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by Johnny Young, Amb. (Ret.)

I send heartfelt congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the publication American Diplomacy. Twenty years of publication is a notable achievement in adding to the body of knowledge and literature offered to those interested in the practice of diplomacy? In celebrating this wonderful occasion, I would like to offer this personal reflection on what I was doing around the time of initial publication of American Diplomacy. In addition, I would also like to share from that time a policy concern that bothered me then and that continues to trouble me. It is the policy approach of our government sometimes going public too quickly before exhausting all means of private resolution on policy positions on which we are prepared to draw a line in the sand or throw down the gauntlet.

I began my Foreign Service Career in 1967 in Madagascar. I was fortunate and rose up through the ranks of the service and was given the opportunity and privilege of serving as U.S. Ambassador on several occasions.

Of my Ambassadorial assignments, one of the most challenging was in Togo where I was twenty years ago. The President at that time was Gnassingbe Eyadema, one of the longest serving African leaders at the time. He came to power in a 1967 coup and remained at the helm until his death in 2005. He was a real strongman in the African sense of the term. He tolerated no opposition. Many who attempted to challenge him were often dealt with brutally and sometime fatally, with no bad deeds traceable back to him. He had the people and apparatus to get the dirty jobs done.

It was my job to effect economic and democratic change, but Eyadema would have none of it. He simply wanted to continue along the same unproductive road of autocratic rule. If I had any success in Togo it was in shedding much greater light on the human rights abuses there and in encouraging a freer press.

Despite the U.S government’s disappointment with Eyadema, we never came out publically and said he had to go in order to make things better in Togo. We could entertain such thoughts and discussions privately, but that was where they remained. Besides, the situation in Togo twenty years had not deteriorated to the extent they had in Zaire in 1996/97 time frame. In that case, Zaire was spiraling out of control, wracked by war, factional fighting and a leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, in failing health and losing his grip in running the country. In this case, our discussions of his departure became very public. We drew a line in the sand and publically acknowledged that Mobutu had to go. I was among some of the American Ambassadors tasked with asking our host governments to consider taking him in.

When I asked Eyadema about this possibility. He said he was very much aware of the need for Mobuto to find a new home and that he would not forget his friend. I would have liked to have reported that I persuaded him to reach out to his fellow despot, but I could only report what I was told. Eyadema kept his word. In May of 1997 Mobuto fled Zaire for Togo. Once there, he was provided a villa, car, security guards and all of the trappings of a ranking guest of the president and former head of state. He remained in Togo for a brief time before moving on to Morocco, where he died in September 1997.

I cite this example of Mobutu because we, the U.S. government, believed, rightly, wrongly or naively, that with Mobutu’s departure, a new era of stability and prosperity might be possible in his troubled country. He left, and the good times never happened. He was replaced by another autocrat, Laurent-Desire’ Kabila. With the new strongman in place, the situation did not get any better in the country formerly known as Zaire but is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC. The DRC continues to be a disgracefully corrupt and mismanaged country. It is also far from Democratic in practice. The first Kabila died after a few years in office. In good African fashion, his son replaced him and continues to rule.

Could we have gotten Mobutu to move on by strictly working behind the scenes without going public? I don’t know. But once we did go public, we put out there for all to question our aspirations and resolve to bring about positive change in terms of stability, good governance, peace, hope and prosperity in Zaire. In short the mightiest nation in the world could not deliver on what it wanted upon the departure of Mobutu.

The case of Mobuto bubbled up about twenty years ago, and is but one example of how we have undermined our goals on occasion by coming out too soon to say that a given leader has to go. In too many cases where we’ve done this, the good to follow has often not been achieved, and has left us looking diminished in many ways.

Even after all these years since my time in Togo, we still find ourselves doing the same thing we did then of coming out seemingly prematurely in drawing lines in the sand. When the timing is right, lines can and should be drawn, but only after some very strategic, private negotiations and risk assessments have taken place. Unfortunately, there are a number of fairly recent situations in the Middle East that highlight the point. Libya’s Gadhafi is gone and the situation in that country is more dangerous than ever. We said he had to go, and he was moved from power. We said Mubarak had to go. He’s gone, yet Egypt continues to decline and is not prospering economically and politically. Yemen is another example.

The most obvious current example is in Syria where Bashar al-Asad continues the destructive rule of his country, although we had drawn lines in the sand and have said repeatedly in a toothless way that he has to go. Yet, he still remains in power and the U.S. appears increasingly powerless to bring about the change we have voiced publically for his removal.

If he does go, I ask what assurances we have that the situation in that country will develop in a way we would like. I know of none. We also drew a line in the sand in terms of chemical weapons in Syria. We did not act as we had threatened in that situation. When it came down to the crunch, we got out of that pinch with some Russian assistance, a move that, in my view, further diminished our power. Influence and resolve to deal with that particular problem in the Syrian crisis. Al-Asad’s hold on power continues to dog us and we continue to say that he has to go.

When autocratic leaders have built entire systems, institutions and loyalists around themselves, even if they are removed from power, the instruments of power they have constructed see to it that to the extent possible, business will go on as usual. The result is little or no improvements in the situation in the country. In some cases, it can get even worse. Individuals around such leader have a vested interest in seeing to it that the status quo endures. This allows them to continue to benefit from it. It is simple self-preservation and the hell with everyone else.

I know we did a lot of diplomacy behind the scenes in Syria, but I wonder if we did enough before drawing our very public lines in the sand and saying that Mr. al Asad had to go and that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated. Not having been privy to whatever those private discussions may have been between our governments, I can only ask if they were extensive enough, and don’t have the definitive answer to that. It is clear for all to see, however, that we have not achieved one of our key publically enunciated goals of removing Mr. al-Asad from power in Syria. Given the magnitude of atrocities Mr. al-Asad has allowed under his rule since the start of the war in his country in 2011, we are right in insisting that he should go. I think that will eventually happen, but I am not confident who or what might replace him and what good will result from such change. We just need to be prudent and strategically savvy about what we state publically in terms of what we want for Syria, as it evolves through a resolution of the present war.

Since so much is on the line when we announce to the world what we will and will not tolerate in a given situation, I have always felt that we need to be absolutely sure that we have done all we possibly can privately before drawing that proverbial public line in the sand that says a given head of state must vacate power or that we will not absolutely tolerate a given situation.  Once we do so, it must be with the understanding that if we don’t follow through on what we’ve said, we undermine our credibility. Influence, prestige, and power, and there is certainly no benefit in doing that. So I encourage our government to exhaust all private avenues of resolving differences before going public on our demands, demands we don’t want to come back to haunt us. It’s in our best interest to proceed accordingly.bluestar

Johnny Young
Kensington, Maryland
August 21, 2016


Author Ambassador Johnny Young holds the rank of Career Ambassador (2004). Included in his many years as a Foreign Service Officer, he has served as U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain and Slovenia. Since retiring, the ambassador has held several positions including Executive Director of Migration and Refugees for the U.S. Conference Of Catholic Bishops.


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