'The Ambassadors'

“The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines”

By Paul Richter

352 pages, $28

Those who encounter the upper ranks of Foreign Service generalists, some 8,000 officers who dominate the State Department, realize over time that these people resemble the military more than one might think.

They are mission-driven, patriotic, hierarchical, rank-conscious and risk-accepting. They have the service ethos of the soldier, and often a similar disdain for those who have not given their careers to an often demanding and occasionally capricious bureaucratic master. They include more than a few former soldiers, some disillusioned idealists, near-professors, onetime hippies and a few ornery individualists — as well as the occasional careerist and megalomaniac.

By and large they are an admirable lot, whose courage and dedication are rarely appreciated by the citizens they represent at home and abroad in 276 posts, including 170 embassies, many in remote and dangerous places.

To right that injustice, Paul Richter has examined the careers of four ambassadors: Ryan Crocker (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon), Robert Ford (Syria, Algeria), Anne Patterson (Egypt, Pakistan, Colombia, El Salvador) and Christopher Stevens (Libya). These were all members of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which Richter characterizes as the best of the best — a notion that would cause State’s Europeanists, in particular, who believe with some warrant that they helped win the Cold War, to bristle. These are four parallel lives rather than a single story, focused on the period after 9/11 and until the age of Trump.

There is a bit of absurd romanticism in this tale — T.E. Lawrence makes several appearances as a reference point and an inspiration, where he was, in fact, a poseur and fantasist who did infinitely less to evict the Turks from the Middle East than did units of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. And the portrait is one-sided: While there is evidence here and there of conversations with others who served in government at the same time, there is not much of a picture, let alone an empathetic one, of bureaucratic opponents in the military or the White House. A good deal of this is history-as-told-to, rather than history explored from several points of view.

Richter does periodically strive for balance, particularly in the story of Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who was killed at the Benghazi consulate on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. He describes Stevens’ unwillingness to accept a Special Forces detail offered by Gen. Carter Ham of Africa Command, as well as his almost absurd acceptance of risk, which was far more responsible for the tragedy than the imagined sins of Hillary Clinton.

“The Ambassadors” is an important and illuminating read, which with “The Back Channel,” the memoir of another Near Eastern Affairs veteran, William Burns, has much to teach about diplomacy in the post-9/11 era.

If Richter unreservedly admires one of his subjects more than the others, it is Crocker, and no diplomat of his generation deserves it more. Those who served with him saw Crocker sacrifice his health to his country’s service. He thought the Iraq War was folly — yet he accepted an appointment as ambassador to try to undo the messes created by the government’s early, calamitous errors in its occupation policy. In Afghanistan twice (once immediately after the overthrow of the Taliban, once at the end of the first term of the Obama administration) and in Iraq he proved superbly talented at understanding, persuading, cajoling, arm-twisting and negotiating. He worked alongside military commanders of varying talents, doing his best in harness with Gen. David Petraeus, the foremost soldier of his generation, and together they turned Iraq around during 2007-2008. If Crocker’s story cannot inspire a young man or woman with the nobility of diplomatic service, nothing can.

Inevitably, Richter’s book, shaped as it so largely is by his subjects’ and their friends’ accounts, takes their worldview as its anchor. Not entirely, to be sure: He seems surprised by Stevens’ refusal to serve in Iraq because of his opposition to the war — a stance driven not by fear but by rejection of a political decision. It is a breach in the self-imposed discipline of the Foreign Service that was and is difficult for outsiders to accept.

Crocker, for one, did not. One of Crocker’s most admirable characteristics was his willingness to serve his country in the true spirit of Stephen Decatur’s famous (and oft misquoted and misunderstood) toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong.”

To admire the diplomats on the front lines intelligently means also to understand that they, like professors and engineers and lawyers, have their own déformation professionnelle. The default instinct of the diplomat is to engage — not to storm out of a negotiation or give up hope in the power of persuasion. This is generally but not always valid. As Lincoln and Churchill both believed, there are times when it is indeed a mistake to talk with your enemy. Ambassadors may occasionally threaten but rarely urge their government to deliver retribution, and in an era of bullied diplomats, sacked embassies and murdered ambassadors, that may have been unfortunate.

I witnessed one telling episode recounted in this book: the hasty decision by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq to take on the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were rampaging in Basra. Crocker (like Petraeus) was disconsolate. At a meeting of the National Security Council, the secretaries of state and defense were grim. But President George W. Bush, much belittled then and since, declared that Maliki was acting like a head of government should; that he wanted to take his country back; that the policy of the United States government would be to ensure his success; and that he did not want to hear any second-guessing of the Iraqi leader.

Bush proved to be entirely correct, and Maliki’s counterpunch successful. The episode is a reminder that diplomats do foreign relations, which is a delicate and difficult art — not to be confused, however, with foreign policy. That is a larger undertaking altogether, to which diplomats contribute but in which politicians and their subordinates must lead.

Richter’s ambassadors had their moments under the klieg lights of publicity. But their qualities are hardly unique. One of the finest Foreign Service officers I ever met was soft-spoken Lynne M. Tracy, our principal officer in Peshawar, Pakistan, whose cables home, reflecting her deep local knowledge, were far more useful than intelligence reports. After months of mounting threats to her, on Aug. 26, 2008, while she was pulling out of her fortified home, gunmen riddled her car with bullets. She and her driver survived. She went to work, calmed her rattled staff, and — although she had to camp out in her office — stayed on for another year, doing her job. She richly deserved, and two years later received, an award for heroism.

And today, she is still on the job, in another hard place.