The Kyle McCarter experiment continues: America’s first politician Ambassador to Kenya

[Update: next post will address fact that Amb. Kyle McCarter managed to step in several controversies in follow up on Twitter following the television interview I mention in the first paragraph.]

Ambassador McCarter seems to be striking a popular cord by pivoting to an outspoken role on corruption and talking development at a time when Kenya’s office holders seem to have moved on to the 2020 campaign. He is especially forward leaning and directly interactive on Twitter and just did a live one-on-one interview session on Citizen Television’s NewsNight stressing law enforcement against “thievery” and reporting that the US is working on visa bans and is committed to open contracting (including on the Mombasa-Nairobi Bechtel road contract that the Ambassador had reportedly indicated might be on hold).

As Ambassadors to Kenya we have had a journalist/newspaper editor (Smith Hempstone) and an Air Force General (Scott Gration, 2011-12). Former Illinois State Senator Kyle McCarter is the first with a background in elective politics. The rest have all been professional diplomats.

At the same time, there has been a big shift at the top of the State Department from 2009 with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry coming from the United States Senate to serve as President Obama’s Secretaries of State, and now Mike Pompeo serving Trump after six years in the House of Representative during the Obama Administration, then briefly (just over a year) as CIA Director. Prior to 2009, none of the American Secretaries of State had a background as elective politicians during the era of Kenyan independence since 1963 (with the exception of Edmund Muskie who served under Jimmy Carter from May 1980 to January 1981 following the resignation of Cyrus Vance in protest of the failed attempt to rescue hostages from the American Embassy in Iran).

All of the Secretaries of State from 1963 to date have been recognized partisans of either the Republican or Democratic Party, and served a President of the same party (noting that Henry Kissinger switched parties before the Nixon campaign and becoming National Security Advisor) but came from backgrounds in various other parts of the national security establishment (such as Alexander Haig, Colin Powell and Condelleeza Rice) law practice, academia, and other parts of the federal government and public service, in various combinations, along with typically some role in presidential campaigns.

So perhaps there is some trend toward greater use of politicians in diplomatic roles that may filter down to high profile Ambassadorships like the Kenya posting beyond McCarter’s tenure? It’s hard to know, and may be influenced by how well McCarter is perceived to do during his service.

The Star had an interesting piece last week entitled “Can U.S. Embassy help stem rising corruption tide under Ambassador McCarter” by Kazungu Katana, a former public affairs employee at the Embassy, running through a history of bilateral relations in the context of the tenures of McCarter’s 16 predecessors.

Since my work in Kenya was all about politics and political parties and most of my time spent with politicians and candidates in and out of office, or party workers, and because my background for the job was politics (and government contracting to a lesser extent) rather than the national security aspects of my career back home in the U.S. or any background specific to Kenya or East Africa, it is natural for me to have some appreciation for McCarter’s unusual background in practical politics that might not be shared by all of the people involved in the State Department or the Washington policy community generally. Of course, he shares a background in the Illinois State Senate and a prior connection to Kenya with former President Obama.

It is worth noting that McCarter is much more of an outsider vis-a-vis Washington than Smith Hempstone or Scott Gration were. As far as I know, McCarter has never even lived in Washington, whereas Hempstone had a family pedigree and was the editor of a Washington newspaper which had prior family roots. Gration as an Air Force General was of course posted far and wide, but rooted in the Pentagon. Hempstone was around politics in the region as a foreign correspondent and writer, and Gration was around Kenyan affairs from time growing up in a missionary family and in various capacities through his career in the Air Force and then as President Obama’s Envoy for Sudan from 2009-2011.