Empowering our ambassadors and their embassies

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In the Middle East and North Africa, the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” is still being played out against a backdrop of troubling news. Hopefully, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel will both be energetic advocates of a more robust U.S. diplomacy as we retool ourselves to better protect our interests and advance the values we hope will take hold there.

Few problems in the region seem likely to be resolved in the near term with the outcomes most of us hoped for when the turmoil first erupted in Tunisia two years ago. Some places, like Morocco, are moving forward with steady assurance and support from their own population. Unfortunately, Morocco is an exception. Elsewhere, progress has been more difficult to achieve. Current conflicts in Syria and Mali could still be repeated elsewhere unless the U.S. conceives and executes foreign policy initiatives that can win the support of both governments and people in the region, as well as the backing of our European partners whose stake in the outcome is every bit as critical as our own.

Clearly, U.S. foreign and security policy in the MENA region is in desperate need of some fresh thinking and innovative approaches. Long years of “business as usual” democracy assistance did little to promote our aims in Egypt under Mubarak, and our best security assistance and anti-terrorism training did equally little to dissuade U.S.-trained military officers in Mali from launching the coup in Bamako that started the spiral of violence and humanitarian disaster there that threatens to spread throughout the Maghreb.

The kind of fresh, innovative thinking we need in the region is most likely to be found among those closest to the problem — our ambassadors and their very capable embassy staffs. As U.S. ambassador to Morocco — 1997-2001 — I learned that an ambassador has the power to bring his embassy together as a single team under one strategic mission, rather than the staff thinking of themselves as detached representatives of their various Washington agencies.

Most importantly, encouraging original ideas from the staff that then can be advocated by the ambassador in Washington can turn seemingly intractable issues into a more sustainable course that supports the interests of both the U.S. and the host country. Too often we have allowed Washington to do too much of the thinking and asked little more from our embassies than to keep the Stateside bureaucracy well informed and execute whatever instructions arrive from home.

The key to getting the best and the most from our embassies, especially in difficult parts of the world like the Middle East, is to ensure first that we make good ambassadorial choices to these countries. And it is just as important to ensure that policy-makers in Washington abandon the notion that only they know best how to deal with issues that the ambassador and his staff confront on the ground, first-hand, every day.

The president’s choices for our embassies in a troubled MENA need to be of the same high quality as his D.C. team. There are excellent professionals with deep experience of the region in the U.S. Foreign Service. There are also excellent choices among the potential field of “political” Ambassadors. Neither of these kinds of appointments by the president should be looked at as “gifts” for past performance, or as “awards” for political support.  At this watershed moment for the Middle East and our interests there, it is essential that America field our best frontline representatives, and that they are given a genuine opportunity to bring some fresh thinking to our policy.

Gabriel is the former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco. 

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