By John Lanier

Former Ambassador Talks Diplomacy - Brevard NC


Last updated 6/3/2015 at 11:19am

Laurence Pope and Peter Chaveas have been long-time friends. (Times photo by John Lanier)

Few, if any people, know more about foreign affairs and diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa than Laurence Pope, who was called out of retirement to run the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi after ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed there.

Pope was in town last month to visit long-time friend and colleague Peter Chaveas prior to giving a lecture at UNC Asheville's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) on "Diplomacy and the Revenge of Globalization."

Pope's lecture incorporated many of the same concepts presented in his 2014 book, "The Demilitarization of American Policy: Two Cheers for Striped Pants," which former Gen. Anthony Zinni called "a brilliant book on the most significant problem with American diplomacy today. He (Pope) is an experienced and gifted diplomat who has a deep understanding of his craft. He knows the military well and is highly qualified to address this subject. This is an important work and its message should be heeded by all our political and military leaders. It is a must read for all Americans."

Pope spent 31 years in the Foreign Service and received the highest award given by the Department of Defense to a civilian, the Secretary of Defense Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service. He served as ambassador to Chad from 1993-96 when he helped organize Chad's first presidential election. He also held a number of senior positions within the State Department, including director for North Persian Gulf Affairs, associate and acting director for counter-terrorism, and political advisor to Zinni at U.S. Central Command.

In 2001, Pope served for several months as staff director in Jerusalem for the International Committee on Middle East Peace. Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he was appointed senior advisor for Arab affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He is currently a national security consultant and serves as a senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va.

Pope was up for the ambassadorship of Kuwait in 2000 during the Clinton administration, but was denied the position because he did not support Ahmad Chalabi.

In 1998 Congress, by an overwhelming majority, passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which sought regime change in Iraq.

Pope said Chalabi was routinely testifying before Congress, where he was "lionized" by the neo-conservatives. Chalabi claimed he could liberate Iraq with some air cover and training for his 1,500 to 2,000 men.

"Tony Zinni was somewhat skeptical of this," Pope said. (According to a New York Times article, Zinni testified that Chalabi and his group are "going to lead us to a Bay of Goats, or something like that.")

Pope said he had the same reservations as Zinni. When it was time for his confirmation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "was loaded for bear" and looking for any opportunity to turn down a Clinton appointee.

He was called in and told by a woman that he "either agreed with Zinni" or that he tried to dissuade Zinni from expressing his concerns.

Pope was told that if he could provide "documentary evidence of the fact that you attempted to dissuade him from taking that position" they "might" consider his confirmation.

"I told her to get lost," Pope said.

Pope said that it was clear in the waning days of the Clinton administration that the country would be going to war in Iraq.

"We could definitely see it coming," he said, noting that the government had already expressed its desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein and that the U.S. Air Force had been "flying missions daily" over Iraqi air space.

Pope said nobody really questioned the United States' ability to defeat the Iraqi army, but there were many who were concerned that there was no real plan for the aftermath.

He said Zinni "was always concerned about what would happen after we defeated the Iraqi army."

As a result, there were numerous recommendations made by Zinni and others.

"When the time came, nobody paid the slightest attention to it," said Pope, adding that President Bush's advisors concluded that Chalabi would fill the "power vacuum."

"Of course, it totally fell apart," Pope said.

Pope said military leaders believed that computers and technology would not only allow the U.S. to make faster decisions based on superior knowledge than the Iraqis, but also that the U.S. would "get inside their decision loop and so confuse them that they'll just kind of give up because we've got computers and they don't."

This led to the belief that the U.S. would outsmart the Iraqis and the U.S. would not need troops on the ground, particularly in the number that the CENCOM war plan called for.

"We could act faster. Speed could replace mass. So we could do it with 125,000 as opposed to 250,000," said Pope. "They concluded that war was a branch of engineering. You can reduce it to a science." But as he noted in his book, "It turns out the most important things can be counted."

"War is a branch of politics. That's an ancient truth," he said.

He said, however, that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan progressed the military learned that war is part of politics and "reinvented" itself.

"They transformed themselves remarkably," said Pope.

Pope said that to understand the politics, one has to understand the culture.

As a result, the military has hired "cultural anthropologists" in Iraq and Afghanistan to investigate "human terrain."

Pope does not criticize those who believed war should have been waged.

He said both Republicans and Democrats voted for the war because they thought it was a "good way to democratize the Middle East" and help keep Israel safe by eliminating one Arab state that could threaten it.

"I thought it was a terrible idea and said so many, many times, but nobody paid any attention to me. So did Zinni," he said.

But he said it is "quite wrong" to claim President Bush and Vice President Cheney wanted to go to war regardless of any evidence.

"We were all persuaded that he (Hussein) had weapons of mass destruction," he said. "We may have been credulous."

Pope recalled going to a CIA briefing just before the war at which analysts presented their evidence that Iraq had WMDs. The evidence was very thin, but Pope concluded that the U.S. just lacked the information and not that Hussein did not have WMDs.

"It made sense that he would," said Pope. "Why would he disarm himself? He had had chemical and biological weapons. We knew that. Now just because the U.N. hadn't found them didn't mean they didn't exist in some form. That was kind of the conclusion. That's a story about getting it wrong.

"That this was not a war of necessity but a war of choice, that's unassailable too," he said of Iraq.

"We had no idea what we were going to do after we acquired the country," he said. "That we could really see. It was going to be a huge mess. And God knows it was."

He said that those in the State Department also could see that it was going to "create something new in that part of the world," and that was going to be a "Shia regime."

For hundreds of years the Shia had not been in political power.

Their sense of politics is that "you get your reward in the after life. You can't expect justice in this world," said Pope.

"The Arab world had been in stasis for 40 years," he said of the invasion of Iraq. "We unleashed all kinds of demons. We'll be dealing with those demons for quite some time."

One of those demons, an "unforeseen consequence" of invading Iraq and removing Hussein, has been the creation of the Islamic State.

Pope said the Islamic State would like to be a direct threat to the U.S., but that it does not have the capability.

Pope believes most Americans do not want to see another war in Iraq. He said the solution is not necessarily another bombing campaign, but supporting those in the region who are opposed to the Islamic State.

"Is a bombing campaign appropriate? Perhaps. Is it going to be a solution to the problem? No," said Pope. "I wouldn't want to see us take on another war in Iraq."

Since "Diplomacy is a negotiation between nation states," he said, "there is no negotiation possible with the Islamic State."

He said the president has tried to create a coalition of Arab states to defeat the Islamic State and the State Department does play a role in working with those nations. The question is how much the U.S. wants to be engaged and how much responsibility should be placed on the leaders in that region.


While negotiations with the Islamic State are not possible, Pope praised the multi-lateral negotiations with Iran.

"That (Iran) is an extraordinary negotiation," he said. "It's incredible."

Pope said it has been a two-stage negotiation. The first stage has been getting Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which includes Russia and China, to agree. Once they agree, then they have to get Iran to agree.

"That's no fun," he said. "It's unsatisfactory. Negotiation is always unsatisfactory. You never get everything you want in negotiation. We all know that."

Pope said that in negotiations in general, a country may get 80 percent of what it wants out of a deal but has to give up 20 percent.

"Is that a better deal than a war? I would say probably yes," he said.

Pope said the 47 U.S. senators who signed a letter to the Iranian leadership saying the agreement could be undone by the next president "undermines our foreign policy in very fundamental ways. It's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace."

"I just cringe when the Iranian foreign minister can give us a lecture on the American Constitution," Pope said.

Pope said the negotiations with the five other countries and Iran is "an admirable effort."

He added that Congress deserves a say in what it thinks about the final agreement but Congress should not undermine the effort while it is being negotiated.

Embassies As Fortresses

In regard to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, Pope said, "There has been so much ink spilt over it. The Accountability Review Board did a very good job. There was a very thorough inquiry."

He said there have been numerous inquiries and suspects nothing truly new will come out of any future inquiries.

One aspect of the event that he said is often not mentioned is the "heroic" efforts of Sean Smith, Chris Stevens and the two Special Forces officers who died defending the compound.

"All those folks defended that compound with great skill and great courage," he said.

Pope said Americans have a misconception about security at embassies.

"Embassies exist by the sufferance of the receiving government," he said. "The responsibilities for their protection lies with the receiving government ... and most states take that very seriously."

"Our security is a secondary line of defense," he said.

He said putting up more barbed wire and adding more Marines for protection implies to the receiving government that "we don't trust you to protect us. And in some cases we're right not to trust them because they are incapable.

"Nobody wants to get the ambassador killed," he said, adding that some countries just do a poor job of protecting embassies.

Pope said that when he was called out of retirement to fill the post after the attack, his main goal was to stabilize operations and have the embassy start "behaving like an embassy again."

But that was difficult due to the amount of protection needed and the lack of a truly functioning Libyan government.

He said there were 50 Marines at the compound when he took over.

One of the empty swimming pools in the compound was filled with anti-tank weaponry. Whenever he left the embassy compound, there was always a vehicle in front and one behind.

"Washington doesn't want to have another Benghazi. But that's no way to understand the world," said Pope. "You can't understand the world from a compound. Our people have got to be able to get out and talk to folks. Taking risks, prudent risks, is something that you've got to do."

Pope said the embassy in Libya was closed down about a year ago because there was no functioning government. And without a government with whom to negotiate and work, he said, "You have no reason to be there."

Despite what has happened in Libya and other areas of the world, Pope said terrorism is not an "existential threat" to the American republic. In the past year, 16 Americans died overseas from terrorist attacks.

"That's 16 too many. Each one is a tragedy," said Pope. "But 16 is 16."

He said the war against terrorists is necessary, but everything else should not be subservient to it.

"It makes it more likely that we'll miss the larger picture," he said. "It's not a grand strategy."

Israel And Palestine

Pope said that one of the biggest foreign policy failures in the past 36 years has been the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Pope said that after two Camp David agreements were signed, the framework has been laid to resolve the issue.

Those agreements included a freeze on Israeli settlements in certain areas and the recognition of Palestinian rights.

Since that time, however, more Israeli settlements have been built, which has compromised any chance of a "land for peace deal."

"A lot of things that happen in the world are not the fault of the United States," he said. "But we have a very close relationship with Israel, and so we must assume some of the responsibility for the fact that (the new settlements) has continued."

Palestinians, who may soon become a majority in Israel, do not have full rights.

The question has been asked by many as to how Israel can remain a democracy when a large percentage of its people are denied rights.

Pope said these actions compromise a two-state settlement that would be in Israel's interest.

"That's the whirlwind that will come sooner or later, after the two-state solution can no longer even be given lip service to," he said.

"We have a responsibility for this. This has gone on for a long, long time," he said, adding that many opportunities have been missed over the past 36 years. "It's a sad story."

Weakened Diplomacy

While all of these specific issues are of legitimate concern, probably the most heartfelt issue that concerns Pope is the weakening of the State Department and role of Foreign Service Officers.

In the past few decades, the State Department has gone from a professional institution that played a major role in foreign policy to a politicized, dysfunctional department in which the Secretary of State often tries to "work around" the State Department.

Pope said that not long ago, "The building was run by the Foreign Service under the direction of a strong Secretary of State. George Schultz was a great case in point. That's no longer true."

"It is really dysfunctional," he said of the State Department. "It's politicized and absolutely unworkable."

Three forces have been at work that undermine the efficacy and strength of the State Department: the ascendance of the military and intelligence agencies in foreign policy decisions, the centralization of power in the White House, and the lack of experience and weakness within the State Department.

After Sept. 11, 2001, financial resources for military and intelligence departments increased and with it their influence in foreign policy decisions.

"You (the State Department) are a handmaiden to the military. You are not in charge. The military is the dominant foreign policy institution and you exist to support it," he said. "A very bad lesson, terrible lesson for the republic. And many military officers would say that too."

Pope also said that much of the foreign policy power is now held directly within the White House. Susan Rice and the National Security Council often have more direct input into decisions than the State Department.

The State Department itself, however, deserves some of the blame for its loss of power, and that is due to several incremental changes within the State Department. Political appointees have been given positions of authority, such as ambassadors and assistant secretaries.

The professionals in the field no longer occupy many positions of authority. As a result, there are now meetings at the State Department where few or no Foreign Service Officers are in attendance.

"And that's where the decisions are made," said Pope. "It's an insidious kind of process. It feeds on itself. If think you think your job is not policy, then you are not going to assert yourself in the policy arena."

That creates a leadership vacuum within the ranks of the State Department. Pope noted that when he was pulled out of retirement to fill the position in Libya, several other retirees also took high-ranking posts.

"Why? The reason was the Foreign Service wasn't producing leaders to occupy these positions," he said.

Pope said Washington insiders know this lack of leadership is not a good thing, but it has not broken into the public consciousness.

"It's the dog that doesn't bark," he said.

Yet, Pope believes that those who work in foreign countries provide an invaluable service to the country. Their actions can be of great benefit to this country and provide stability overseas.

"Ambassadors are not ceremonial figures," he said, adding that they oversee massive interagency operations that encompass military, intelligence, commercial and other matters.

"These are positions of great responsibility and considerable power in the narrow ambit of relations with a particular country," he said.

Pope said, however, the ambassadorship to Hungary, the producer of "The Bold and the Beautiful" (Colleen Bell) would do fine at cocktail parties "but when she has to direct those significant operations, she is not going to have the background to do it."

Pope said the U.S. needs trained and experienced professionals in foreign countries who understand the people and their government.

"I can't negotiate with you unless I can understand your perspective," he said.

Pope said several things must happen in order to re-institute the power and professionalism of the State Department.

One is to de-politicize the State Department so that more positions are filled by trained professionals instead of political appointees. Another is to provide more training for Foreign Service Officers.

But those decisions will ultimately be influenced by the answer to another question.

"I think the fundamental question is: How do we think about the world?" said Pope, wondering if the U.S. will still view the world as sovereign nations with whom we should negotiate or countries open to extraterritorial invasions to protect ourselves.

"We're not going to impose our will on it (the world), but we do have a dominant military, which is a great asset," he said. "It's still a world of states. Then it flows from that, that you need people to deal with those states.

"American leadership is as critical today as it's ever been," he said. "We need a good foreign ministry."


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019