An Interview with Amb. Robert Gosende
Ambassador Robert R. Gosende served for 36 in the Foreign Service, in the U.S. Information Agency and the Department of State before joining The State University of New York (SUNY) in December of 1998. Gosende’s overseas experience includes tours of duty as a Cultural Affairs Officer in Libya, Somalia, and Poland and as Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in South Africa and in the Russian Federation. He served as President Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy for Somalia, with the personal rank of Ambassador, at the height of the crisis in 1992-93. During 1994, he was Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, directing the U.S. Government’s support of the first multi-racial elections held in South Africa in April of that year. Following his career in the Foreign Service, Gosende served as Associate Vice Chancellor for International Programs at SUNY and as the John W. Ryan Fellow in Public Diplomacy at SUNY Albany. Gosende received Presidential Awards from Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton for his service as USIA’s Director for African Affairs and as the President’s Special Envoy for Somalia.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I have asked myself that question a lot, and I attribute my start to a very inspirational high school social studies teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts. She turned me on to thinking about government and public service, which led to me to become a high school social studies teacher myself. My parents were also immigrants, and I think that because of this, I felt a connection to and curiosity for the outside world that people who aren’t born from immigrant parents maybe don’t feel.
My father died young when I was thirteen, leaving us in dire financial straits. After undergraduate school, the Foreign Service offered me a job for $3,600 a year. $3,600 a year, not nearly enough to provide for a younger brother in college and a mother as well. So, I became a high school teacher, which is when I met my wife. We were teaching in a school just outside of Springfield, Massachusetts, and the principal was hired the head of an AIDS project in Uganda. He got in touch with my wife and myself in 1963, and he said, “You guys should come to Uganda with me.” This was a time when the last place a person would think of going to work was the federal government — it was perceived to be ineffectual and useless. But Kennedy broke us out of that spell, and we were moved by the appeal of his words, “You shouldn’t be asking what your country is going to be doing for you, but rather you should be asking what are you going to do for your country.”
The project was to set up a secondary school and teach in a training college for women in the eastern region of Uganda, right on the Kenya-Uganda border and just north of Lake Victoria. They offered my wife a job because she was a licensed dietician and could run a food service program at the school. But, they didn’t care for a social studies teacher. Maybe ten years later she would have said, “I am going to Uganda, what are you going to do?” Instead, she said, “If there isn’t a job for both of us then we aren’t going.” Three months later, when they couldn’t find anyone else like her, they agreed. We ended up staying in Uganda from 1963-1966, before the days of the Idi Amin — when it was like a paradise, safe and wonderful, with children more literate than those I had been teaching in MA because there was no television to distract them from reading all the time.
It was in Uganda that I discovered the U.S. Information Agency, a separate executive agency under the president that works closely with the State Department but is not explicitly part of it. It used to do public diplomacy work for our government, but we abolished it after we won the Cold War — which, I’ll say, was a stupid thing for us to have done. I then joined the Foreign Service in 1966, and we were sent to Tripoli in Libya.
The Politic: From 1966-1968, you served as the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in Tripoli, Libya, and you departed Libya one year before [Muammar] Gaddafi’s overthrow of King Idris. Could you hear the war drums beginning to sound by the time you left Libya one year prior to the coup?
Yes, and it is all much clearer now than it was in foresight. We were scheduled to arrive in Tripoli on June 6, 1967, and we were flying from London to Tripoli. Halfway through the flight, the plane made a 180-degree turn, and the pilot announced we had lost our landing rights in Tripoli and we would be returning to London. What was that all about? June 6, 1967 was the day the Arab-Israeli war broke out, and shooting was going on in Tripoli. When I went into the embassy in London, they ended up just telling me to take it easy for a little bit. So, after two weeks of unexpected vacation in London, I was told to go on to Tripoli and my wife was told that she should stay in safe haven in Europe.
Tripoli, in those days, was ruled by an elderly gentleman named Idris the First. He was the King of Cyrenaica — which is the Eastern region of Libya and was a strong ally of the U.S. during World War II. The King was more of a religious, aesthetic leader than he was a secular leader. He had a group of Viziers — senior advisors — and the King hardly ever looked into what they were doing. As far as the civic practical governance of the country is concerned, the Viziers would appoint a prime minister and the prime minister would appoint a cabinet, and those chaps would run the government. As a side story that I think is pretty telling, the Viziers would read the Koran and decide why each day was important. They had a switch at the King’s palace, right into the radio service, and if they decided it was an important day in history, they would cut into the radio service and declare a holiday. In the 19 months that we were in Libya, we hardly ever worked a full week because at least one day a week, something was found in the Koran to require the country to be on holiday.
In 1952, the United Nations declared Libya to be one of the three or four poorest countries in the world. They had exports of maybe 300,000 dollars each year. But then they discovered oil — not a little oil but more oil than anyone could imagine. Occidental Oil Company brought in the world’s single largest producing well in the desert of Libya — over 170,000 barrels of oil a day. The wealth was mind-boggling, and Libya quickly became a test case of what would happen if you gave a poor country all the money you could imagine it could ever have. Oil wells are not something that lead to democratic development in a country, and the United States also had a great deal to do with that. What I mean is this: the port of Tripoli could only handle four ocean freighters at a time, and offshore there would be, anchored, maybe 40 waiting to get in the port. Running around the port were representatives of American oil companies trying to pay off the harbor managers to get the ships in.
The corruption was just rampant. You would see a new building going up and hear, “Oh, that’s being built by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs,” or “oh, that’s being built by the former Minister of Finance, that’s being built by the current Minister of Commerce.” The corruption was just everywhere, and there were constant rumors about potential overthrows. So of course, there were warning signs.
The Politic: What are the biggest ways in which Libya has changed since you departed from your post over forty years ago?
It changed vitally a year after we left Tripoli, when Gaddafi overthrew Idris. The country then went into a spiral of madness because Gaddafi was crazy. You guys are a little bit younger than me, but you certainly remember the killing of Gaddafi. This guy lasted for years. He came in probably 1969 and left power just two years ago. It was horrible. It was unpredictable. It was run by a group. There is no real central government in Libya. There is no central police force and no central authority. Gaddafi ruled the place by webbing together a network of plants ruled in one part or another of the country. It was unbelievable that ambassadors could even go to Benghazi. Knowing that we had farmed out security there to a local warlord — that’s a risk beyond our ability to calculate. Ambassador Chris Stevens was doing the kind of work that I did, trying to set up an American corner or breeding room somewhere at a Libyan educational institution. You can’t do that kind of work without a basic knowledge of security or the likelihood is that you’re going to get killed. Why he was lured into believing that it was safe, I will never understand. I can’t understand it.
The Politic: We spoke with Ambassador [Marc] Grossman, a Yale professor, last week about a trend he had noticed in regard to embassies overseas. Embassies, be it Libya or Iraq or Pakistan, have moved toward a more fortress mentality, in that, for the obvious need of security, it has also come at the cost of cutting the embassy off from the people in the civilization around it. So I suppose my question for you is, especially in these troubled and dangerous security areas, how do you balance the need for security with the equally important need to integrate the American presence?
That’s what I was trying to answer in the earlier question. First of all, in Benghazi, there was no fortress to get by — it didn’t work at all. People got right in on the site, poured fuel on the fort, set it on fire, and suffocated Ambassadors inside the building. At one consulate, two security people were killed on the building’s roof. That consulate was also hardly a fortress — it was more of a wretched villa on a large compound, with maybe a little bit of barbed wire thrown up. There was no real security available, and there was inadequate personal security. It’s mind-boggling. So, yes — Marc Grossman speaks about how we have created fortresses all over the world to protect our diplomats and how we diplomats now live and work inside those fortresses. And, for all intents and purposes, diplomats are cut off from the people of the country in which they are serving. That is an absolutely horrible situation, and we need to get outside those fortresses and take reasonable risk. But what I’m saying about Benghazi is that the risk was unreasonable. It was beyond detail.
The Politic: You served in South Africa from 1970 to 1974 and then from 1983 to 1986. Could you describe the mood of the nation in the heat of apartheid? Is there a particular memory that stands out to you as encapsulating the country’s divisiveness at the time?
Yes. A couple of us are actually just now publishing a book that will come out in the fall called Outsmarting Apartheid. It’s a series of interviews with people who served doing public diplomacy work in South Africa from 1970 until the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. It tries to speak to what we were doing there and how we thought we were contributing to a democratic transition. First of all, about South Africa, I would say, however horrible things are now, they’re not nearly as bad as everyone predicted they would be. People regularly said there wouldn’t be peace in South Africa without bloodshed — that black people would try to kill all the white people. That didn’t happen. And when I first served in South Africa in 1970, I never believed that it would happen.
I always believed that the black people would peacefully work for change if given the opportunity to do so. And, thank goodness, in April 1994, they got that opportunity. They elected Nelson Mandela, the first black president, in elections that were almost completely free. That was a great success for South Africa — that they went through this change without violence. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it solved all of South Africa’s problems. They have a very small group of very wealthy people and a huge underclass, which they need to overcome, and I don’t know that they’re making the kind of progress they should be on that. Another thing that characterizes South Africa today is absolutely horrible security. It’s just unsafe in too many parts of the country. How did the country change? In the end, the Afrikaners were convinced that they couldn’t kill everybody and they couldn’t go on with apartheid. They realized, I think, that it was likely to lead to terrible violence.
The Politic: You served in Somalia from 1992 to 1993 as President Clinton’s special envoy, at which point you obtained the rank of ambassador. During this time, needless to say, there was a significant amount of strife, most commonly represented in the United States as the Battle for Mogadishu. Before we talk about your actual time in Somalia, could you speak a little about how you first found out you would be serving in this capacity and what your thought process was?
I had been working in the area of sub-Saharan Africa in the U.S. intelligence agency until the summer of 1992, and I was scheduled to open our embassy in Eritrea in the summer of 1993. Between the two summers, I was the fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown. But in November of 1992, I got a phone call from a close friend of mine, who was a Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, calling from Addis Ababa. I was quite frankly thunderstruck — what I learned on the phone was that we were going to send two American divisions to Somalia. They were on the phone with me, asking me to go to Mogadishu at the beginning of summertime as Ambassador and press spokesman. I thought, oh my god. At the same time, I thought, You know, the Cold War’s over. This is the beginning of the new world order. And remember, I’m the guy who followed Kennedy’s appeal to do something for our country. If you join the Foreign Service, you sign a worldwide availability certificate. What that means is that you will go wherever they ask you to go, whenever they ask you to go there. So my answer was yes, I would of course go.
Initially, I was only supposed to go out there for two months during the winter break between semesters, because I was still scheduled to become Ambassador to Eritrea during the summer of 1993. The day I got back, though, I learned that the President was planning to make me a special envoy for Somalia. Ambassador Oakley had retired; he didn’t want to stay on in Mogadishu for a long period of time, and because he and I had worked together, he played a significant role in me being chosen as his successor. That delayed my assignment as Ambassador to Eritrea. And then, the way in which things played out in Somalia made it impossible for me to be appointed ambassador anywhere after that. What I mean is that Somalia was seen to have been a mistake pretty soon after Black Hawk was shot down. The administration wasn’t going to send my name up to the Senate Foreign Relations committee for confirmation for ambassadorship anywhere, because the first thing people would have asked was, “Oh, tell us — what’s going on in Somalia?” And the administration didn’t want to talk about that with Congress. The bureaucratic reality was that I wasn’t going to go on to be ambassador anywhere.
The Politic: With regards to Somalia, serving in a war-torn country must have necessitated, understandably, triage to a certain extent. What were your specific objectives while serving in Somalia?
The primary responsibility that my office had was to be the political section for the human intervention in Somalia. We knew Somalia better than anyone else who was in there; we had Somali language experts and understood the politics and land structure of the country. The main thing we could provide was that knowledge.
The Politic: Is there any single memory that stands out to you most from this assignment?
Somalia was the most difficult thing that I was ever asked to do in the Foreign Service. What stands out to me was how many people were killed. What stands out — what rings in your ears for the rest of your life — is the question of whether or not there was something we could have done differently that would have avoided so many people being killed. And I don’t mean only Americans — I mean Somalis, too. I guess what I learned is that, when war begins, war is the ultimate example of chaos. There will be military experts who will say “this is the tactic we were using,” but I have been in the army, and believe me, what was going on was chaos. The people who thought they knew what was going to happen next had no clue what was going to happen next. It was the least civil country we were in, and from the development point of view, it was totally destroyed. All of Somalia’s electricity and telephone wires were ripped out and sold for scrap. Can you imagine? Every single piece of development in the country was laid to waste, and that’s pretty much where it lies now. Somalia is still a failed state. There’ve been some murmurings now that things are changing. We are now setting up an embassy in the airport, but the country’s got some twenty years of absolute hell. Just hell.
The Politic: Moving out of Somalia, I would like to ask a question about your posting in the Foreign Service as the Minister Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs and the Director of the U.S. Information Service in the Russian Federation from 1996 to 1998. So previously, you’d served in Warsaw during the heyday of the Soviet Union in the mid 70’s. I was curious if you could talk briefly about how Moscow was compared to your tenure in Warsaw.
It’s very hard to compare Moscow and Warsaw. The Poles would object whenever we would say they were part of the Eastern bloc — they would object to the term “Eastern” and the term “bloc.” They felt Warsaw was halfway between Paris and Moscow — in Central Europe. And they were right, of course. The Soviet era in Poland was very different from the same era in Russia; the Soviets were never able to digest the Poles, so comparing Poland and Russia isn’t terribly useful. Especially when we were in Warsaw from ’74 to ’78, at the end of things, Poles had absolute freedom of speech; you could say anything. You couldn’t write anything, but you could say anything.
Russia is a very different place. Once the Soviet yoke was off Russia, Russia was still Russia — an Eastern and not Central European country. Russia’s culture doesn’t come from the West, like Poland’s. There’s always been a tight relationship between the government and the church. Russia much more easily succumbs to a strong leader, whereas the Poles disintegrated as a nation because they couldn’t agree on one leader. In Poland, they had something in the 18th century, where all the principalities had to agree unanimously on one of them to be king. Because they could never agree on a king, they were stomped on between Russia, Germany, and Austria from 1792 until the end of WWI. One of the Fourteen Points was that there had to be a free and independent Poland. And these Poles were never going to stop revolting until they got an independent country back.
I’m not sure I’m answering the question, but after communism collapsed in Poland, it was fairly easy for a Western style democratic government to emerge in Poland because its culture had long been oriented towards the West. That’s certainly not the case in Russia. It’s not easy for a Western style government to emerge in Russia.
The Politic: From 2000 to 2010 you served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for International Programs of SUNY. What thoughts do you have about the value that universities place on international educational engagement?
They don’t place enough value on it. Listen to this statistic: when surveyed, 70 percent of rising high school seniors say that they want to study abroad during their undergraduate career. Do you know what the percentage is that actually end up studying abroad? It’s three. One, two, three. Now what does that tell you? What in Heaven’s name is going on? It would seem that what these students hear at home is not stopping them from wanting to go abroad. It would seem also that hearing from teachers and their colleagues in high school is not stopping them. I think the problem is at the colleges and universities. Because it’s almost impossible, unless a student really sticks to it and really chases it.
Now, Yale may be different in this regard; Yale may be special. But I doubt that the number of Yale students studying abroad approaches 70 percent — I doubt that very seriously. Nobody is really urging the students to do this. The faculty doesn’t want to hear about a student leaving for a semester. The administration doesn’t want to hear about a student leaving and not paying the tuition at Yale! It’s a business decision.
The Politic: I was hoping we could round things out with a series of a few rapid-fire response questions. To start things off, is there a single accomplishment or moment of your career of which you’re most proud?
I think the work that I did in South Africa during the run-up to the elections in 1994, in providing election assistance to the South African government, maybe was one of the most important things I ever did. Those elections came out marvelously well.
The Politic: Out of all the people with whom you have crossed paths during your career, is there one person with whom you’d share a final meal?
Nelson Mandela. We ended up working very closely with him. John Lewis — a Democratic Congressman, probably the most important living member of the United States Congress — started something called the Voter Education Program, which registered over two million black people to vote in the southern part of our country. When the Voting Rights Act was passed, he said the words, “Now the hard work begins. Now we have to get people to register to vote.” And that was one of the things we were concerned about in South Africa — would people actually go to the polls?
The Politic: If you were given the power, are there any elements of U.S. foreign policy that you would seek to change today?
Yes, and there’s an article that I want you to read — American Diplomacy and the Rule of Law, by Chas Freeman. The article is stunning, and he sums up exactly where I think we are. I’m just going to read a few pieces:
“Over the past decade or so, the United States has departed from the rule of law. It is no exaggeration to say that in many ways, this is the greatest menace our freedoms have ever faced . . . .
We must revive the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches and seizures of person, houses, papers and other personal effects without probable cause . . . . We must reinstate the Fifth Amendment’s protections against deprivation ‘of life, liberty, or property without due process of law’ . . . . We must return to respect for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right of anyone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges . . . . We must reinstate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ including torture. And we must reaffirm our adherence to the several Geneva Conventions. We Americans can have no credibility as advocates for human rights if we do not practice what we preach.
In short, the path to renewed effectiveness in American diplomacy lies not just in wise and dexterous statecraft and the professionalization of those who implement it abroad. It rests on the rebuilding of credibility through the rediscovery of the values that made our country great in the first place.”
The Politic: As a final question, is there any particular advice you would give to university students today?
Study abroad. I don’t know how to tell you how serious I am and how much you grow from this experience. First of all, you overcome a tremendous amount of parochialism. You can’t imagine how students live in other places, not only in Europe but also in parts of the developing world. This kind of exposure is so broadly necessary, regardless of what students end up doing in their professional lives.