The Foreign Service Journal - March 2018

52 MARCH 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL FEATURE A former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe reflects on the November 2017 coup in that country and wonders: How did he miss the signs that it was coming? BY CHARL ES RAY During a 30-year career in the Foreign Service, following 20 years in the Army, Charles Ray served in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Guangzhou and Shenyang. He became the first U.S. consul general in Ho Chi Minh City in 1998, and served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia (2002-2005) and later Zimbabwe (2009-2012). He retired from the Foreign Service in 2012, and now devotes himself full-time to freelance writing, photography and art. He also lectures, consults and does public speaking on a variety of subjects. On Jan. 19, Ambassador Ray was the guest on the American Diplomat podcast with Peter Romero and Laura Bennett, speaking about his interactions with and views on Robert Mugabe ( zimbabwes-authoritarian). S ometimes unexpected things happen, and your brain has a hard time accept- ing them. That was the case for me in November 2017, when I heard from friends in Zimbabwe that there were signs of a possible coup. I had predicted that the military would never remove President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s ruler for 37 years. I thought they were misreading the signs; I was wrong. Zimbabwe after Mugabe: Dark before the Dawn? My contacts with the military during my tenure as U.S. ambas- sador, though limited, had led me to believe that the military was too legalistic—even when engaged in illicit activity, the brass tried to portray what they were doing as legal. Because a coup is a pretty blatant power grab, it’s difficult to make it look legal. In addi- tion, since the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)—the party the military has sustained in power since independence in 1980—has effectively been in sole control of the government since the 2013 elections, it would be overthrowing itself. I had been saying that in lectures on Zimbabwe since retir- ing in 2012, whenever a question about the possibility of a coup came up. So I was shocked on Nov. 15, when emails and Facebook posts from Zimbabwe and reports in the U.S. and international media showed soldiers and tanks on the streets of Harare, and a military spokesman on Zimbabwe’s state-controlled media stated that the army had “guaranteed the safety of Mugabe and his wife”— though it would target criminals around the former ruler. How could I have been so far off the mark? One of the biggest mistakes I’d made was defining “coup d’état” too narrowly. I’d pictured something akin to the military takeovers I’d seen in Sierra Leone in 1992, Thailand in 1990 and South Korea in 1979, or the series of coups in Vietnam in the 1960s, where cabals of military officers summarily deposed the existing leader- ship and took over key government departments, administering