JUNE 29, 2012
Updated at 3:03 p.m.
When U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Scott Gration resigned his position early this morning, he said in an emailed statement, “differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it's now time to leave."
That's putting it gently. A former State Department official with a long service record in the Africa bureau and a former ambassador told me that Gration’s tenure in Kenya was marked by constant friction with his superiors and a refusal to abide by State Department protocol and security measures. For instance, in a move that upset officials in the Department of Defense and White House, Gration complicated U.S. diplomacy to Somalia by demanding oversight of the Somalia Embassy’s actions. And because Gration insisted on using his personal computer to conduct State Department business, he set up an office in one of the few places in Embassy Nairobi authorized for an unsecured network—a bathroom. (When a staffer had a meeting with him, he or she would sit on the toilet.)
Attrition rates at the Nairobi Embassy were staggeringly high, said a former U.S. government official who worked on Sudan. Many of Gration's staff opted to be transferred to the highly dangerous Iraq and Afghanistan embassies rather than continue to work for him. "Some people had to go to some real shit holes to escape him," said the former official. Gration made capricious policy that hurt staff morale. At one point, he told his staff that they could either sacrifice the extra pay they make for working in a volatile region, a State Department sacred cow, or he would force their spouses and children to leave the country. (In Kenya, officers are allowed to bring their families and collect 'post differential' pay).
It’s a strange ending for someone who entered the national stage as one of the first big foreign policy names to endorse Obama, and later became a close friend of the president’s. When Obama entered office, Gration had his choice of high-level positions—and, reportedly, the commander-in-chief’s ear. Rumors placed Gration’s aspirations high in a second-term Obama administration—as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, even.
Gration, the son of missionaries, spent much of his childhood in Kenya and speaks fluent Swahili. He joined the Air Force in 1974, where he became an F-16 fighter pilot instructor before retiring in 2006. That year, he traveled Africa extensively with a senator, Barack Obama, who so awed Gration that the longtime Republican became a Democrat. (Writing for The New Yorker in 2008, Nicholas Lemann called Gration “The most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met.” He was also known to compare the senator to Nelson Mandela.) Gration endorsed Obama—he was one of the campaign’s earliest, most high-profile foreign policy ‘gets’—and became a national security adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign, as well as one of its most enthusiastic surrogates. After the election, speculation saw Gration in a number of impressive roles, like head of NASA. In March of 2009, Obama named him Special Envoy to Sudan.
Gration’s appointment was greeted with widespread optimism that Obama was getting tough on Sudan. But in that role, Gration was regarded by many to have brought an incredibly naïve approach to negotiations. Of the genocidal regime operating out of Khartoum, he infamously told the Washington Post, “We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” Obama nominated Gration as ambassador to Kenya in February 2011, ending his tenure as special envoy.
Gration’s transition to Kenya was stormy, to say the least. After his arrival there, the Nairobi Embassy became the subject of an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. State Department. A scathing OIG report is due out later this summer. Individuals familiar with the report called it "catastrophic," a "toxic" assessment of Gration's leadership.
Over the objections of State Department officials, Gration insisted on doing business on his personal laptop and through his Gmail account, according to the former officer. This put classified information about the U.S.’s operations in East Africa at a higher risk for exposure—consider an incident in June 2011, when hackers in China broke into numerous Gmail accounts belonging to senior U.S. officials. (China, for what it’s worth, has an enormous presence in East Africa.) His refusal to use diplomatic cables to communicate also cut many State Department officials out of the loop. Gration has also demanded approval over the actions of U.S. Somalia embassy officials, who work out of the Nairobi embassy but are not under his purview in any substantive way.
The State Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these issues. The former U.S. government official on Sudan said that Gration committed many of these same security violations as the Special Envoy to Sudan. "I think he had a lot of latitude because of his White House relationship," the official said. "People might not like Gration, but they like the president, and they dont want to cause him any harm."
One can see why Gration might have been tempted to involve himself in that embassy's affairs. With Somalia’s government exerting virtually no control over its country, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has been a constant menace for Kenyans along Kenya’s northern border; and the Kenyan embassy has indeed collaborated with others on Somali issues in some instances. But the former Foreign Service official who I spoke with didn’t see this as justification.
“He feels like he should be the one overseeing it, and that’s not the way the Department of Defense, the White House, or the Department of State see it,” he said. “Those people work for undersecretary of Africa. They don’t work for him. But he wants to take control of them.” Gration, he said, “has limits to his authority and discretion. And that’s not been comfortably borne by Mr. Gration.” The former Sudan official points out that the well-regarded Ambassador James Swan was appointed to oversee the Somalia unit within week's of Gration's appointment to Kenya. "Washington clearly did not want Gration to have authority over such a sensitive area."
And so, in the tradition of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright or a Greg Craig, Gration became the latest longtime friend of Obama to be cut loose upon becoming a liability. How much of a liability he was will become fully clear before long.
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