Page 20 - FSJ June 2012

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trends. Although I spent most of my
career and adulthood in Africa, my ex-
perience has been much more about
working in “societies in transition,”
which is what the continent is all about
— political and social evolution, and
transition from autocracies to more
participatory, humane forms of society.
But transitions take time, and achiev-
ing policy objectives requires sustained
diplomatic engagement.
FSJ:
Perhaps we could talk briefly
about each of your tours as chief of mis-
sion, beginning with your tenure in
what was then called the People’s Re-
public of the Congo (1979-1981). You
arrived in Brazzaville not long after
Denis Sassou-Nguesso became presi-
dent following a military coup, correct?
How did you approach your mission in
such a challenging environment?
WLS:
I was actually the first Amer-
ican ambassador to serve there since
Washington and Brazzaville had sus-
pended relations in 1963. Shortly after
his election, President Jimmy Carter
had received an overture from then-
President Joachim Yhomby-Opango,
which had led to the sudden resump-
tion of bilateral relations and the need
to send an ambassador to Brazzaville.
Although Pres. Yhombi-Opango ac-
corded me agrément, by the time I ar-
rived he had been deposed by Colonel
Denis Sassou-Nguesso. It was the lat-
ter leader who receivedmy credentials.
There were other rather intriguing
aspects to my tour in the Congo. Rus-
sians were omnipresent, and the
French were still a dominant force in
the economy, with the newly arrived
Americans somewhat suspect on all
sides. I “lost” the Peace Corps within
the first two months, but managed to
use Brazzaville’s centennial in 1980 to
put matters on a more promising tra-
jectory. Pres. Carter sent a delegation
to Brazzaville on Air Force One to
mark the occasion, thereby opening up
a much more friendly relationship.
FSJ:
Similarly, your tenure as am-
bassador in Monrovia (1981-1985)
began the year after Samuel Doe’s bru-
tal coup d’etat. Despite Doe’s abysmal
human rights record and political legit-
imacy, he managed to meet twice with
President Ronald Reagan and enjoyed
considerable U.S. financial support
throughout the decade. How did you
balance the competing objectives of
promoting a return to democracy and
the rule of law in Liberia with the desire
to maintain traditionally strong ties
with a longtime ally?
WLS:
Your question states very well
the paradox I faced in Liberia. On the
one hand, I was thrilled at the prospect
of representing our country to one of
its oldest African allies and friends. But
on the other, I faced the prospect of
helping to create a degree of political
and economic stability in a country just
taken over by a group of soldiers with
no capacity to govern responsibly. It all
started very badly: several days after
presentation of my credentials, Doe
had executed his vice head of state
while I was delivering a five-hour de-
marche.
Doe’s initial meeting with Pres. Rea-
gan, part of a 15-day official trip to the
U.S., was designed to start a transition
process to restore confidence in a coun-
try reeling from the coup d’etat — in
particular, with regard to Liberia’s im-
portant maritime flag of convenience.
After our return to Monrovia, matters
worsened, to the point that the Doe
government threatened to declare me
persona non grata. I obviously hadn’t
done the diplomatic slalom very well!
During my fourth and final year at
post, we seriously considered, but then
backed away from, implementing a set
of tight controls over Liberian financial
transactions.
FSJ:
As if those assignments were
not challenging enough, your next am-
bassadorship was in South Africa,
where you served from 1989 to 1992.
How did you pursue efforts to facilitate
a peaceful end to apartheid and a tran-
sition to full democracy?
WLS:
In a word, it was a matter of
building credibility and confidence
with the African National Congress
while convincing my government in-
terlocutors that I was acting in their in-
terest, as well. The African National
Congress was extremely skeptical, if not
hostile, about U.S. policy, so I took a
step-by-step approach, sending signals.
Several stand out in my recollection.
I began by inviting the ANC repre-
sentative in Washington to my swear-
ing-in ceremony at State, and formally
recognized her presence. In my re-
marks, I tried to cast diplomacy as dia-
logue and was quoted the following
week in
Time
magazine as saying: “To
refuse to talk to someone is not a policy,
and to talk to someone is not a political
declaration.”
Next, while passing through London
on my way to South Africa, I sought an
appointment with Oliver Tambo. He
was in Sweden recuperating, so I met
with Adelaide Tambo, his wife. A brief
meeting over tea led to dinner together
with her and her son, the actor, who
joined us. Afterward, she sent a mes-
sage to the ANC office in Swaziland to
tell them that it was all right to deal
with me.
Then I began attending funerals in
Soweto, which provided the easiest op-
portunity to meet WinnieMandela and
other leading ANC figures. In addi-
tion, I drew on my contacts with the
ANC frommy time in Liberia to invite
Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter
Sisulu, to dinner at the residence. She
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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 1 2
“I have never subscribed
to ‘Afro-pessimism,’
I believe that those
who do misread
developments and trends.”