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The Benghazi Aftermath: Ambassador Jones on Leadership In Crisis

The Benghazi Aftermath: Ambassador Jones on Leadership In Crisis

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By In Homeland Security Contributors

When you are named a United States ambassador, you are given a letter of instruction from the president that includes a series of priorities for the mission to which the ambassador has been assigned. These priority objectives relate to national security, counterterrorism, human rights, trade, energy and other issues of importance to the United States as they relate to the host country.

However, a U.S. ambassador’s priority objectives rarely include succeeding a fellow ambassador who was killed in the line of duty and healing the wounds of a traumatized embassy staff.

Ambassador Jones Benghazi
Ambassador Deborah Jones

In March 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Ambassador Deborah Jones to succeed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed along with three other embassy employees when the Benghazi Mission in Libya was attacked by Islamic militants on September 11, 2012. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979.

Dr. Elise Carlson-Rainer, assistant professor of international relations in the School of Security and Global Studies, was a colleague of Ambassador Jones in the U.S. Department of State from 2005 to 2011. They also worked together in Kuwait in 2008, when Ambassador Jones was the U.S. Ambassador there. At the time, Dr. Carlson-Rainer served as a foreign affairs officer and worked with embassy staff and Ambassador Jones on issues such as  human trafficking, labor issues in the Persian Gulf, and the upcoming Kuwaiti election, which would be the first in which women could run for office.

Dr. Carlson-Rainer recently spoke with Ambassador Jones about her time as U.S. Ambassador to Libya. Below is the podcast and some edited excerpts.

Dr. Carlson-Rainer: Thank you, Ambassador Jones, for joining me today and sharing your insights on leadership in crisis. Please describe what it was like to come onto the scene in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens had been killed. How do you assume kind of that leadership position in a crisis?

Ambassador Jones: The mission facility in Benghazi was not a U.S. official consulate. It was a temporary facility. That had an impact on its funding for security and other things, which a lot of people don’t realize was part of the security problem.

People don’t understand the workings of the State Department. They don’t understand the hierarchies or the fact that an ambassador in country on the ground is the equivalent of a four-star general.

Chris made a decision that it was important for him to go to Benghazi to continue the work he had been involved with there before. There were so many myths around what happened that night, perhaps in part because people have what I call a cinematic graphic or a Hollywood idea of how things operate in the world of time and space.

It’s absurd for someone to assume that a plane could have been dispatched from a base in Italy or Spain and somehow make it [to Benghazi] within the 15, 20 minutes from the time the attack began on the facility to the time that Chris Stevens died.

He and [Foreign Service Information Management Officer] Sean Smith died of smoke inhalation. There were diesel fuel cans at the facility that were left outside after the installation of a new generator. When the people who were looting found the diesel fuel, they lit it.

It was a tragedy. It was a terrible tragedy and a terrible loss of four men who were courageous and dedicated and very brave guys.

Dr. Carlson-Rainer: Can you describe your thinking process and your kind of leadership role, how you set strategic priorities upon arrival in Tripoli?

Ambassador Jones: You know the survivor’s guilt that people go through? It was important to establish what our mission was collectively, to talk to the staff about what we were in Libya trying to do, and to have a frank talk about security, of course.

We had a total of 87 or so combat Marines who were around the perimeter of the building, so we could continue the work we were doing as a team.

We couldn’t travel [freely] throughout the country, but we tried to travel when we could so that we could show that we were still there. I opened a Twitter account because Libya was very plugged in. I think my Twitter account still has over 205,000 followers, which is significant because that’s what Libyans wanted to hear and that was their only way to be in touch.

As for the embassy staff, I let them know that they were going to be heard and that their concerns were going to be heard. I had expectations that they would do their work, even when I offered everyone who was there the opportunity to go home if they wanted to, without any kind of problem for their careers.

In fact, the staff wanted to stay to finish the task. That’s typical of the State Department.

After 34 years of service, Ambassador Jones retired from the State Department in November 2016 with the rank of Career Minister. Her last assignment was as Deputy Commandant/International Affairs Advisor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy of the National Defense University from October 2015 to November 2016.

Ambassador Jones currently chairs the board of the Hollings Center for International Dialog and participates on the Atlantic Council’s ad hoc Gulf Security Advisory Board. For more of the dialogue with Ambassador Jones listen to the entire podcast above.

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