The press reports that amid growing unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR), the US has evacuated our Embassy in Bangui. The mention of the Central African Republic has triggered a long-suppressed memory with which I will now bore the six regular readers of this blog.
I worked at State's Political-Military bureau in an office that handled international peacekeeping, demining, and non-combatant evacuations. We, in other words, had as one of our duties to get American citizens out of harm's way when a country began to implode. Much of our business, as you might expect, involved Africa, and working with the very poorly run and staffed African Affairs bureau at State. This bureau, at least then, even more than the Western Hemisphere bureau, served as a dumping ground for low quality FSOs, former Peace Corps volunteers, and struggling AID officers, apparently in the belief that they could do little damage to US interests. It also served as a bastion of ultra-liberal Democrats who believed that enormous quantities of aid to Africa should comprise the focus of US international policies. Anyhow, in sum, we all dreaded working with the Africa bureau.
My office had about two dozen persons, almost evenly split between military and FSOs, with one or two civil servants thrown in. I had charge of the civilian side of the office, and a superb Army colonel ran the military side. We got along very well, sharing a sense of humor and of the absurd. He was a combat veteran, very smart, well-read, hard working, and unlike many other military officers assigned to State, seemed to enjoy working with FSOs.
Back to today's story. CAR military units had launched a coup against the President in Bangui. I don't remember the details, but there was a "southerner" vs. "northerner" split and a fight over government hand-outs, jobs, and other spoils. The situation in Bangui became chaotic. As usual, of course, up to the moment everything collapsed, our Embassy had reported happy thoughts, and had tried to make CAR the focus of US policy in Africa, arguing that its timber, water, and mineral resources made CAR a "powerhouse." As it turned out, that "powerhouse" couldn't recharge a single 9V battery. The streets filled with rebel soldiers hunting the President, ensconced in his palace with some loyal troops.
About our Embassy in Bangui. Months before the coup attempt, some bean counters had decided to terminate the US marine guard detail there and at several other smaller embassies. The Pentagon, likewise, assigned no permanent Defense Attache, and we had no presence of the agencies with no names. The much ballyhooed Clinton "budget surpluses" had come about by stripping our national defenses. Our office proposed closing the embassy in CAR among several others noting that otherwise we merely provided would-be terrorists and kidnappers easy victims. For reasons of political correctness our suggestion to close several African posts did not prosper.
So, of course, precisely in countries where we faced significant threats, we had no security of our own, and depended entirely on local forces. In CAR we could not count on those local forces to do the right thing. The Embassy's defense consisted of walls, barbed wire, and a few dusty shotguns left behind by the last Marine security detachment. To add to the weirdness, we had an Ambassador, a former USAID officer, who spoke no French; as soon as the situation went belly-up, she completely froze. Effective control of the Embassy passed to the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), an African-American woman who spoke almost no French, had a visceral hatred of European men, and, I suspected, held ardent racist views. The rest of the staff consisted mostly of young women officers and, as I remember it, one first-tour male FSO who got made honorary security officer. Only a couple of them had passable French. This embassy was a disaster which did not have long to wait to happen.
When the coup attempt got underway, the DCM contacted the President of CAR, through an interpreter. She had a bizarre conversation in which she asked for his help protecting the Embassy, and he asked her help protecting the Presidential palace. Unfortunately for the DCM, some poor junior officer wrote up the conversation very accurately. The cable went to Washington with a comment at the end by the DCM boasting about how she had gotten the CAR government to protect the Embassy, completely ignoring the President's request for the Embassy to protect him. The DCM, clearly, had not read the text before it went out. Back at State and the Pentagon we all had a good laugh over this message; we, however, could not laugh openly for reasons of political correctness. It proved only the beginning of the nonsense to come out of the Embassy.
Since the top two people had little to no French, they ended up making several calls a day to the poor German ambassador who spoke French as well as English. Trapped inside his tiny Embassy in a downtown office building, he could tell the two frantic American women almost nothing about events on the street. That did not prevent them from sending in long, pointless cables reporting their conversations with der deutsche Botschafter. Those messages also produced quiet snickering as they essentially reported the German saying politely but repeatedly, "I don't know what is happening. I am trapped in my office. I need help."
Re the issue of help. The White House hesitated to intervene, afraid of becoming embroiled in CAR's bizarre domestic politics. Our policy became one of urging the French, the former colonial power there, to intervene in the name of aiding the stuck foreigners. The French also proved reluctant, as it would--and did, eventually--undermine the CAR President if the French saved him. While the US and France dithered, the situation grew more weird in Bangui, and our embassy became unhinged. The cables came in thick and fast: each more odd than the last. I cannot forget one in which the hapless "deputized" security officer tried to provide military sounding analysis of the situation. He wrote that the rebels had placed a "howitzer on a jeep and surrounded the Embassy with it." Lots of snickering and laughter over that one. In addition, "vast amounts of unspent fired ammunition" littered the grounds outside the Embassy walls. Guffaws.
The Colonel and I agreed we had to do something. He phoned the DCM. The ensuing conversation sounded like an old Bob Newhart phone skit.
"You can't have everybody up 24 hours a day. You have to make a schedule. Get a pencil and one of those yellow paper legal pads and . . . what? Yes, yes . . . a pen and white paper will work, too . . .."
"No, 1900 hours is not nine o'clock. I suggest you skip using military time or GMT and just give us the local time in am and pm, and we will figure it out . . .."
"No, I don't think your shotgun is a 12 mm; it's probably a 12 gauge . . . I suggest you leave the shotguns alone."
The French finally agreed to intervene. They sent the Foreign Legion, a pretty competent outfit with a rough reputation that strikes terror into the hearts of the African military. The French quickly began re-establishing order.
Our DCM launched repeated requests for the French to protect the US Embassy. We asked the French please, send somebody to check the situation at the Embassy. The French, again, proved reluctant, saying they sought to stabilize the situation in Bangui, and did not have the resources for special security for the US Embassy. In the end, however, they agreed and sent a small unit under the command of an English-speaking French officer.
Our DCM promptly sent a cable proudly reporting how she had prevented the Legionnaires from entering the Embassy compound. This led to a major blow up with the French in Washington. I remember a meeting with a French military attache at the Pentagon in which he vented his anger and frustration over the "idiots" at our Embassy. I found it hard to disagree.
Anyhow, the French "saved" CAR's President, for a while, and our Embassy people came home alive and well. The Ambassador and the DCM, of course, wrote themselves up for all sorts of awards. Nobody dared say the truth.
My cynicism, for some reason, grew exponentially after that experience.