting. “We were going to have to find ourselves a group of people who were going to go to the hardest places and do the hardest things,” Grossman said. Grossman’s boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the three secretaries who followed all gave priority to this new diplomacy of crisis.
Three of these diplomats, Crocker, Ford, and Stevens, rose through the ranks as part of the State Department’s tight-knit community of Mideast specialists, sometimes called Arabists. Patterson began as a Latin American specialist. But she lived in Saudi Arabia for three years, early in her career, because her husband, David, was a foreign service officer and Mideast hand.
The Mideast specialists had a celebrated history and group culture. They were drawn by the romance of a region that seemed full of nobility and savagery and infinitely far from home. In recent decades the Middle East was the world’s most turbulent region and the Mideast bureau was always at the center of the action. Top State Department officials spent their days worrying about the multiple wars that raged at any moment, Arab-Israeli frictions, counterterrorism campaigns, civil upheavals, and ethnic strife. About half the paper flowing to the department’s mahogany-paneled executive floor was about the Middle East. Young foreign service officers were told that the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, known to insiders as the “mother bureau,” was a club that admitted only the best. Mediocre talents would not stand up to the demands and pace of these jobs. “It was drilled into us: you’re part of an elite group,” said former ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, who began his career as a Mideast specialist and rose to number three in the department. “And that’s what drew me.”
The State Department’s Mideast specialists were a small tribe, a fraction of a foreign service that itself is compact. Of the 75,000 State Department employees, only about 8,000 are the so-called foreign service generalists who do the core diplomatic work. Until recently that was fewer than the number of musicians in U.S. military bands. Only a handful speak the difficult language of Arabic well enough to conduct top-level diplomacy. The Mideast hands have long been known as proud, loyal to each other, and a bit insular. They see themselves as diehards who work long hours in blast-furnace heat, risking dysentery and terrorist attack while their colleagues in more stable regions knock off at dusk for cocktails. (Other bureaus have a different view, of course.)
The chaos was the attraction. Former ambassador A. Elizabeth Jones, a Mideast veteran, recalled a colleague telling her: “I want to be able to go down the hall and say, ‘I’ll be goddamned—guess what’s happened now?’ If you can’t say that, what’s the point?” Even after years in the region, the Mideast hands remain fascinated by its romance. When they arrive in a new country, they gravitate toward the tribal leader in a flowing gold-trimmed robe rather than the government functionary who might have more influence. “You go into the Foreign Service to meet a sheikh, not some bureaucrat in an ill-fitting polyester suit,” said former ambassador Gordon Gray III.
Their role as regional experts didn’t always make them popular. They often had to deliver bad news that Washington’s plans would take longer and cost more than expected, and sometimes wouldn’t work at all. Often their superiors didn’t want to hear it.
Under the code of the Foreign Service, the diplomats were entitled to disagree with top officials during initial debates over policy. Once the policy was set, they were supposed to salute smartly and help figure out how to make the approach succeed. They were part of a nonpartisan professional service, and that’s the way it was supposed to work.
That was sometimes easier said than done. All of the ambassadors wrestled with their consciences over what they considered disastrous policy blunders. They always had a choice. They could quit, as some diplomats and military officers did. Or they could stay on the job, hoping they would make more of a contribution by using their skill to make the policies work. Crocker and Stevens came close to quitting over the Iraq invasion. Stevens refused repeated requests to serve in Iraq, at some risk to his career. Patterson considered joining a new management at the Pentagon in 2017 in hopes of setting right mistakes of the Obama administration. Ford, after years of misgivings, finally decided he could no longer support administration policy and had to quit.
The rule requiring foreign service officers to support all policies “is simple in concept—a lot harder in practice,” Crocker said after he retired.4
Other Americans who risked all on the front lines won acclaim for their contributions. The exploits of generals, spies, and sharpshooters were chronicled in bestselling books, movies, and TV series. But the complicated business of steering relations between nations didn’t stir the public’s passions. It never had. “There are no ticker tape parades for diplomats,” said Richard N. Haass, who headed the State Department’s policy planning office under Secretary of State Powell.5
When the Trump administration arrived in 2017, the Foreign Service’s problem wasn’t indifference but hostility. Skeptical of traditional foreign policy and its practitioners, the Trump team sought to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent in its first year, 25 percent in its second, and 23 percent in its third. It shuttered offices that had been occupied by diplomats and gave top foreign policy posts to military officers and cable news personalities. Two years into the administration, almost one half of the State Department’s top jobs remained unfilled.6
It was “perhaps the foreign service’s greatest crisis,” Crocker and former ambassador Nicholas Burns warned in an op-ed column.7
Among those who had been closest to the action, there was no doubt about the value of the diplomats at the battle’s edge. The presidents and secretaries of state who preceded Trump had relied on them as caretakers of the most sensitive overseas relationships and consulted them before making the weightiest foreign policy decisions. During emergencies they talked to them many times a day. They enlisted them, because of their nonpartisan credibility, to sell controversial policies to a skeptical Congress. When these diplomats left the service, the top administration officials continued to seek their advice and sometimes tried to rehire them or recruit them for secret missions.
As the presidents knew, you had to hear their take on the mess in the Middle East. You couldn’t understand it without them.