Sunday, December 30, 2012

CAR Redux

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.

27 comments:

  1. Mouth open. Stupefied. Suspicions confirmed. During the Korean thingy was recruited while undergoing USAF Intelligence training to take 6 month clerical TDY assignment somewhere "out there" under DoS. It was voluntary. I didn't. So grateful, now.

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  2. "The Ambassador and the DCM, of course, wrote themselves up for all sorts of awards." Then went to work for John Kerry.

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  3. Reality is at least as strange as fiction. RIP Keith Laumer.

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  4. Another great story! Fabulous writing. Thanks for these glimpses of the fire under all the smoke we see every day.

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  5. This looks like a perfect example of the kind of adventure restless young men are looking for in foreign service work. A little Nostromo, a flavor of old Havana, foolishness in corners of the world fragrant of burlap and copra, with plenty of room for magical thinking,or not thinking at all. The joy of being an American who doesn't really have to make a life for himself in such places. Thanks for the entertainment.

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  6. 1. Brilliant exposition.
    2. Smell a whiff of Twain.
    3, Suspect the current story regarding the US Embassy/Mission in the CAR differs little.
    4. Our work in the ME is almost done; our efforts in Africa will be our next foreign policy triumph.
    5. Assuming the PRC stays on the reservation.
    6. Thanks again and best wishes for 2013.
    V/R JWest

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  7. Excellent writing and insight as usual, DiploMad. Someone above mentions Twain, to whom of course, is attributed, "History doesn't repeat itself...but it rhymes". Bengazi, anyone?

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    1. Did anyone notice that someone with the last name of Clinton was involved in both instances of Bangui and Benghazi?

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  8. I hate to admit it after reading your description of the staffing in Bangui, but I spent several years there as DCM in the mid eighties. Worked for two ambassadors, one of whom had very good French, as did the rest of the staff. The second ambassador's French was brand new (i.e., he had just finished 16 weeks at FSI). This was his ultimate assignment, thanks for being a career trooper including having an embassy burned under him in Pakistan.

    Lots of good and bad memories of my time there. The UNHCR Rep, a Brit by birth, called the U.S. Embassy "the enemy" to one of his staffers (a Swiss) because we (I) was trying to find out what UNHCR was up to, to get a handle on the refugee situation on the Chad border. A member of a nameless organization was chatting up a Nork second secretary in the hope of signing him up (presumably the Nork was telling his headquarters that he was recruiting an American dip). French intelligence told us they had credible reporting of a plot on our ambassador's life, and at another time his wife was on a commercial flight to Paris that was bombed by Islamist terrorists (fortunately while they were on the ground in Ndjamenda). Bokassa flew back into the capital expecting a popular reception that never materialized (cute story: a friend at the airport told us Bokassa was outraged that the head of presidential security planned to take him to town in a Land Cruiser: "Hiens? Pas de Mercedes?") Never a dull moment.



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  9. I never visited the CAR, but I did travel through the CAE, the Central African Empire of Emperor Bokassa. I arrived in Bangui the week after his coronation. We spent a few days in town, primarily to obtain visas from the French embassy. I also had an occasion to visit the US embassy and the reading room around the corner.

    As an overland traveler, one of my first priorities was to check the Poste Restante for mail. In Bangui, it was in a cardboard box, on a table, under a tree, in front of the main post office. Alphabetization was an unknown concept to the CAE Post, so one was obliged to look through all the mail. Most interestingly, Emperor Bokassa had several pieces of unclaimed mail. I guess he had been too busy with the coronation to check his mail.

    Bangui set the standard for my definition of a backwater town. However, a few days later, after descending into the hellhole of Zaire, Bangui looked pretty good. Kisangani… well that’s another story.

    A few weeks later, in Kigali, I made my only other visit to a US embassy, to obtain additional pages for my passport. We worked on the truck in the parking lot of a hotel that later became famous in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

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  10. I laughed and laughed. This really ought to be a movie. I rarely go to movies in theaters these days, but I'd be there for opening for this one.

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  11. Good Bloody Grief.

    I know State is screwed up, but you would think that a certain degree of professionalism could be maintained. I accept that an Ambassador is the representative of the President and therefore a political appointment, but a President has a responsibility to not appoint fools. And if he runs out of qualified people, look for career people within the State Department.

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  12. Love the blog, Diplomad. Just dropping to say you'll want to see this recent post from a career government professional like yourself. You have said the career professionals in our government will not stand for what is going on; that they will act in the ways they know best. This links to an example of your prediction coming true: John A. Shaw; former senior official of the Defense, State, and Commerce departments, served on several White House staffs. He is a specialist in international technology transfer and arms sales, and in the economic development of the Middle East.

    The Chicago laundry has been working overtime.

    http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2012/12/arab-money-and-purchase-of-president.html

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  13. It sounds as if the upper Congo Basin is once again the Heart of Darkness.

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  14. Not that it matters, but for years I have said United Nations Headquarters, and all its NGOs, should be evicted from New York and moved to Bangui.

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  15. Mr D: At some point in the future, should you have the time and the inclination, could you share your thoughts on what impact a person with your background, insights and attitudes would have on how the State Department operates if a president were to select that person as Secretary of State? Love your blog,the insights it provides, and your writing style.

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    1. Wow! That's an interesting idea. Let me think about that.

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    2. And please, do tell us what you would adopt as US policy toward the UN!

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    3. The phrase Augean Stables comes to mind.

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    4. And why Condi Rice went native (or did she?).

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  16. So happy to see you back...you were missed..remembering how sad I was when you disappeared for awhile.welcome home!!

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  17. They should schedule your TV show to follow the Seinfeld reruns.

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  18. Diplomad, your blog is just great! Make that SEVEN regular readers because I'm definitely on the list!

    Now, the pleasantries out of the way, how did you ever manage to survive a WHOLE CAREER dealing with the idiot lefties at State? I'll give you this: you're a better man than I am because I could not have managed it without going postal at some point.

    Keep 'em comin'!

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  19. A friend of mine is currently an FSO with time in Iraq, Kurdistan and a few other spots. It's interesting how, when it comes to DOS, they still can't seem to fix stupid.

    Pretty disheartening, though this one was fun to read.

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  20. Another captivating read. I did a tour in PM/ISO as an active duty AF officer from 1/98 to 6/00...wondering if we overlapped??

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  21. Truly Awesome post ! It is really very interesting and informative. Thanks for posting this.
    International tour

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