An Interview with former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell

This interview will be featured in the Fall 2018 issue of the UNP newsletter, i.e., available in next month.

Ideologies Are Not Eradicated with Guns

Pru Bushnell 2018 copyThe following is an interview with former ambassador Prudence Bushnell, author of Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience: My Story of the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings (Potomac Books, October). Bushnell is an American diplomat who has held a series of leadership positions with the U.S. Department of State, including deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs, ambassador to the republics of Kenya and Guatemala, and dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute. She is retired from the Foreign Service and founder of the Levitt Leadership Institute at Hamilton College in New York. She has earned numerous awards for her leadership and diplomacy, including three honorary doctoral degrees.

i.e.: In 1998 when the bombs went off in Kenya and Tanzania, Congress was in recess. The White House, along with the entire country, was focused on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton. Afterward, Congress held no hearings about the bombings, and the national security community held no after-action reviews. And yet the intelligence available before these bombings made it clear that al Qaeda was a looming and ominous threat. How did our government fail to keep you and your colleagues safe?

Prudence Bushnell: Years of inadequate and erratic funding for diplomacy and development—which continues to this day—encouraged senior State Department managers and policy makers to waive the department’s own security regulations in order to stay in budget. For two years before the bombing, I sent cables of concern about our downtown location and vulnerabilities. I was instructed to “stop nagging.” After the bombing, the Accountability Review Board noted “a collective failure by several Administrations and Congresses over the past decade” and recommended reforms, many of which were never implemented.

The board did not address intelligence and policy failures. It took the 9/11 attacks to uncover the bureaucratic stovepipes, turf battles, personal conflicts, and failed strategies that were apparent before and after 1998, had anyone bothered to look. The FBI hid information from the CIA, which could not convince the NSA to share transcripts, while senior-level personalities feuded with one another. Had the National Security Council or units of the FBI and CIA that focused on al Qaeda activities shared information they had in hand in 1997 with one another, the embassy, and Kenyan intelligence, we could have prevented or mitigated the attacks. Business as usual continued after the attacks, thereby avoiding strategic lessons from a historic event and demonstrating manifest indifference to the major assaults on diplomatic facilities, the hundreds of people who died, and the thousands who were injured, in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

i.e.: Terrorism, Betrayal, and Resilience is a sobering reminder of just how important and dangerous the job of diplomacy can be. Kenya aside, you grew up in a Foreign Service family among the ruins of World War II and in Cold War–era Pakistan and Iran. With thousands of Foreign Service men and women working across the globe, putting their lives in danger every day, was an aim of your book to shed light on the perils these diplomats face in the field?

PB: Yes, and to shed light on what we actually accomplish. Before we were blown up in Nairobi, Americans were working with Kenyans in and outside of the embassy to level the political playing field, safeguard resources and wildlife, increase prosperity, and decrease rates of malaria and HIV/AIDS. The 1997 Kenyan presidential elections were deemed “generally free and fair,” wildlife is flourishing in and outside of game parks, people have prospered despite pervasive corruption, and they are living longer. Of the forty-six U.S. government employees killed in the bombing on August 7, thirty-four were Kenyan and twelve American.

Twenty years later, we have Foreign Service families choking for breath in India and China, attentive to armed gangs in Nicaragua, accommodating political unrest in Burundi, and coping with terrorist threats across Europe and the Middle East. Hundreds of others are living without their families in war zones. While the department is now providing the necessary bunkers for security—after the Benghazi deadly assault in 2012, it dare not do less—the perils of PTSD and unmet family needs and separations remain unaddressed by key department officials. The heroic efforts of the Foreign Service Institute’s Deployment Stress Management Program are no substitute for responsible leadership at the highest levels.

i.e.: Take us back to that terrible day on August 7, 1998, the day of the bombings. You had been in Nairobi for two years, serving your first ambassadorship after three years in the State Department’s Africa Bureau, so you had already earned your disaster stripes. But nothing can possibly prepare an ambassador for a full on terrorist attack. What do you remember most about that day? And how do you think it tested or defined you as a leader?

PB: August 7, 1998, began as an ordinary day, cool and sunny. Fridays usually meant a senior staff meeting, but I could not attend because I had a meeting in the high-rise building on the other side of our rear parking lot with the Kenyan minister of commerce.

In the minister’s office, we heard a loud explosion. Almost everyone in the room went to the window. I was the last to get up and found myself thrown across the room by a blast that came seconds after the initial explosion, a stun grenade we later learned. I thought I was going to die, but instead an embassy colleague and I descended endless stairs with hundreds of shocked, silent, bleeding Kenyans. It was only when we got out onto the street and I saw the charred remains of what was once a human being and the devastation of the embassy that I got a sense of what had happened.

Thousands of Kenyans had raced to the scene to use their bare hands to dig people out of the rubble of an office building that had collapsed next to the embassy. There was no 911, no firefighters, no rescue squads. In our embassy, victims had turned into their own first responders, returning into a death trap to gather up the dead, seek out the wounded, and uncover colleagues buried in debris. Meanwhile, teams had set up a crisis center, which I joined as soon as a doctor declared me fit an hour or so after the explosion. We had to tend to the wounded, find the missing, console the bereaved, make space for the rescuers, assist FBI agents, answer Washington’s questions, deal with the press, assess what we could do to help Kenyans and Nairobi’s overwhelmed medical infrastructure . . . and on, and on, and on.

The day after the bombing, as I was asked to be in multiple places at once, I remembered the written words of a mentor: take care of your people, and the rest will take care of itself. What was a mantra the first couple of days turned into my leadership strategy. Over the next ten months, as we dug ourselves out of a trench of despair, reconstructed our organization, struggled to heal, and repaired the bonds of friendship with the Kenyan people, I learned what taking care of people really means—and the results it produces.

i.e.: You entered the Foreign Service at a time few women served in midlevel and senior ranks. What was it like to work in a traditionally male profession?

PB: I entered the service in the early 1980s through an affirmative action program designed to redress years of discrimination against women and minorities. I was in my midthirties and already experienced in dealing with double standards, macho jerks and institutional biases, which I continued to address head on. I had men and women bosses who gave me opportunities to shine, and male and female mentors who gave me practical advice and were strong role models. As a senior representative of the U.S. government, powerful men in other countries had no choice but to interact with me however unpleasant they sometimes let me know it was. I learned to use the advantages of being a woman diplomat—one can say and do things men cannot—to persevere and face down bullies. After al Qaeda blew up our embassy in 1998, I found taking care of people to be the most natural and challenging experience of my life. When some of my Kenyan colleagues called me “mama” I took it as the title of respect it was meant to be. I had taken charge and taken care.

i.e.: As terrorist threats and our conflicts with jihadists continue through a fourth presidency, what has our government learned from the 1998 embassy bombings? What’s changed after twenty years? Is our military strategy working? Is the war on terror one in which we might one day declare victory?

PB: The so-called war on terror is the longest war in this nation’s history with no victory or end in sight. We redeploy volunteer soldiers to pay for failed military strategies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Horn of Africa, and other distant places, causing at least seven thousand deaths and tens of thousands of injuries among our military. Financial costs are also high: Americans have spent over $2 trillion, adding 10 percent to our budget deficit. Largely unreported is the toll on civilians in conflict areas. Estimates surpass a million innocent people who have died, suffered wounds, fled their homes, left their countries, or live in fear and misery. Meanwhile, jihadist groups continue to spread. I would not call our strategy successful; I would call it collective stupidity.

Ideologies are not eradicated with guns, tactics to terrorize civilians are not stopped by war, and our military might cannot substitute for diplomacy, development, and innovative strategies to create change through peaceful means.

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