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What the book is about

Ronald Neumann’s Three Embassies, Four Wars; a personal memoir can be read on many levels.

At the most basic it is about one person’s life as a diplomat from junior officer to three time ambassador in some of the most dangerous embassies in the world and how he and his wife and family lived and thrived.

It is a readable, fast moving account of a life with a good deal of adventure; combat in Vietnam, taking over a tiny embassy after helping an undertaker lay out his predecessor in a coffin, war reporting as a young Foreign Service officer in Iran, dealing with threats of assassination, mobs in Bahrain attacking his embassy on a tension filled day that ended with a fairy tale like dinner with a king, and figuring out how to work and lead in the dangerous world of Iraq and Afghanistan.

On yet another level it is a book that answers the question of what the Foreign Service, America’s diplomatic service really does.  How does a diplomat take care of Americans in trouble, or find out what is going on in a war in the next country?  What does it mean to influencing policy and sometimes to direct it?  What is it like to be a diplomat in the maze of the Washington bureaucracy (and why did a superior joke that he had “bureaucratic blood lust”)?  On this level it is a book useful to those who want to study or understand how diplomacy works.

In recounting his days as ambassador in Algeria during the bloody days of insurgency in the 90’s, and in a more peaceful Bahrain later, the book provides a wealth of new detail about how history unfolded.  Drawing on a lifetime habit of weekly letters, Neumann is able to recreate actions, meetings and his own intentions in these periods with far more precision than the normal, many years after the fact reminiscences found in memoirs.

Lastly, it is a bit of a handbook, distilling lessons in leadership, organization, management and how to succeed, or at least survive, in the State Department.  These lessons are not lectures but are interspersed along the way as reflections.

Chronologically the book recounts a childhood that moved between California and periods abroad while his father taught in France.  When the war in Vietnam expanded Neumann felt called to serve and volunteered three times, for the army, the infantry and Vietnam.  He had to appeal for an extra waiver for poor eyesight to gain a combat assignment.  While waiting to enlist he and his new wife spent over three months in Afghanistan where his father had become the US ambassador.  Traveling all over the country, including one trip by jeep, horse, and yak into the high eastern mountains he experienced the richness of Afghan culture and hospitality.  He had no idea that over 30 years later he would return to Afghanistan as ambassador himself, following in his father’s footsteps in a land now at war and far more central to American diplomacy.

Within a month of leaving the army he had joined the State Department.  His first tour took him to Dakar, Senegal.  When a more senior officer at a one person post in the Gambia suddenly died Neumann

drove an undertaker and a coffin to help transport the body.  Then, six months into his first foreign assignment Neumann found himself in charge of a one person embassy doing everything from administration, to seeking The Gambia’s President’s vote in the United Nations, to dealing with cobras in the garden.  When a more senior officer arrived to relieve him Neumann and his wife dealt with the collapse of termite ridden furniture and a bat sweeping through the room as they presented themselves to his successor.

From Africa the Neumann’s moved to a remote consulate in Iran.  The Kurdish areas of the Iran-Iraq frontier all lay in his consular area and with the outbreak of a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq, clandestinely supported by the United States, Neumann found himself constantly traveling in the border area, seeking information and reporting on developments.  His conclusions and judgments on the reasons for the failure of that rebellion are an important contribution to history.

After various Washington postings Neumann and his family were transferred to Yemen where  he served as the ambassador’s deputy.  His children went to a school where the local guard carried an AK47 rifle to PTA meetings, travel sometimes required asking if roads had been cleared of mines, and an assassination threat found him going armed to diplomatic receptions.  In the days before the massive, post 9/11 security presence the Neumann’s dealt with a threat of mob attack on their house by bringing home a shotgun and locking the gates.  In between these adventures they dealt with an earthquake.

The Neumann’s returned to Washington for more tours focused on the  Middle East and then to the United Arab Emirates where he again was the deputy chief of mission, the deputy to the ambassador.  It was a wonderful family posting with camping in the desert, trips to Nepal and Oman, and a wide variety of duties.  It was enlivened also by the US decision to escort tankers in the  Persian Gulf, an undeclared war with Iran, and the first stirrings of what would become Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

After a relaxing year at the National War College and a not so relaxing stint on the State Department’s task force for the first Iraq war Neumann took over the direction of the Iran-Iraq office at the end of the war.  As the US moved to secure Kurds in northern Iraq Neumann was again dealing with Kurdish personalities he had know in Iran and was later to know in Iraq.  His reflections are well worth reading on policy making during this early phase of what was to become a ten year “containment” of Iraq.

At age 50 Neumann became ambassador to Algeria, a country plagued by the first Islamist insurgency that was to become such a feature of the Middle East in the future.  A general death threat to all foreigners led the State Department to restrict families.  After narrowly missing being on a hijacked flight Neumann had to fight hard to keep the post open, taking responsibility for decisions that could have been career, if not life ending had he gotten them wrong.  He had strong views on policy and pushed Washington hard to support directions he believed in.  His account, retrieved from his notes and letters of the period, opens a detailed window into US policy of the period never before published.  And while high politics and security dominated the action he and a vibrant staff worked to devise ways to keep morale high in a post living together under constant pressure and threat.  From volley ball, to games, play readings, and parties they found ways to enjoy life within earshot of bombs and gun fire.

Algeria was followed by a return to Washington as a deputy assistant secretary of State, responsible for North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.  While safer than some of his previous assignments this period involved a great deal of work in supporting the sanctions and pressures on Iraq’s Saddam Husain after the first Gulf War including an insider’s account of the decisions to bomb Iraq in 1998.

Neumann then went to Bahrain as ambassador.  Bahrain was instrumental in support for the attacks on Afghanistan and, subsequently, Iraq at the beginning of the  second Gulf war.  A major part of his job was negotiating for the assistance the US needed for basing of its forces.  His successful effort to change US policy from a regional to a country approach in negotiating a free trade agreement is an almost text book account of how an activist ambassador maneuvers to shape policy over an extended period.  Although Bahrain was a generally secure posting his tour featured several mob attacks on the embassy and a colorful account of how one attack ended a day of strife with a family dinner with Bahrain’s king.

The tour in Bahrain was interrupted by a request that Neumann go to Iraq to help Ambassador Bremer.  In Iraq Neumann was involved in a wide variety of activities.  His plan to leave when Bremer returned sovereignty to Iraq was derailed when Neumann was asked to stay on for a year as political/military advisor to the embassy, essentially functioning as the embassy’s main contact with commanding general George Casey and then-Major General David Petraeus who was responsible for training the Iraqi army.  Highlights of the period detailed in the book included responding to a Shia uprising, travel to a besieged US outpost, and working with the coalition military and the Iraqi government in preparing for a major battle in Fallujah.  It was work for which General Casey awarded him the Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.

During a brief leave in Washington Neumann was called in to see then Secretary Condoleezza Rice who asked him to become ambassador to Afghanistan.  In nearly two years in that post he traveled constantly, worked with President Karzai (who called Secretary Rice to try, unsuccessfully, to get her to extend Neumann’s tour when his time expired), and coordinated closely with the US military and over sixty international donors.  His reflections on the problems the US faced and the reasons why US assistance does so poorly will be of interest to anyone studying these issues.

After his retirement, Ambassador Neumann became President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of former senior US diplomats dedicated to improving the performance of American diplomacy.  The recommendations of the Academy are important contributions at a time of great turmoil in the world and in how America conducts its approach to the world.

Overall, the book is a concise and lively romp through a long career ending with multiple senior assignments.  The reader will find a good deal about policy but also a measure of humor and a sense of what it means to be a family experiencing the joys and tensions of life in the Foreign Service.



Ambassador Howard B. Schaffer

Georgetown University School of Foreign Service