An Interview with Thomas Krajeski, U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain
Thomas C. Krajeski was sworn in as the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain in October 2011. Krajeski entered the Foreign Service in 1979, and has since served in numerous postings abroad and in Washington. From 2009 to 2011, Krajeski was Senior Vice President of the National Defense University. Previously, Krajeski served at U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as Senior Advisor to the Ambassador on Northern Iraq Affairs and as the Director of Career Development and Assignments for the State Department in Washington. Before this posting, Krajeski served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen from 2004 to 2007 and as Director of the office of Northern Gulf Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Krajeski has also served in Nepal, India, Poland, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2007, Krajeski was awarded the President’s Distinguished Service Award for his service in Iraq and Yemen, as well as five Superior Honor Awards.
The Politic: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today Ambassador. We would like to start the interview with a very general question: why did you join the Foreign Service?
Because I needed the job? It was 1977 and times were hard! [Laughs] No, it was actually something I wanted to do since I was 14 years old. I had a great language teacher in high school and was studying Russian and German at a small school in Massachusetts in the countryside. He said, “You’re good at languages, you should consider the Foreign Service,” and gave me a couple of books to read. I always kept it in the back of my head as I was going through my undergraduate and graduate work, mostly in Russian literature and Slavic linguistics. At the end of that I walked out of grad school and happened to walk into the building where the test for the Foreign Service was being given next month. So I took the test and joined the Foreign Service! It really is something I wanted to do; 34 years in, I still think it was a great decision.
The Politic: Speaking of your undergraduate years, I read in an interview you gave to the UMass Alumni Magazine that you opposed the Vietnam War and served two years as a conscientious objector. I was just wondering how that played into your understanding of government. Was it something you saw as an alternative to serving with the military? How did you reconcile that?
It was two different times. I was a conscientious objector in 1970. I left my undergraduate studies. When you are twenty years old you are pretty sure you are right all the time and have a strong sense of right and wrong, which is great. The Vietnam War was probably the defining moment for many of us, certainly the defining moral issue of the time. I made the decision in 1970 to quit college and give up my student deferment, which I considered to be in the parlance of those days a “cop out.” I was fully prepared to go to jail. Instead, my draft board decided to grant me conscientious objector status; even though I made it very clear I was against the Vietnam War, there were other wars that I might consider fighting in. But I would not fight in this war, which I considered wrong — again as only a twenty-year-old can define right or wrong. I did two years of service at hospitals in Boston. Then I went back and finished my undergraduate years at UMass and went down to UNC for a couple of years of graduate work. I joined the Foreign Service. And I wondered what effect it might have on my application. In fact, it had virtually no effect. Indeed, I discovered over the years that senior military, with whom I now have a close relationship, considered it an honorable thing to do.
As far as teaching me about government, I did not want anything to do with government in 1970. In addition to my opposition to the war, which I blamed on the government, it was a personally tragic event for me and my family as well… my older brother was killed in Vietnam. So I kind of tuned out for a bit. I studied literature. I had always felt that I had missed something. I love my country, and I love the opportunities America gave to a relatively poor kid from a small town in Massachusetts, grandson of immigrants. We all have these stories, I am sure you have some of it in you too. I wanted to serve my country and I regretted not being able to join in the military and serve in the military, which is something I think is honorable and a good thing to do in different circumstances. I did look at the Foreign Service as an opportunity to serve, and I believe that it has been a great chance to serve this country overseas.
The Politic: That is great to hear for a twenty-year-old student who is unsure of his future.
It is a great job! Absolutely wonderful.
The Politic: What would you say are some of the challenges of working in the Foreign Service?
There are many challenges, many of which are difficult and some of which were really wonderful. I had always wanted to travel, in the way that many Americans have this urge to get out and see the world. I am always quite amused at how many Foreign Service officers come from Iowa or the great Midwest, at how many naval officers are from the Midwest. People who just want to get out and see the world. I always did. Until I joined the Foreign Service my only travel experience was visiting Canada.
There were also challenges, and this is true for many, many new Foreign Service officers. I was married, and my spouse had professional ambitions as well. She is an educator and a teacher. We had our six-month-old, and we were very, very nervous about taking our six-month-old off to the world. Indeed, our first post was Katmandu, Nepal, which was about as far away as you could get from Groveland, Massachusetts. Standing in the New Delhi airport at three in the morning, literally stepping over people sleeping on the pavement in June, I was looking around thinking, “What have I done?” And we all confronted it and had to measure up to these challenges in our personal life. It is not easy for families; it is not easy to conduct a personal life. I know single people sometimes wonder how long they will stay single if they are in the Foreign Service. So personally there is a pretty unique set of challenges. And professionallywe tend to move around a lot. We also develop regional specialties. I came in fully expecting to be assigned to the Soviet Union in 1980, to spend my time in Russian-speaking countries, as that was my area of expertise. And the Department assigned me to Kathmandu, Nepal. Again, another wonderful introduction to the wonders of government bureaucracy. But their rationale was “Hey, this kid knows how to speak languages, he can pick them up quickly, let’s send him out there to learn Nepali, that is where we need him and that is where he is going.” I have to tell you I was thrilled. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life.
After a couple of assignments I was transferred to the Middle East and learned Arabic- did two years of Arabic — and this has been where I have made my living for the last 23 years now, in the Middle East. So you tend to focus on specialties, whether it is consular work, visa work, passport work, political analysis, economic analysis, public affairs or cultural exchanges, and you tend to settle into a place in the world as well. So it is challenging, but I think it is really wonderful to be able to have that kind of variety in your work life.
The Politic: In dealing with these more personal career challenges, what kind of advice would you give to students who wish to pursue a career in the Foreign Service or have an interest in international affairs?
I think that for the Foreign Service — and I’m a Foreign Service Generalist, and a Foreign Service Generalist is not supposed to be a specialist — you are expected to have a wide range of knowledge, sometimes not very deep, about a wide range of subjects. So my advice is just that: expand. Expand your education. Certainly you are looking at international affairs, the history of diplomacy, history in general, and economics and the study of economics I think is extremely important. It was probably my weakest suit when I joined the Foreign Service, and I have tried to compensate for it.
I sat down and actually read Robert Samuelson’s “Economics,” which used to be the economics base textbook when I was in college. I took a couple of economics courses. I advise folks, I used to — it is different these days — but I used to read the NY Times from the front page to the last page; everything in it. In those times, it was Time, Newsweek, US News and WorldReport, The Economist. I used to read them cover-to-cover. Everything. I would learn about the movie stars and all of it. I think a wide understanding of your country, its culture, politics, and history is very important. And the exam is very comprehensive as well. And the second bit of advice is to specialize in a way, whether it is Middle Eastern studies and Arabic, Russian, or Economics… something that gives you knowledge of a particular place or particular subject.
The Politic: You have spent your whole career with the State Department and in the Foreign Service. I was wondering how you have seen the Foreign Service or more generally the State Department and diplomacy transform in the years you have worked there.
Fundamentally, I think diplomacy has not changed. Diplomacy is still about getting out, meeting people, explaining your issues, ideals, and policies, and listening to them. It is about gaining a comprehensive knowledge of the people you are dealing with so that when you have issues, when you have problems, things you want to do together, you have a basis for negotiation, a basis for talks. Diplomacy is still pretty basic, it is still people to people. There are different ways of doing that. Social media of course is a brand new tool, especially for us over the age of 60 who are still wrestling with how to use social media effectively in diplomacy, but it is still fundamentally communications and meetings, seeing people.
But the State Department has changed; the Foreign Service has changed. One of the main changes is that everybody coming in, almost everybody, if they are married, their spouse has professional ambitions, a profession they might be quite successful at, and there are not many portable professions. So there are tough decisions that new Foreign Service officers make as a couple coming in. And that has been a big change. It is not new but it is almost comprehensive now. It has changed the way we make assignments around the world; it has changed the way careers have developed. The second change is that it is a much more dangerous job now than it was in 1980. If you go into the State Department lobby the wall is of the names of Foreign Service officers who have died in the performance of their duties.
Until recently — 1980, maybe a couple in the 1970s — most of the deaths were of shipwreck, disease, falling off a mountain, those sorts of things. Since then it is attacks, terrorism, and we just put the name of a very good friend of mine on the wall, the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. There are more posts now where it is just more dangerous. And that means people are going for shorter times, without their families, so you have a lot of separation, and that in the last ten years has been really a very dramatic change in our business, in our assignments.
The Politic: Does this heightened security or greater sense of danger limit your ability to interact with the country that you are serving in?
Yes, yes it does. And that is, again, a balance that is very hard to strike. I spent three years as the ambassador to Yemen, and they were three relatively quiet years compared to what has happened in Yemen in the last three years. I was there from 2004 to 2007. Of course, the embassy in Yemen is a fortress. It is very hard to get into. I found it very hard to get out of. I spent a year in Baghdad where it truly was a war zone. But if you can’t get out and meet people in their offices, their homes, their institutions… if I am talking about holding local elections in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, I can’t call the local government officials and the election officials and the party leaders to Baghdad for meetings inside my fort. I have got to go out and talk to them there and I have got to go talk to them in their language. So it is much more difficult to engage. We did it, and we did it quite often, but it was hard.
It is also hard for people to come into embassies. When I first joined, and I am an old guy, one of my first assignments was Madras in South India. I still remember that the public could come off the street and come into our library. They could take out films. We had all sorts of public programs. Folks could basically walk into the gate; they could walk into the library. That does not happen anymore, and indeed we have closed a lot of our libraries around the world because of security concerns. If you invite somebody to the embassy to meet with you, you know their car is going to be searched, they are going to be searched, they will go through metal detectors, and they will not be allowed to bring their bags up into the office. It has put a crimp on that basic part of diplomacy, which is meeting people and getting out. If we can’t get out there is no reason for us to be here.
The Politic: I would like to shift to Bahrain and your time there. It seems to be not the easiest of assignments. Considering your track record, you have dealt with a lot but —
I can play golf once a week here; it is a great place!
The Politic: [Laughter] That is good to hear. I have read that you are working to foster dialogue between the government and opposition groups. How do you work to reinvigorate these channels once they stall, or even in the first place mediate between the two groups? How do you balance U.S. interests as well as help this country deal with some civic unrest and opposition to the government?
Well, let me start at the last part of that question and work my way back. First, it is the interests of the United States that I am absolutely most seized with. That is why I am here: to promote and defend American interests. And in this particular part of the world, Bahrain is extremely important to the U.S. because of our very close security, military relationship we have here and that we have had here really since the end of World War II. This has been the home of our Fifth Fleet since the 1970s and is a vitally important piece of the security network that we and our allies in the region have built. We talk about challenges and dangers and they are aplenty.
Right now, as we are looking at the situations in Syria and Iraq and continuing threats emanating from Iran, those close relationships are very important. And that is really one of my top priorities here, working with the Bahraini government, with the U.S. military, and security agencies to confront those challenges together. That is something I keep in mind each day. We believe that a stable and secure and peaceful Bahrain is critically important to maintaining that depth of security relationship that we need and that we want and that the Bahrainis want. The past couple of years have been really challenging for the Bahrainis as they try to wrestle with internal domestic and political differences that are up until today still not settled. And we do everything we can to help them with that. And I have to be very careful here because we do not act as a mediator, we do not interfere. We know that these are issues they have to resolve and they have to resolve them among themselves. Frankly, I think they are capable of doing it.
It has been frustrating to watch the last year and a half as they have as of yet failed, but I do think that there are efforts, especially right now following the Crown Prince’s recent visit to Washington and a reinvigoration of a national dialogue that is going on. So there are some hopeful signs that a political compromise and a political solution may be attainable in the near future, and we do everything we can to support that. It is a balancing act. As the previous Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “It’s walking and chewing gum.” We can do both at the same time.
While I agree with her that we are capable of defending and maintaining our security relations while we defend and promote democracy and civil society and a more open political system, it is a tough balancing act at times. You tend to take criticism from both sides, but at the same time you are trying to help in both areas. So you are right, it has been a really interesting and challenging job.
The Politic: Speaking of criticism, one of the very interesting critics I read was by Zainab Al-Khawaja, who in a New York Times piece quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who in fact quoted JFK: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Zainab Al-Khawaja was hinting at the possibility of the opposition moving away from moderation. I was wondering if you agree that there is a risk of the opposition becoming radicalized and more violent, creating a conflict more difficult to resolve in the future.
It is a very good point and a valid concern. It is unfortunate that not only in this part of the world but I think everywhere when these kind of disputes remain unresolved, violence creeps in and there is the danger that it feeds on itself. You can see how it creates reaction and counter action and violence building. Here in Bahrain, there has been a persistent level of violent confrontation that is very worrisome, and the concern is that it will grow to something more without a political solution, without a political compromise.
Frankly, unlike Ms. Khawaja, I place the blame for failing to reach a political deal on both sides. I am encouraged that in recent months and especially in the last week there have been many more hopeful signs coming from the leadership on both sides to find this solution, both of them recognizing that radicalization — extremism — is something they need to avoid and need to diminish and not allow to grow. So I am concerned about that. Again, I don’t place the blame entirely on the government here, I think that there have been good faith efforts, particularly led by the Crown Prince, to reach a political compromise. I hope that he succeeds and we want him to succeed.
The Politic: You mentioned your time as Ambassador to Yemen from 2004-2007. In what ways do you think this assignment prepared you for your time in Bahrain? What were some of the challenges you faced there that have presented themselves in Bahrain?
I have learned that it is hard to compare crises; it is hard to compare one country with another. Yemen was an entirely different place from Bahrain. It is an extremely poor country, 25 million people versus just 1.2 million on this very small island. Yemen had a list of challenges as long as your arm. And they were truly daunting. Starting with Al Qaeda and terrorism, a weak central government in those days, government corruption that was very insidious, an old tribal structure that was still very much in existence, again one of the poorest countries, illiteracy rates at 70 percent, especially among women even higher, no water. You looked at Yemen and you said, “My god, where do we start?” And as you have seen in the last four years Yemen has unfortunately devolved into considerable violence, which hopefully they are coming out of now.
Bahrain is a much wealthier country, a country where education is prized; I think the literacy is probably 100 percent. While it’s nowhere near as wealthy as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, or Qatar, it is still a fairly successful country that has a thriving economy that has been hit hard by both the economic downturn and the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 and the political crisis of 2011. You have a community here that, while there is a religious, fundamental split here between Shiite and Sunni, they have lived together for 300 years and they have lived together relatively peacefully for 300 years. So they start from a much better place when they look at resolving these internal differences they have. I have a great deal of confidence that they will do this.
So these are different situations. Indeed, in some ways I came in looking at this place with a harder and colder eye than I needed too because of the experience I had in Yemen and most recently working with the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Those were very difficult situations, and I think I came into Bahrain looking sort of like a gunslinger. I was coming into town and seeing how can I resolve this dispute, when in fact it was a much more nuanced, much more complicated, and much more resolvable dispute than I at first thought.
The Politic: You mentioned the historical absence of a sectarian divide in Bahrain. Yet across the Middle East there seems to be a growing fear or reality of sectarianism. I’m thinking particularly in Syria, but generally the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia coming into conflict, particularly in Bahrain. Do you feel that this history could be undone?
I think there’s a great deal of concern here as they look around the region. You can see what is an alarming increase in sectarianism, infighting among sects, particularly between Shi’a or Sunni. Whether it is in Syria where it is most acute, or a potential for it to gain in Iraq — hopefully not to the levels of 2006 to 2007 where it was really quite a brutal sectarian conflict. Yes, of course they worry about its effect here, and they worry about the larger powers, Iran in particular, exploiting that sectarianism for its own purposes, whether in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia or its opposition to the policies of the United States as we increase sanctions on Iran. There is a lot of concern about what might happen here, and that concentrates their minds a bit as they look to find a political compromise here that will bring the communities back together again, in order to have a more united front in the face of these concerns they have about increasing sectarianism. So it very much is on the minds of people here.
The Politic: Turning to Iran for a moment, there is a Shi’a majority in Bahrain and there is some worry that Iran could have a growing influence in Bahrain. How do you work with this? What general U.S. policy do you follow?
Of course, our principal concern with Iran right now is its nuclear program and national policy. Now a very, very large coalition of countries is engaged in applying economic and political pressure on Iran to rein in its nuclear program. The president has been quite clear in his opposition to Iran attaining a nuclear weapon and the determination to prevent them from doing that. That is the major part of our policy wherever we are, and I think that concern is shared quite acutely by our partners and our allies here in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], including Bahrain. So as we impose financial and economic sanctions on Iran to pressure the government to change its policies, we have very strong partners here in Bahrain. Bahrain is concerned about the influence of Iran in the region.
As I said earlier, they are concerned about what Iran might do depending upon how things play out in Syria or in Iraq, whether Iran might be more active here. We are concerned about that as well. One of the reasons we have our fifth fleet here is to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. There have been threats and the issue of Iran closing the strait and mining it. We just had a massive demining exercise with I think 42 countries as we ran an exercise on countermeasures against mines to face that threat. There is a great deal of concern here. I think I will leave it to the political analysts to talk about Iranian influence in various communities. Myself, I don’t see it as being very deep or very strong. Bahrainis have a great sense of being Bahraini, whether they are Shi’a or Sunni, whether they came 2000 or 20 years ago. There is a real sense of being Bahraini, a nationalist pride if you will. And that again is a strength, or a bond between two communities.
The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change?
I think there are always elements of foreign policy that we would like to change. We are both instruments of foreign policy and to some extent makers and shapers. I have found in my career that serving in the field and being an implementer is more satisfying than serving in Washington and being more of the shaper and maker of the policy.
I would like us to always remain more open; I would like us to be the example of fair and decent government, fair and decent policy around the world. I think to a large extent we are. The last ten years have been challenging, and there have been events in the last ten years that have been quite disturbing. I would look at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as being possibly the low point of my engagement in Iraq policy. I have always had great concerns about policies in Guantanamo, right from the beginning. I understand and frankly accept the fact that it was probably the least bad choice to make as to how we were going to detain these fighters that we were capturing. I’m somewhat disappointed we haven’t been able to resolve Guantanamo and find an alternative that is perhaps more in line with our ideals and principles than the current situation is. It is an extraordinarily difficult question, one I know the President has wrestled with himself. But I do think it is important.
On the other hand, I have been in parts of the world where the threats are real. How to use the word… ‘enemies.’ Where we have enemies. Where we have people who are trying to do us harm. People who are organizing attacks against the United States and against Americans. And it is important to have the absolute best military, security, and intelligence capabilities that we can. Balancing that against those wonderful principles of liberty and righteousness is a difficult process. I think we have tilted both ways and I have tilted both ways.
I have believed, though, that it is my job as a Foreign Service officer to carry out my government’s, the administration’s, the President’s policies. And once the debate is done and the President has made his decision, whatever that might be — to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam — you have to sit down with yourself and decide whether you can support it. If you can, you do everything you possibly can to implement that policy and make it work. And that is what I tried to do in Iraq. That is what we are trying do here in Bahrain, although I tend to agree with the policies here in Bahrain quite substantially.
The Politic: Well thank you so much Ambassador, I know you have a very busy schedule. We really appreciate your time.
Great, thank you very much.
Embassy of the United States to Bahrain: http://bahrain.usembassy.gov/