America’s Other Army

Interviews with diplomats in the line of fire -- an exclusive excerpt from the new book America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy.


The mob that had gathered at a soccer stadium descended on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, determined to avenge Washington’s recognition of Kosovo — a Serbian province until five days earlier — as an independent state. On that day in February 2008, the Serbian riot police stationed in front of the embassy at the request of U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter conveniently vanished just before the hundreds-strong horde arrived. "The police marched away, got on buses, and drove away, so when the hoodlums came there was no one there," Munter recalled.

A part of the embassy was soon ablaze. "One of the protesters who was drunk managed to get in and burned himself to death," Munter said. Several others climbed the fence. The U.S. Marines guarding the compound had every right to shoot, but they managed to drive the intruders away with warnings and instructions instead. "I was very impressed that the Marines knew how to make judgment calls as well as to be defenders," Munter, a Foreign Service officer since 1985 and until recently the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, told me in an early 2012 interview in Islamabad.

U.S. diplomats saw the embassy attack coming. And as a result of their preparations, no Americans were hurt during the incident. Only a small crew, including the ambassador, was still in the building at the time of the assault. As soon as the protesters tried to penetrate the compound, some of the Americans began destroying millions of dollars’ worth of communications equipment, which is a standard procedure in such cases, Munter said. The next day, about three-quarters of the embassy staff and all family members were evacuated out of Belgrade. "We were fairly sure there would be an angry reaction" to the recognition of Kosovo "and had made all necessary preparations," he said. "We had already arranged for hotel rooms and space at the embassy in Zagreb," the Croatian capital. "We even had space at the American school in Zagreb for our kids."

Most diplomats, however, aren’t so lucky. Preparing for a specific attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility overseas is almost never possible, and evacuations are rarely as orderly as the one in Belgrade. The events in Libya on the night of Sept. 11 this week were a tragic reminder of that reality. When the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi came under attack, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was trapped in the burning building and reportedly died of smoke inhalation. Three other U.S. officials were also killed during the assault. A breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that same day did not result in any deaths, but the incident significantly heightened tensions between the White House and the Egyptian government.

Munter, who didn’t abandon his embassy in Belgrade in 2008, wanted those responsible for the attack to be punished. Once evidence surfaced that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had personally approved the assault, Munter decided that he was "going to ensure the prime minister was gone" and that "the best revenge was making sure this guy lost the next election," which was less than five months away.

Munter determined that the key to weakening Kostunica’s 2008 reelection chances was taking away the support of the Socialist Party of Serbia, once led by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Its new leader was Ivica Dacic, who had once challenged Milosevic for the top post. "We got him to flip over and join the pro-Europeans," Munter said. "We didn’t pay him off; we just persuaded him. What he really wanted was international legitimacy. So we got [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister at the time, and George Papandreou, the future Greek prime minister, who ran Socialist International at the time, to invite Dacic to visit them abroad, where they wined and dined him. They told him they would let him in [to the Socialist International] if he joined the pro-European forces, and he did. He put a knife in Kostunica’s back."

Munter got his revenge: Kostunica’s party lost the election. Dacic’s party didn’t join Socialist International, the global organization of left-of-center political parties, but he became deputy prime minister and rose to prime minister four years later.

Like Stevens and thousands of other U.S. diplomats, Munter has served in places much more dangerous than Serbia, including Iraq and Pakistan. As he prepares to retire from the Foreign Service after 27 years, the longtime diplomat would like Americans to know that modern diplomacy is not all glitz and glamour.

While U.S. diplomats still spend time in the company of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers — and remain some of the most sought-after people in foreign capitals — they also contend with security threats, the stresses involved in constant relocation, and the challenges of being a jack-of-all-trades in a foreign land. I have interviewed some 600 Foreign Service members at more than 50 embassies and consulates in the course of research for my new book, America’s Other Army. While most said they could not imagine doing anything else, many also added that being constantly on the move and far from home means giving up much of what most Americans take for granted.

American diplomats risk their lives just by showing up for work every day. During my travels researching the book, I heard many stories about carjackings, kidnappings, robberies, and diplomats being held at gunpoint. Some have been murdered. On New Year’s Day in 2008, John Granville, a 33-year-old officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was fatally shot in Sudan while returning from a holiday party at the British Embassy. In 2002, Laurence Foley, 60, also with USAID, was gunned down in front of his home in Jordan. In 1968, John Gordon Mein, 54, became the first U.S. ambassador to be assassinated while in office when he was shot by rebels in Guatemala. Stevens in Libya was the first ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979, when Adolph Dubs died in Afghanistan.

Philip Frayne, a Foreign Service officer whom I first met in Cairo in 2003, said he was driving to a meeting in Yemen in 1993 when his embassy vehicle was carjacked by "three guys with Kalashnikovs" pointed at him. "I asked them in Arabic if I could get my bag from the back seat, but by then they were already in the car and driving away," Frayne recalled. "About six months later, someone from the embassy security office saw the car in the parking lot of the presidential palace — the diplomatic license plates hadn’t been changed. I don’t think it was taken by the president’s men, but it was probably taken by tribesmen and later traded or confiscated by the presidential forces." That same year, Frayne’s boss in Yemen, public affairs officer Haynes Mahoney, was kidnapped for a week.

Laura Clerici, a now-retired officer I met in Mexico City in 2003, said she was "ambushed by bandits" in Guatemala in the late 1970s while driving with three colleagues and six children. "When they saw that the guy from the defense attaché’s office had a handgun, they started shooting at us," Clerici said. "Fortunately, all they wanted was our money, but when we got back, I absolutely fell apart." Still, work in such places gave "richness to my life that would have never happened, no matter what I had done in Washington," she said. "I’ve had one of the most exciting lives anybody could possibly want."

Top diplomats are the U.S. government’s version of firefighters: They move around the globe rapidly, from flash point to flash point. Just when they have managed one crisis, it’s on to the next assignment. Two years before taking up his post in Serbia, for instance, Munter had led a team that taught Iraqi provincial authorities how to govern effectively and trained local judges how to conduct trials and other court proceedings — amid frequent shootings, roadside bombs, and rockets.

U.S. diplomats are charged with an extraordinarily diverse array of assignments — and they have the stories to prove it. In 2008, around the time Munter worked to evacuate the Belgrade Embassy, Yuri Kim was in North Korea. She accompanied the New York Philharmonic during a rare concert tour in the communist country. Kim had helped negotiate the unprecedented visit, which Washington hoped would improve Pyongyang’s cooperation in efforts to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. She was involved in those efforts as well. This year, now in Turkey, Kim tried to persuade Ankara to use its influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the Damascus regime’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Also this year, in another one of Turkey’s neighbors, Iraq, David Lindwall worked on deals to sell U.S. military aircraft and other equipment worth billions of dollars to the government in Baghdad. A few years earlier, on the other side of the world, Lindwall had participated in successful efforts to reform Guatemala’s previously corrupt child-adoption system, which many Americans use, and to improve child nutrition. In Haiti in 2010, he managed the search for missing U.S. citizens after the country’s devastating earthquake and helped the local government recover from the disaster. Lindwall’s house collapsed from the seismic shock — had he been there at the time, he would have certainly been crushed to death

Gavin Sundwall’s first time in a Panamanian jail was in 1998. Two Satanist killers sat across from him — one staring at Sundwall with menacing green eyes, as if sizing him up for execution. Fortunately for Sundwall, he was just visiting the criminals, who were U.S. citizens, to make sure they were being treated humanely and to relay any messages to their families back home. Early this year, Sundwall, now in Kabul, worked to put out major public relations fires after U.S. service members burned copies of the Quran and another soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, in cold blood.

It’s hard to imagine how all these people can be diplomats. How can teaching effective governance, participating in nuclear negotiations, organizing a cultural event, reforming a child-adoption system, selling weapons, recovering from a natural disaster, visiting prisoners, and fixing public relations problems be part of the same profession?

Welcome to the U.S. Foreign Service.

Given the United States’ expansive global role, it should come as no surprise that America’s diplomats have to take on an ever-wider variety of tasks during their careers. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy lays out the core national interests that an American diplomat is charged with upholding — the security of the United States, the country’s prosperity, and the values it stands for (human rights, democracy, and equality). These interests are so fundamental that there is usually political agreement on them regardless of which political party is in power. Another document, the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, elaborates on the importance of the international system to U.S. interests. It says that to ensure the security of the United States, the entire world has to be secure and stable because today’s threats, such as terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and pandemic disease, are "global, interconnected, and beyond the power of any one state to resolve."

"We cannot expect to be protected by our geographic position, which historically has been such an advantage for America — I think Sept. 11 demonstrated that conclusively," Clinton told me. "In order to maximize the chances that we will enjoy security and tranquility here at home, we have to be in effect the chairman of the board of the world — to try to get friends and allies to work with us, to mitigate problems, to bring about solutions that neutralize or prevent nonstate actors, as well as rogue states, from taking actions that put the lives and property of our people and our friends and allies at risk."

Got that? For the United States to be truly secure and prosperous, the whole world has to be secure and prosperous — and that is "the world we seek," according to the National Security Strategy. At the same time, the White House recognizes "the world as it is" and acknowledges that the U.S. government must deal with it. This is where the U.S. diplomats come in: It’s their job to reconcile the sometimes contradictory goals of protecting American interests in the short term while also — somehow — working to reshape the world into a more secure and prosperous place for future generations.

Munter’s mobile phone rang at 3 a.m. Sleep was the last thing on his mind, so he answered the call. "We hear there has been a helicopter crash. Was it one of yours?" the high-ranking Pakistani official asked. Munter, now the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, could not answer the question — not because he was uninformed, but because he was sworn to secrecy, at least for another few hours.

It was May 2, 2011, and Munter had just watched a live video feed of the raid that killed the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, just 30 miles from Munter’s location in Islamabad. But he was not allowed to say a word about it to the Pakistani government — as had been the case for months — until the official announcement by President Barack Obama in Washington.

Keeping the secret had been easy compared with Munter’s next challenge — repairing the already tense U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Those ties had already been strained to their breaking point about three months earlier, when an undercover CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, fatally shot two Pakistanis in what he claimed was self-defense. In the days after bin Laden’s death, it fell on Munter and his colleagues at the embassy to explain to the Pakistani government and military why they had been kept in the dark about a foreign military operation on their own territory.

Several days after the operation, Munter was in the office of Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army’s powerful chief of staff. Kayani was seething. Munter had just handed him a démarche from Washington with "a list of things" the Obama administration wanted the Pakistani Army to do in the wake of the bin Laden raid. The U.S. government felt that now it had more leverage to secure better cooperation from the Pakistanis in the fight against extremists hiding in Pakistan, Munter said. The Pakistani government, having been kept in the dark, was still stunned by the raid, and Kayani knew that accepting the U.S. demands would be seen as capitulating to the Americans.

So he "tossed the piece of paper" at the ambassador and asked him to leave. "I’ve rarely been insulted to my face as a diplomat, but he just threw me out of his office," Munter said. "’Is this the way you treat people when they are down?" he recalled the general asking. "He is not a rude man, but it was about as rude as he gets."

A U.S. diplomat’s relations with his host country do not have to be good at any cost — but they should at least be business-like and respectful, so the two countries can work together when necessary. The key ingredient in any relationship, of course, is trust. That was exactly what Munter had tried to build with Kayani for months before the bin Laden raid — not for the sake of having a good relationship, but because the Pakistani Army’s cooperation could help save American lives. Thousands of al Qaeda militants are believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan, posing a threat to the U.S. troops on the other side of the border. Because al Qaeda "can attack the homeland," it is "vital" to eliminate the threat, Munter said.

The bin Laden and Davis episodes are telling examples of how short-term U.S. goals in a foreign country can clash with the United States’ long-term mission. Similar examples can be found around the world, including in Russia and China, where Washington has to play a careful balancing act between its advocacy of human rights and democracy, and the help it needs from Moscow and Beijing to address strategic issues, such as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

"I would do the bin Laden operation exactly the same way again," Munter said. "It was worth it, and the president had made the calculation that it was worth it. But let’s not kid ourselves: It did damage the relationship very badly. There is a set of assumptions when you build a relationship, and when you talk with people, there has to be someone willing to listen. When that collapses, running an embassy and trying to get things done is very difficult, which is why this job is the hardest I’ve had in the Foreign Service by orders of magnitude."

Nicholas Kralev is a former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent and author of America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. To contact Kralev or for more information about the book, go to AmericasOtherArmy.com.