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Americans Abroad, Working Under Fire


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Anti-American tensions flared in many countries over the past two weeks, and it's been difficult for Japanese in China, too, amid protests over disputed islands. In such a situation, what's it like for the businesspeople, diplomats and volunteers who get caught up in the crisis, when they suddenly find their home country the target of violence and outrage?

You tell us. If you've been in this situation, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a defense of the general who many say squandered the chance to win the Civil War 150 years ago this week, but first working abroad under threat. Dr. Thomas Burke is the chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Global Health and Human Rights. He was in Libya last week, scheduled to meet Ambassador Chris Stevens at the Benghazi medical center on Wednesday morning to put the final touches on a new program to develop emergency medical care there.

Dr. Burke is back in the States, and thanks very much for joining us now.

THOMAS BURKE: It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And take us back to last Tuesday night. Your team was on the phone with Ambassador Stevens' staff when suddenly it became clear something was terribly wrong.

BURKE: Yes, we were on the phone with Ambassador Stevens at 8:30 in the evening, putting the final touches on our plans to meet the next morning and in fact putting together the details around the security team that would bring the ambassador to the hospital to work with us.

And then at 9:30, we were again on the phone with his attache just finishing up some more of the conversation when we heard explosions both through the phone as well as audibly just outside of our hotel room.

CONAN: Obviously something was terribly wrong. I assume the conversation ended there.

BURKE: It did. There was a rather quick set of words and then a hang-up.

CONAN: The next day, it appeared that Ambassador Stevens was taken to that hospital; that's where he died.

BURKE: Indeed, he came in at 2 o'clock in the morning to the patchwork emergency room in the Benghazi medical center, and I was called at 2:30 in the morning. And by 4 o'clock in the morning, it was confirmed that the ambassador indeed had been in the emergency department and had died.

CONAN: What was the change like from one day to the next?

BURKE: Well, the change was dramatic. And I can describe the next day. Throughout, you know, when you looked out the window of your hotel or briefly walked to your vehicle, it didn't look different. The town didn't look different. In truth, the attack was a very small geographical location. But people, you know, would come with their both of their hands and grab my hands and would cry.

And at the hospital, there were doctors and nurses sitting on the floors in the hallways crying. It was a remarkable scene and mixed. I think I learned more that next day as to how important the ambassador was in everybody's life. Many of the leaders of Benghazi, whom I did get a chance to meet with, had had the ambassador over to their homes for meals over the previous few years, and they certainly saw the ambassador as a hero in their fight for peace and democracy.

CONAN: And obviously those people, many of them are the people of Benghazi, the people of Libya, but it must have been also a little scary in the street.

BURKE: Well, certainly I conducted myself differently, immediately retrieved - you know, there aren't very many Americans in Libya and certainly weren't many in Benghazi - retrieved our passports from the front desk immediately. There's only one hotel in Benghazi, and we're the only Americans in that hotel.

And the previous two days, my close colleague Dr. Steven Bowen(ph) and I had gone out for long walks along the water, and people pulled over, actually, and honked and would run out and shake our hands. The enthusiasm for seeing two Americans walking or at least two Westerners was really extraordinary, and certainly, you know, we weren't going to be walking again anytime soon.

CONAN: What's happened to the program that you hoped to inaugurate at the hospital?

BURKE: That's a very interesting question that I think will need to be sorted out over the next several days and several weeks. And we in fact had a team meeting this morning, and in fact we think it's more important than ever to proceed with the program, but, you know, the reality is that that needs to be thought through very carefully by leaders at Massachusetts General Hospital and in combination with our own government leaders to understand what are the safest and the best steps going forward.

I think it's fairly apparent that if all of us turned our backs, then ultimately those that are - that were seeking violence and the extremists would be able to claim victory.

CONAN: The events in Benghazi this week brought the dangers of working as a diplomat into the spotlight. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell noted in an op-ed in the New York Times last week: Diplomats don't often make headlines until something horrible happens. She's a former United States ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala, and she's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: Thank you for addressing this topic.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, news today that Secretary Clinton, the secretary of state, has announced a board to review what happened in Benghazi. What's - what can you tell us about that?

BUSHNELL: This would be an accountability review board. Any time there's significant loss of property or loss of life in a diplomatic facility overseas, Congress automatically mandates an accountability review board to look at what happened, what went wrong and how can we avoid this in the future.

CONAN: And obviously there was one of those after your embassy was blown up in Nairobi.

BUSHNELL: Yes, there was.

CONAN: And the lessons learned, did we learn the right lessons?

BUSHNELL: I don't think so. I think the lessons are still out there to learn. One of the points that was made in the accountability review board that Admiral Crowe headed was that diplomatic security had been neglected by a series of administrations, Republicans and Democrats, a series of Congresses and secretaries of state.

He talked about and reiterated what was in another accountability review board report when our embassy in Beirut was blown up in 1985 that we needed to have consistent funding for secure diplomatic facilities. I think that Secretary Colin Powell certainly did as good a job as he could helping us to create small, medium and large concrete boxes overseas so that we could get as many new facilities as possible, but clearly our consulate in Benghazi was not adequately protected, and I suspect there are a lot of other consulates in the same shape.

And we need, I will repeat, from 1985 and 1998, we need consistent, underscored, consistent funding for security and I would also say for diplomacy so people like Chris Stevens and his colleagues can continue doing their jobs in a lot more safety than what they find now.

CONAN: I hear your point, but obviously the life of a diplomat requires going out, meeting people.

BUSHNELL: Absolutely.

CONAN: No protection can be perfect.

BUSHNELL: Absolutely. Do you remember - I don't know if you ever watched "Star Wars" or the Starship Enterprise.


BUSHNELL: OK, remember the Enterprise? This is where Captain Kirk and his team at - this was the ship from which they operated. Think of an embassy as the ship from which diplomats operate. We need Starship Enterprises. On the other hand, Captain Kirk didn't spend the whole time in the Starship Enterprise.

CONAN: Lots of away teams.

BUSHNELL: In order to - exactly, in order to explore where no man has gone before, they had to get out of the ship, as diplomats have to get out of the embassies. Unfortunately, we do not yet have the technology to beam me up, Scotty. Would that we had. But we need to figure out how we can both have secure home ships and get people out because you influence, and you develop partnerships but through face-to-face interactions.

CONAN: Dr. Burke, you're still with us, and I know that Libya is not the only country you operate in, and I know for example South Sudan is another one, and that presents challenges of its own. But traveling through town, a checkpoint is one of the ugliest words in the English language.

BURKE: That's a great point, Neal, and the conversation you just had, I agree. There's this balance between risk and between actually being effective. You know, being isolated and living in our, you know, strongholds or safe places with high walls doesn't allow us to integrate, doesn't allow us to insinuate into the population, and it doesn't allow us to work shoulder-to-shoulder to ultimately come to, you know, joint visions and achieve goals together, which is ultimately what's necessary to be effective.

And so that's always going to be a challenge. And going through checkpoints can be rough and lots of stories to tell around going through checkpoints, but that's part of the choice that's made in all of us doing this work.

CONAN: And it's a basic violation of the law of life which is to avoid teenagers with automatic weapons, but they're always there at checkpoints.

BUSHNELL: I don't know if the doctor had this experience. I spent many years dealing with conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and went through many checkpoints manned by little boys with big guns. I never looked them in the eye. That's one of the things I learned is you do not look a teenager with a gun in the eye lest he think...

CONAN: It's a challenge.

BUSHNELL: It's a challenge, exactly.

CONAN: Dr. Burke, thank you so much for your time today, appreciate it.

BURKE: Thank you very much, Ambassador, Neal. Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: Dr. Thomas Burke, chief of the Division of Global Health and Human Rights in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He's back in the States after a frightening experience in Benghazi last week. We're talking about what happens when you're caught working overseas under threat. We'll talk later with a consultant who advises businesspeople.

And if you've been in this situation, we want to hear your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're seeing more protests today against the bigoted film trailer that sparked riots across the Muslim world last week. Pakistani security forces fired tear gas at a crowd of several thousand, some of them throwing rocks as they tried to get into a compound that houses the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

In response to the outbreak of protests, the U.S. Embassy ran ads on Pakistani television today. The commercials condemned the video's vulgar description of the Prophet Muhammad in an apparent attempt to diffuse some of the anger against the United States, where the video was filmed.

We're talking today about what it's like to work overseas in a country where you've suddenly become a target. If you've been in this situation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Prudence Bushnell, former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala, now CEO of Sage Associates. We've posted a link to her New York Times op-ed, "Our Diplomats Deserve Better," at our website. That's at npr.org. And let's get a caller in on the conversation. Ryan(ph) joins us from Orlando.

RYAN: Greetings, and thank you.


RYAN: I have been on both sides of this equation. I was in China during the Hunan spy plane incident, if you remember, in 2000.

CONAN: Right at the beginning of the Bush administration, yes.

RYAN: Yes, even though it seemed like we were gearing up for a war with China at the time, it was all over every television. Every shop I walked by had it on their TV. And I was treated very, very well.

On the other side of the equation, 2003, once we're in a hot war, I was walking through the streets of Amsterdam, and one of our pilots was assaulted with a lead pipe, and we were getting advisories from the State Department, the travel advisories. And it wasn't much better in Saint-Denis, outside of Paris, either.

And I was just wondering if there was a cultural difference, or if you think it was just the fact that it was a hot war, as opposed to moving into a war setting that changed the mindset of the people in the regions I was in.

CONAN: Any thoughts, Ambassador Bushnell?

BUSHNELL: I think people who live under authoritarian governments tend to express themselves in many ways, including in violent ways, less than people who live under governments that are democratic and have freedom of expression, which allows - sometimes means people choose to pick up a lead pipe and beat somebody. I don't know that it's so much correlated to hot or cold wars.

CONAN: Ryan, in the situation in China, I wonder, as we know, protests there happen when the government wants them to happen. Were you in any sense frightened?

RYAN: I was not. Again, the...

CONAN: I think we're having trouble with Ryan's cell phone, in fact it's just vanished. So I apologize for that. In any case, let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Larry(ph), Larry's on the line with us from Charleston.

LARRY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Larry.

LARRY: Yes, can you hear me OK?

CONAN: Yeah.

LARRY: Good. I work in the petroleum industry, and there's been a decision, going back even into the Roosevelt period, certainly to the war in the '40s, that the oil companies, particularly the British, American, Dutch Shell would have more of the forefront in negotiations in the Middle Eastern countries, just had more sophistication than the State Department or the British Foreign Office.

And I'd like the team to comment on that. Oil has always had a different kind of view on the way, you know, domestic and international relations are handled.

CONAN: Ambassador Bushnell, can you give us any insight?

BUSHNELL: I'm not sure whether the caller is talking about negotiating with other governments on oil or negotiating on other governments - with other governments on other issues. I will say that I think that American diplomats get plenty of experience negotiating on a whole range of things.

People in the oil industry may well be more expert in oil than we are, but I have - I think we're pretty sophisticated as negotiators, thank you.

CONAN: Is that your experience, Larry?

LARRY: Yeah, I think the State Department and Foreign Office in, you know, the Dutch, German, British governments, particularly with the national oil companies that they had in those days in relationships with the national oil companies in the Middle Eastern countries, there was a certain esprit de corps amongst the - you know, in other words if the Dutch government had a control of Shell, the Italian government had control of a company, ENI, then they would deal better with the Libyans than maybe the Americans or the American military or the American State Department would deal or maybe even the Italian Embassy, less of a good time dealing with the government of Libya than the Italian who's a delegated kind of authority, indirectly and often surreptitiously.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Larry, appreciate it.

LARRY: You're welcome.

CONAN: I wonder, Ambassador, your thoughts must be with the staff at the embassy in Islamabad today. Can you give us some idea of when you're in that situation, when you're made aware that there's a mob approaching, what kind of - what are they doing?

BUSHNELL: You know, it's quite terrifying when you know that a mob is approaching. That said, unfortunately we have a lot of American civilian government employees overseas who are becoming adjusted to living in very dangerous places, and Pakistan is one of them, Afghanistan, Baghdad another.

So you become very intentional about what you do, how you live your life and how you work. That said, we all have primitive brains that release adrenaline. We sweat. Our heart rate goes faster. We are basically human animals, and when we are confronted with violence or possible destruction, we are going to react, and that has an impact on human bodies that goes beyond just the moment.

So my heart goes out. I have absolute confidence that people in Islamabad know what they're doing. They are taking protective measures, and they may well be very scared, and I certainly hope we can address that issue and the layers of tension and stress that that puts on your shoulders and then builds up over time.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is - excuse me, this is Dav(ph), Dav with us from Lake Forest in California.

DAV: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAV: OK, very briefly, December 9, 2003, this is actually in the heart of - I think two buildings away from the Duma in Moscow. I was at the Russian National Hotel, and a lady, as best we know, a suicide bomber, blew up the front of the hotel and killed I think eight or nine students.

And I was walking through that. I had just been on a discussion with my staff about my return to the United States. I was preoccupied. I just walked through it. They let me walk through it. I stepped over one of the bodies and then moved as quickly as I could to get to work.

And when I got to my workplace, which was several blocks away, then they told me what had happened. And so that was when reality set in for a moment, although even at that I was very busy. Reality got even more so the next day. I was resting because I didn't sleep well that night, and well, the hotel security and a member of the - well, it's still called the KGB, they dropped in and talked to me for a while and wanted to know my reactions.

So what I did, what I did very quickly was I made plans. It took time, but I knew I was going to be there. I made plans to get out of the center of the city. I moved out into the outskirts where very few Americans live. Also I'm a senior citizen. I had a white beard. I was letting it grow out for - well, anyway. So all I did was I started dressing very much as the locals do, and...

CONAN: So to blend in as much as you possibly could.

DAV: I was so effective that several days later, they took my credit card away from me because they thought I was a Russian who had stolen it.


DAV: That was the downside. But yes, it was - I can look back the nine years ago, and it's hard for me to attach an emotion to it, other than to attach a set of actions so that every time there was a bombing in Moscow, my boss had to know within I think two or three hours so that all of the people that we had in the city were safe and details like that.

It's - I don't know how to ever counsel. I believe each of us responds somewhat differently to the circumstances.

CONAN: I think you're right. Dav, thank you very much for sharing your story.

DAV: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Dave Richter runs Richter International Consulting. He advises U.S. companies who send employees overseas to work. He's also done quite a business - a bit of business aboard himself. Nice to have you with us today.

DAVE RICHTER: Thank you very much, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: He's with us from his office in Seattle. In 1999, when U.S. bombs hit China's embassy in Belgrade, you found yourself on a business trip to Beijing next week. Tell us about that.

RICHTER: I did. It was very interesting. I had lived in China a couple times prior to that. I speak Mandarin, so I felt very comfortable going to China. And I had promised my son that I would be at his school for Father's Day. And when this trip came up, I was going to have to cancel those plans. So I took him with me to China. And I as boarded the plane in Seattle, the other passengers on the plane were looking at me like I was crazy because I was taking a 5-year-old to Beijing when the Chinese were actively throwing rocks and stones at our embassy.

And for me, having spent a lot of time in China, I understood that the Chinese would not let that get out of hand. And I think your caller before who talked about his experience in Hunan was very much - I mean, that's the situation. The Chinese were busing people in. They were providing them with the rocks. And when their shift was over, the buses came and took them back home, and they really didn't let get it out of hand. So I think, you know, it's - China is a very interesting place, and I think that the ambassador spoke about, you know, totalitarian states and governments that are very firm in their - in terms of the way that they keep control of a society.

Those people are, you know, those are relatively safe places, although they look very foreign. And if you were a business traveler walking into a place like that, it would look very scary as opposed to someone who kind of knows their way around a bit.

CONAN: In China, this last couple of weeks, a lot of demonstrations against Japanese in part the dispute over the Senkaku Islands - that's what the Japanese call them - in part it was also the anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China in the Second World War. In that situation, what would you tell a Japanese client who had business in Beijing or Shanghai, one of the big cities?

RICHTER: You know, I mean, that's a very good question, and I think that certainly avoid places of, you know, of Japanese national significance, so their embassy and places like that. And I think one of the - I think the - Japan and China have a very complicated relationship and that the hatred and the - dates back to what the Chinese refer to as the Nanjing massacre is - or the rape of Nanjing is very deep-seated, and it's really not going to go away. So that's a very particular longstanding complicated relationship.

So I would recommend for Japanese at this point maybe just stay at home and let this - let the - it - because I think this is organized by the Chinese government...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RICHTER: ...that the...

CONAN: The passion is real - yeah.

RICHTER: ...after - yeah. And then - but it also then takes on a little bit of - I think that the emotion of the Chinese around this particular issue is very strong and so the potential for a little bit of things getting out of control is there. So I would recommend if I was a Japanese businessman, I'd postpone my trip for a couple of weeks and then go back in.

CONAN: Dave Richter, owner of Richter International Consulting. Also with us is former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Dave Richter, you've got people - yeah, you can cancel your trip. But what if you have a restaurant there or a factory there? I know some restaurants put Chinese flags in front of the storefront so to avoid vandalism.

RICHTER: And that is - I mean, that is a real - that's a real risk. I think that most companies and some clients of mine that I deal with, there a number of things that we advise. One is there is a duty of care responsibility that corporations have to prepare their employees for both business trips and for expat assignments that they go on, and that includes making medical and security preparations. And then companies also have their own risk managers and security departments and use firms like International SOS and others to advise them on, you know, what do you do if you've got a factory and how do you make it - how do you keep it safe. And, you know, maybe do you suspend, you know, business operations for a two-week period if that's what's warranted?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RICHTER: So I think that it's complex, and each situation is going to be different. I think that volatile places like the Middle East are - have a whole different set of challenges because there is not a strong governmental control. And so these crowds are - and no one is really controlling them. And that brings an added element of risk.

CONAN: This, an email from Alex: I was stationed at the American Embassy in Baghdad during the regime of Abdul Karim Qasim. He declared our then-Ambassador John D. Jernegan persona non grata. To show our support, the entire embassy staff went to the airport with our children to see him off and sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." We were surrounded with soldiers with submachine guns. We did not let them intimidate us. That shows...

BUSHNELL: There you go. That's our American diplomatic spirit. Yay for U.S. employees and civilians overseas.

CONAN: Let's see we get another caller in. This is Steve, and Steve is on the line with us from Laramie, Wyoming.

STEVE: Hi there. I've been listening. I'm really interested. I was in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the last three months. In fact I just got back about three or four weeks ago. And I was - I'm an American university professor, and I was asked to come and work with the Ministry of Education to help out with literacy in the schools. So I was there (unintelligible) by myself. And my work aside, although that's part of it, I stayed at what many people say in the Guest House, which has about 50 rooms in the center of the city. But within the first two or four days I was there, in contrast, the warning was never go out, never leave the guest house other than with your driver to go to work. I walked out.

And the long story short is I spent three months walking through the city and talking to people, hanging out in the park, watching the cockfights, doing various things around town. And I think that I had - I learned about people, and I began to ask questions and I understood people. And I would - and in contrast to the many people who were at the Guest House, who never left the walls except for going to work with the drivers who would literally walk through - drive through the wall, bring them back and forth who hadn't - had nothing good to say about the Afghans.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you had a very different experience in the town.

STEVE: I have very different experiences because I actually talked to people. And I'm not - and let's be honest, I'm obviously not a diplomat. But I - when I heard about the ambassador from Libya and the relationships he built with people, I get it, and I get why they liked him. And I get why he made changes in his (unintelligible).

CONAN: Steve, I'm afraid we're going to have to let it go there. Thank you all for your time. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.