In May 2007 I was getting ready to move and reading up on Kenyan politics and history, and talking to people associated currently or previously with the International Republican Institute who knew something about the practical aspects of living and working in Nairobi, which was not as common a thing for Americans then as now.
At my job as Senior Counsel with the big defense contractor Northrop Grumman I was working to close a “Gulf Opportunity Zone” bond issue for “facilities modernization” at The State (of Mississippi) Shipyard at Pascagoula which was under long term lease to the company with rent tied to bond debt. We were recovering and improving in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I was also Program Counsel for the Amphibious Assault Carrier program, in which we had a series of contracts for a low “ten figure” sum to build a Navy ship that carried a Marine Expeditionary Unit to wherever they might need to go, with a few helicopters, airplanes and landing vehicles, a hospital and such.
The idea of doing non-profit foreign assistance work was influenced by several things, most especially living through the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A few weeks before the hurricane hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast I had served as an Election Observer for IRI in Kyrgyzstan, and as the youngest and most expendable delegate I had had a grand adventure in Batken in the Ferghana Valley and found the experience of supporting a peaceful election in a troubled region as a counterpoint to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be inspiring. Spending some time in an area that was poor and economically regressing also gave me a different perspective on the context of the devastation we soon faced back home from Hurricane Katrina, where in spite of the initial failures we received billions of dollars in assistance. Even though it was all grossly inefficient, Washington turned on the spigot. More importantly people from around the country and even around the world came to help “on the ground”, sacrificially, and many of my friends, in particular in my church congregation, did wonders helping those in need while most of my impact involved my work at the shipyard. All told, I was primed to “do something” intended to be helpful and in particular in the “less rich” world.
It was in this context that I asked for “public service leave” to take the position of Resident Director for East Africa for IRI. I asked for 18-24 months of unpaid leave, with the expectation that I would have to hope that a spot was available somewhere within the company’s law department after concluding at IRI. I got 6 months of job-protected leave instead, extended at IRI’s request that fall to a full year.
If I had had the background and experience, I might have sought to work in some other area like agriculture. I had a background in practical party politics which had led to the opportunities to volunteer with IRI. There was another context for working in democracy assistance specifically though, which was the Iraq war. I was one of those that had not really been persuaded by the case to invade–it seemed like a “hail mary” so to speak that only made sense in the face of the kind of clear imminent threat that did not seem to be demonstrated. Likewise, the general “Bush Doctrine” did not seem to me to be consistent with the weight of decisions of war and peace that were required by my Christian values. By 2005 most Republicans from Washington could admit when they let their hair down overseas that we had made a mistake even if it would be another eleven years before they felt willing to say so publicly in response to Donald Trump’s campaign in the Republican primaries.
At some level, I thought we made the mistake on Iraq because too many of the people who really knew better in Washington in 2002 and 2003–the kind of people who had the experience and regional knowledge that I knew outside of Washington–“went along to go along” rather than exercise their best judgment.
So given my reasons for being in Kenya in the first place, and my own experience watching policy trainwrecks in Washington from the field, I was never going to be the guy to delegate my own responsibilities to do my own job to others, such as the Ambassador, who were not in my chain of command and had different roles to play and different perspectives about the Kenyan election. Nor was I going to willingly personally implicate myself in communicating things that I did not consider to be true when my job as Chief of Party for democracy assistance programs did not countenance “looking and pointing the other way” for extraneous reasons when confronted with election fraud.
I have found some agreement from a range of people in Washington with my observation that “the soft underbelly of American national security is careerism”. Since I wasn’t in Kenya for IRI because “it was the best job I could get in the Republican Party” or because I wanted to switch careers to try to climb the ladder in U.S. foreign policy in Washington, I did not have the same temptations that others might have had to let myself get steamrolled by the Ambassador or others who did not want to recognize inconvenient facts about the Kenyan election that I had a responsibility to deal with. Likewise, being an experienced middle aged lawyer used to dealing with government contracts made a great deal of difference, as did being the father of young children whom wanted to be able to explain myself to in years to come.
P.S. In case you have come to this piece fresh without being a previous reader here, the best “witness summary” of my experience and subsequent research is my longread in The Elephant from 2017: “The Debacle of 2007“, in addition to my Pages with my “War for History” series and my “FOIA Series–Investigating Kenya’s Election“.