Friday, November 25, 2016

Embassy Monrovia Under Fire

This is a review of The Embassy - A Story of War and Diplomacy by Dante Paradiso, Beaufort Books, NY 2016. 

This book tracks the violence in Liberia during the fateful summer of 2003 when the ineffective opprobrious government of warlord risen-to-president Charles Taylor was under siege from several groups of equally repugnant rebel forces.  The capital of Monrovia became the focus of conflict with rebels pushing into Bushrod Island and the port area where they confronted Taylor’s rag tag militias defending bridges to the city proper. It was a maelstrom of horror, of indiscriminate shooting and shelling, of intimidation and extortion, of food, water and electrical shortages, of limited medical services.  Thousands perished.  Yet neither side was able to dislodge the other, so the situation spiraled ever downward for the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the fray.

Even as conflict raged Liberians, including representatives of the rebel groups, met in Ghana in an effort to devise a negotiated solution to the crisis.  While they blathered, Taylor stubbornly sought to save his skin and rebels consolidated their positions.  Surprisingly the Ghana talks ultimately devised a solution that would require Taylor to step down, rebels to withdraw, a regional peace keeping force to be inserted, and a transition established that would lead to an elected constitutional government.  The problem was to put this into effect. 

Readers may recall that the United States had a special relationship with Liberia because it was created by freed slaves being repatriated to Africa in the early 19th century. Although never a colony as such, the U.S. always kept a watchful eye on Liberia and that friendship was reciprocated.  Liberians always looked to America to help sort out their internal difficulties. The fact that the U.S. had not acted earlier to refute Master Sergeant Samuel Doe’s bloody takeover, nor thwarted Charles Taylor’s violent accession to power notwithstanding, the expectation for America’s help in 2003 was widespread. 

The violence chased most embassies out of Monrovia, and more expatriates left as conditions deteriorated, but the U.S. embassy headed by career diplomat John Blaney stayed on. At his instigation the ambassador himself and his staff sought throughout the turbulent months to maintain a presence and to work to halt the conflict.  They were regularly under fire as shells rained down on the embassy compound and because of that under enormous pressure from the U.S. military to evacuate, but the ambassador recognized that the U.S. presence was key to morale in the city and could be instrumental in achieving a cease fire and in implementing the political transition.   Blaney convinced Secretary of State Powell of the righteousness of this view and so stayed at post.

The book then is a blow by blow, conversation by conversation, policy thought by policy thought of what transpired inside the embassy during this period. It gives an inside look at how diplomats saw the crisis and what they did in response. Indeed, they were collectively a heroic bunch.  They put their lives on the line more than once, no more so than when the ambassador led a foray across the battle lines into rebel held territory to meet with rebel leaders. Certainly it was this activism and later follow-ups that compelled the rebels to withdraw and to turn over their positions to the regional peacekeeping force. 

The book is written in the present tense, so the reader remains engaged as the saga unfolds. The author employs lots of quotations, citations that were obviously drawn from memory and recorded during interviews with folks many years afterwards. This, of course, permited selective recall of what one would have hoped to say.  Additionally, the book is interesting because the author did not rely upon any official documents so there are no references to embassy reporting that would have unequivocally buttressed the narrative.  However, despite the fact that this is an unconventional history, it is an accurate one. The events described did happen and did unroll along the lines discussed.  Praise is due to the ambassador and his team for their insight, perseverance and competence in damping down a war and helping Liberia achieve peace and progress.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The President's Father - Who was He?

Following is a review of The Other Barack - The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father by Sally H. Jacobs, Public Affair, NY, 2011. 

This is a fascinating detailed look at Barack senior, a brilliant man intellectually, but burdened with foibles that hampered, and ultimately ruined his life.  To start with, however, Barack was a marvel.  He was bright, inquisitive and, above all self confident.  He came from a Luo tribal clan that inhabited a village on the shores of Lake Victoria Nyanza in western Kenya.  Barack’s father Onyango was forward looking and early on sought wider horizons by signing up for World War I and then becoming a cook for expatriate families in Nairobi.  Onyango was a distant parent, very authoritarian and demanding. His relationship with his children, Barack in particular, was fraught with strict discipline, including beatings.  Barack, in turn, would mirror such behaviors in dealing with his own children, that is, those who lived with or near him in Kenya.  (Obama junior, never really lived with his father, so avoiding learning to imitate such abusive behavior.)

Barack senior was the star of his schools from elementary forward.  He arrogantly asserted his superior knowledge and frequently was at odds with authorities.   This pattern of questioning, belittling and demeaning others was to mark his personality throughout his life.  Barack thought himself and his opinions infallible and he never learned to get along with superiors, especially in academic or workplace settings.  In fact, his obtrusive behavior, not his academic performance, prevented him from going on to higher school and university in Kenya. Also it later, along with his unconventional life style - two wives and families, partying and drinking - kept him from getting his Phd from Harvard. 

Barack left his first wife Keiza and two children in the village while he worked in Nairobi. With help Barack lucked into a university opportunity in America. He chose Hawaii where he stood out on campus not only because he was the only African, but because of his formal dress, white shirt and long pants, on America’s most laid back campus. Although he studied hard, he also partied hard. Known for his acerbic wit and svelte dance moves, Barack was also a ladies man. He met Ann Dunham and swept her off her feet. She became pregnant and they married.  Barack successfully dodged questions about his Kenyan family.  Obama Jr. was born IN HAWAII, but Barack and Ann never really set up a household together.  Within a year of the baby’s birth, Barack Sr., armed with a degree, was off to Harvard.  Ann and the baby never followed.  At Harvard the patterns repeated.  Obama worked hard and focused his mathematical prowess on the new field of econometrics, where he became one of the cutting edge practitioners. Outside the classroom he made the rounds of bars and clubs. He wooed and won a young woman named Ruth Baker, and promised to take her back to be his white queen in Kenya.  Although Barack admitted he had a wife and children in Kenya, he apparently never mentioned Ann or Barack Jr.  He ultimately fathered two children with Ruth and one more with his last wife Jael.  
Back in Kenya Barack always had a chip on his shoulder. He thought he merited more - better jobs, greater recognition and greater recompense than he received.  He was enormously self-focused and although generous in the sense that he freely spent what he had on entertaining friends, i.e. drinking, and in support of “big man” obligations towards extended family, he never developed warm personal uncritical relationships, apparently with anyone.  He did however, have legions of acquaintances and social relationships with Kenya’s Luo elites.  Often they were in school together or had formed interlocking ties as part of the new ruling elite. Luos especially pulled together in Kenya’s early years as they justifiably felt they were being side tracked by Kenya’s ruling Kikuyu elite.  Barack went though a half dozen jobs, but his arrogance, poor attitude and alcoholism - he was always hung over and often drunk during the day - regularly overshadowed his solid economic work. Due to drinking, his family and financial situation became increasingly chaotic. As his star sank, friends rallied around less and less to help out financially or calm family tensions.  One night, drunk as usual Barack, aged 46 rammed his vehicle into a tree and was killed instantly.  
Throughout this book, author Jacobs accurately sets the context, both cultural and political.  Barack was hemmed in, bound, if you will, in many ways by his Luo cultural heritage where the roles of men, women and children were elaborately prescribed. Men were dominate and enjoyed almost absolute freedom.  Barack certainly reflected that value.  Perversely that value did not translate well into American society or into westernized mores of contemporary Nairobi.  Secondly, Jacobs keenly understood the political situation in Nairobi in the independence era. She aptly describes the Kikuyu/Luo tension, Tom Mboya’s role and after his assassination the descent into even more acrimony.  Although Barack Obama senior was a man of both the village and the city, he was caught between worlds - between rural culture and modern times -  and never really found his way.  Personality wise, he could never make the adjustments necessary to adapt. Indeed there is no evidence that he even tried.  As uncomfortable as it was, he seemed content to be who he was. 

Comment: Obviously the reader must draw his own conclusions about how and why Barack Obama Junior turned out so differently from his father. The contrasts between the two men are astonishing. Barack Senior was a self-absorbed egomaniac whereas Junior is a man of vision, empathy and compassion.  Such are the mysteries of humanity. 

Validation:  I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyanza Province in western Kenya from 1968-70.  Being in the heart of the Luo tribal area I absorbed by osmosis and interest their view of national politics and their judgment of being discriminated against in newly independent Kenya.  I was tear gassed at Ahero when Tom Mboya’s funeral cortege came through and cautiously stayed home when Kenyatta visited the Kisumu hospital. The theme of exclusion that is so prominent in this excellent summation of Barack Obama Senior’s life indeed permeated down to the most rural of Nyanza’s villages.