by Christopher Datta
In 2002, after the 9/11 attacks, some of my friends in the Foreign Service resigned from the State Department over our invasion of Iraq. They felt they could not, in good conscience, represent a government that started an unnecessary, brutal and doomed war in a country that had nothing to do with the attack on our nation. We see resignations again today in protest against the policies of this president.
I personally agreed that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal blunder that would, and did, cost countless lives and treasure.
But unlike those who resigned, I stayed.
I stayed because as a Foreign Service Officer I took an oath to defend our country and our constitution. I disagreed with George W. Bush, but I believed in democracy and he was the man our country selected to be president.
Foreign Service Officers have a great deal of latitude to choose where to serve. I had Arabic language skills and was asked to go to Iraq. I turned down the assignment. Instead, I took an assignment to Juba, South Sudan. I did not support our policy in Iraq, but this was an assignment I could believe in. South Sudan had suffered horribly at the hands of the government in Khartoum, and the U.S. had been instrumental in bringing an end to fighting between the two sides.
In late March and early April of 2012, fighting resumed. Much to my surprise, the South Sudanese army kicked ass and drove Sudanese forces into a headlong retreat, with the South occupying a large oil rich territory essential to Khartoum. It was a serious and embarrassing defeat for Sudan. Total war was coming.
I was the acting ambassador to South Sudan and I had a tough message for the senior leadership of the government of South Sudan, many of whom were my friends, that the war had to end.
I received assistance from Special Envoy to Sudan Ambassador Princeton Lyman who flew to Juba to help pressure South Sudan to withdraw its forces from the captured territory.
Ambassador Lyman and I visited the office of Pagan Amum, a senior leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement at the time, the ruling political party in South Sudan. I had known Pagan for some time.
We delivered the strong message that, although we were the friends of South Sudan, the government had to withdraw for its own good or face a debilitating war that might well destroy the country.
Pagan was an experienced negotiator who had his back to the wall and he knew it. So he pulled out the only card he had left to play, which was to scream what the hell did we care about the future of his country, it was his country and they would decide what was in their best interests.
I knew perfectly well Pagan was pushing us to see what concessions he could wring out of the United States, and acting belligerent was the only trick he had not tried. I also knew that before the meeting was over, we’d all be slapping each other on the back and proclaiming our lasting friendship. This was Pagan’s way.
I stepped in and quietly explained to Pagan what I knew he already knew, but that had to be stated anyway so it was out on the table and everyone had a chance to move off the screaming option. I had nothing but respect for South Sudan and its people, I said, but Ambassador Lyman and I were the messengers of Washington. Yes, South Sudan was a sovereign nation that could take whatever action it wished, but Pagan had to understand the consequences. They would be sanctioned in the United Nations, with serious consequences for their economy. Foreign aid would dry up. Western support would evaporate and South Sudan would find itself isolated and alone in facing Khartoum.
Princeton confirmed and elaborated on this. Pagan, he said, had to think of the best interests of his people. This military miscalculation would bankrupt the country. They faced total war. We were their friends and we were speaking to them with a hard message, but a message given in friendship to a people whose future we were deeply concerned for.
By the time we left, everyone was smiling and slapping each other on the back professing our lasting friendship.
South Sudan withdrew. Total war was avoided. Tens of thousands of lives were saved.
I also served in Liberia where, in 2003, I again helped to end a devastating civil war, once again saving tens of thousands of lives. I helped bring two serious war criminals to justice. I went to Rwanda after the genocide to help put that country back together.
This is the work of diplomacy. I opposed the war in Iraq, but I stayed and I found ways to serve.
We have our faults as a nation, and plenty of them, and I am no fan of Donald Trump. But I took an oath to serve my country, and I am proud of the work I did. I urge my fellow Foreign Service Officers to stay at their jobs and do the best they can for the sake of our country, even though staying may be hard. When it is hard is when the nation needs us the most.
Christopher Datta is a retired Foreign Service Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State. Mr. Datta is the author of a memoir, Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge.