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Best Job in the World

An Interview with Ambassador Deborah K. Jones

Photography by A.J. Rich

What’s it like to be the first US ambassador to Libya after the tragic death of Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012? How will the current COVID-19 crisis change diplomacy? And how did a broad BYU education in history, foreign language, and the humanities prepare her for global public service?

Ambassador Deborah K. Jones retired from the US Department of State in 2016 with the rank of Career Minister following a thirty-four-year career, including as US ambassador to Libya and to Kuwait, as well as principal officer in Istanbul, Turkey. Along the way, she served in Argentina, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, the UAE, and Tunisia. Jones received a BS in history, magna cum laude, from Brigham Young University, where she also pursued graduate studies in the humanities and taught for BYU’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain. She has a master’s degree in national security strategy from the National War College of the National Defense University.

Unable to visit campus, Jones spoke with the Kennedy Center from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, via Zoom on April 21, 2020. Charlotte Sudweeks was a research assistant at the Kennedy Center and graduated in April 2020 with an MPA from the BYU Romney Institute of Public Management. Sudweeks grew up in various locations around the world where her parents served as a tandem Foreign Service couple. Cory Leonard is an associate director at the Kennedy Center.

Sudweeks: We are facing many challenges as a country right now. What are your thoughts on the current situation and the role US diplomacy is playing?
Jones: I was very fortunate to have come into the Department of State at a time when the US was getting back on its feet again after Vietnam and all of the civil disruptions of the 1960s and ’70s. People forget this country goes through these episodic, violent outbursts, and that the consequences are far reaching. The laws of physics apply in life, love, and diplomacy: heat is not lost, merely transferred; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; and force equals mass times acceleration. In this final equation, technology has always been a huge disruptor, as we see now with social media. Politics and governance, to include diplomacy, are essentially organic, relying on dialog and civility to establish institutions and processes that address human challenges. Humans don’t come with an embedded chip—no 1.0 or 2.0 version—so politics and governance are always struggling to catch up with technological disruptions, or “progress.”

COVID-19—which has spread as it has due to this “progress,” air travel, and a global economy—has probably done more than anything else to remove the perception of the US as an exceptional power. Everyone knows we have enormous military power, which we tend to use more and more in lieu of diplomacy and other national tools.

The way we have handled this particular crisis—and the way it has been perceived by people across the world—has revealed our vulnerabilities and social inequities. Mike Pompeo has rightfully been proud of the Department of State’s function in protecting American citizens by bringing them home from overseas, but if you speak to the people on the other end of that assistance, they’re not as enthusiastic as he is about the way things were handled. And more and more people are assessing that our politics don’t seem to be working at home.

Leonard: How do domestic politics impact the work of diplomacy abroad?
Jones: We used to say “partisan politics never cross the ocean.” We work for presidents both Democratic and Republican. My father was a Goldwater Republican, my mother a Kennedy Democrat, but that was irrelevant (I was in fact a registered Independent for years). We knew that when overseas, we were representing policies that reflected a very involved process, “an invitation to struggle,” as our Founding Fathers called it, between all the American stakeholders.

There’s a very robust, often rambunctious, process for arriving at policies, which is why they’re often disappointing to people: they’re necessarily incremental, as they reflect a broad panoply of interests, such as the industry involved, or the state, or Congress. But you know when you’re overseas and carrying it out that you have the backing of the people of the US behind it. Many of us are mourning the loss of that bipartisan approach.

Future diplomats will have different tools than they do now and must be open to new paradigms. A former ambassador to Germany once told our Foreign Service Institute class that the Berlin Wall would never come down; two weeks later the wall fell. We can't think in terms of concrete boundaries. That's not how the world works anymore.

Leonard: Does the experience of grappling with the coronavirus change us as a nation?
Jones: This is going to be a moment of awakening and rethinking approaches. Americans, unlike Europeans, didn’t suffer a great Blitz, we didn’t experience the physical destruction of World War II, we haven’t witnessed the devastation experienced by Syria or Iraq—some at our own hands—but now we have this silent enemy here. It’s really throwing people off because we’ve always had this mindset that we’re largely protected by these two oceans and our huge geography. But guess what? The virus doesn’t recognize physical borders. In the past, we often dealt with socioeconomic problems or political upheaval by “opening up” more land to let off demographic steam. But we no longer have western expansion. We can’t address this scourge by moving folks around or giving them “forty acres and a mule.” This virus is exposing our inherent socioeconomic disparities, racial and otherwise, and vulnerabilities. We need to rethink our governance systems, as well as our own selfishness. We need to look again at how we do things in a world increasingly linked virtually, and this is perhaps a preparation for it.

Leonard: The British diplomat Tom Fletcher envisions everyone armed with Twitter and a flattened hierarchy. What do diplomats of the future look like to you?
Jones: If you look at our buildings of governance they resemble Roman temples or ancient churches: brick-and-mortar structures reflective of authoritarian and hierarchical systems. That’s not how the world works anymore. What we’re learning now is that we can be all over the place and still talk to each other and still get things done. Why isn’t the Department of Agriculture in Nebraska?

Future diplomats will have different tools than they do now and must be open to new paradigms. A former ambassador to Germany once told our Foreign Service Institute class that the Berlin Wall would never come down; two weeks later the wall fell. We can’t think in terms of concrete boundaries. That’s not how the world works anymore. People find their way over and around walls. Ancient Rome became powerful because it built roads and water systems (aqueducts), i.e., networks. People sought to become Roman citizens because of the benefits that would accrue to them. We need to make clear to others the tangible and intangible benefits of being responsible human beings within more networked civil societies.

Sudweeks: When did you first become interested in a diplomatic career—and the Arab world?Jones: There are Foreign Service officers who never wanted to be anything else. My own entry into the Foreign Service (FS) was a serendipitous consequence of being in Spain. It was during my graduate program there that a fellow student said, “I’m going to go register to take the FS exam at the US Embassy; do you want me to sign you up?” My first question was, “Does it cost anything?” It was free, so I said, “Sure, sign me up!” I passed the exam (my friend didn’t), and the rest is history. My immersion in Spain and my focus on the humanities and medieval texts and ecclesiology, as well as the gathering of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the Toledan court of Alfonso el Sabio and elsewhere, led me to the Near East.

Sudweeks: What role did studying Spanish play in all of this?
Jones: My mother is Argentine (my father met her on his mission) but never taught us Spanish. We had all these interactions, though, because my father was president of the Tucson Spanish-American Latter-day Saint branch when I was young. I studied French in high school and Latin at BYU but eventually thought, “This is ridiculous; my mother is a native speaker of Spanish and I don’t know the language.” During my sophomore year at BYU, I finally took a course, and I guess my DNA kicked in.

I learned Spanish easily, and, serendipitously, my first FS assignment was Argentina. I went during the Falklands-Malvinas War, three years after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The US sided with the British, and there was some reluctance in my FS A-100 class to go to a presumably hostile locale. I told the folks making the assignments, “Look, full disclosure, I still have family in Buenos Aires, but I’m happy to go.” I had the time of my life there. I regularly lunched with my grandmother and conversed with her in Spanish for the first time in my life.

Leonard: You also learned Arabic as well?
Jones: I went from Buenos Aires to Baghdad during the Iran–Iraq War without any language training, and that was a real shock for me. It was funny, because in some ways the terrain was not as foreign to me—some of it reminded me of Arizona. The Arabic language was, on the other hand—wow! Learning it, wrapping my ears around it, was challenging. Iraq has a very unique Arabic dialect with a lot of old Ottoman (Turkish) and Persian words. When I came back to the US, I was in Washington for a couple of tours, and by the time I went out again, to Damascus, I had spent two years studying Arabic: one year in Washington and another year at the State Department’s field school in Tunisia.

Leonard: What BYU classes or professors stand out or left an impression on you?
Jones: Doug Tobler (history) told me that I was both “very smart and very lazy” and that my papers could have been “much better had I devoted more time to them.” I still quote Todd Britsch (humanities), who once said to me: “Deborah, don’t confuse aesthetic appreciation with faith”—this in the context of truth and beauty and great choral works. George Tate (humanities) embedded Icelandic literature in my brain forever. And I simply adored Ted Warner (history), who led a BYU Study Abroad Madrid program. He was knowledgeable and humble with a huge dose of “dad humor,” as in “I’m Tedder, the Gooder and Better.” And that head of hair everyone thought was a wig! And of course his wonderful wife, Doris, who was a mother to us all.

Leonard: It seems like every Kennedy Center student, at some point, wants to be an ambassador. What’s your advice for them?
Jones: Work hard and enhance the enterprise as a whole. I’ve always said I was an “accidental ambassador.” My mother visited me in Baghdad in 1986, and then-Ambassador David Newton threw a dinner party in her honor. Afterward, she confided that the ambassador had told her that when I first arrived at post, “we didn’t think she would make it, but Deborah’s going to be an ambassador someday.” Instead of being overjoyed, my face fell. I said, “Mom, why did they think I wasn’t going to make it?” Of course, she replied: “The point is he said you’re going to be an ambassador someday.” I did whatever task was handed to me, even those where others had failed. I never said, “That’s not my job; I’m a diplomat. I passed that tough exam, and I am too smart for this.” There were times I would put on my boots and jeans and go into the warehouse with local staff to clean it up. My approach was always, “Okay, this job needs to be done. How are we going to do it?” Sometimes my daughters tease me for this, but I would goad them: “Your ancestors crossed this country pushing handcarts, so don’t tell me you can’t do that!” It’s the ethos. People look for you to say, “What’s my job on this team? How can I help accomplish our mission?”

Dusty, an eleven-year-old Jack Russell terrier, was a gift from Sheikha Paula al Sabah while Jones was serving as ambassador to Kuwait. Dusty accompanied Jones to Libya.

Leonard: Some people wonder what they will be doing all day and if there will be aspects of the job that are less appealing.
Jones: Of course. That’s life. My oldest daughter works for a well-known tech firm. She was expressing frustration the other day about some of the tasks assigned, bemoaning the detail work when she preferred thinking “big picture.” I suggested that the point of doing the detail work is so that when you become the leader—as I know she will—you know what goes into the details and how to thank others for taking care of them. You will also be able to devise viable strategies for your enterprise because you will know its capabilities. It’s important to recognize what everyone in your life does to make you a success. In that regard, it’s important to test your own biases and prejudices. Don’t fall prey to what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” When someone walks into the room and you see them for the first time, do you anticipate success and decide you’re going to do everything possible to support that success? Or do you anticipate failure? That is the most important thing I’ve learned in my career: to live up to what we were brought up believing, that we are all children of God. Act on it.

Sudweeks: What’s it like being an ambassador?
Jones: It is the best job in the world. There’s no question about it. I once asked a colleague of mine who had been an ambassador a couple of times himself why he was still doing this, and he said, “Deborah, you can be a king, or you can be an ambassador.” I laughed at the time, because it’s not quite like that. But it’s pretty good. The full title is “plenipotentiary and extraordinary,” which means you are given these extraordinary authorities as the personal representative of the president of the United States. When you go out to a post, you are the chief of mission, overlooking elements from all the agencies and responsible for shaping the way your mission operates. You are continuously learning, stretching your mind and your capabilities. And here’s the best part, the “secret sauce” that’s so cool: You have this extraordinary reservoir of talent working for you, all these people who are dedicated to serving the nation and the people of the US and to fulfilling its mission. They’re good. They know what they’re doing. And they make you look even better than you are!

I had two very different experiences as ambassador. In Kuwait, where we have a very special relationship and a large presence following that country’s liberation from Iraq in 1991, it was very much a “maintenance of relationship” type of mission. I had authority over the fifteen US government agencies represented, as well as a coordinating role with the large US military presence there under the command of the Near East Central Command’s Combatant Commander, a four-star general based out of Florida. (An ambassador at post is the equivalent of a military four-star.) Our primary bilateral issues revolved around hydrocarbons and Kuwait’s significant financial holdings in the US, as well as support for US regional security objectives, terror financing, Iraqi reconstruction, regional political dynamics, labor issues, human rights and women’s issues, and educational and cultural exchange. We were there to promote broader US interests and manage conflicts while working on the broad range of issues noted above.

Libya was a different story. I was called by the assistant secretary in October 2012, just weeks after the tragedy in Benghazi, and asked whether I would be willing to serve in either Libya or Yemen. I agreed (and Yemen ended up going to another BYU graduate, Ambassador Matthew Tueller). I arrived in Tripoli in June 2013 following Senate hearings. I went from overseeing a mature bilateral relationship and living on a beautiful, purpose-built embassy compound in Kuwait to living in an ad hoc compound under construction in Libya, which had a barely functioning government and where all of our facilities had been destroyed. Our mission there was to support UN efforts to get Libya back on its feet after the revolution. This was especially challenging given the security conditions; we had eighty-nine combat Marines posted on our perimeter walls and many restrictions. Our goal was to work with what we found, negotiate bilateral agreements, and help Libya rebuild. Sadly, the Libyan revolution was unfinished, and by July 2014 the Libyan Civil War had broken out.

Our location, near the international airport in a contested area held by a militia group from outside of Tripoli, made us vulnerable to the fighting, with GRAD missiles coming perilously close and other shells hitting the compound. It was pretty serious, and I didn’t want to lose another American after Benghazi. It was Ramadan, and we knew the combatants—who were fasting—were stopping in the early morning hours to eat before sunrise. The airport had been destroyed, and we couldn’t get to the sea because of barricades set up by competing militias, so we went about it the old-fashioned way. After destroying the sensitive material at post, we lowered the flag, and 159 of us loaded into thirty-nine armored vehicles and rolled off the compound at precisely 3:45 a.m. By the time those fighting realized what had happened, we were gone. We drove west and then down along the Jebel Nafusa Mountains, crossed into Tunisia, and were lifted out by a US C-17 transport mission that flew us to safety in Italy. It was pretty standard stuff—a textbook overland evacuation—and we got out without anyone being hurt. The country has since fallen into a hot war.

Do your homework and know your stuff so that when you offer a perspective or viewpoint, you can do so with confidence.... And someone may differ. Don't take it personally.

Leonard: What was it like when you got to Libya, knowing you were filling the shoes of Chris Stevens?Jones: The Benghazi tragedy was highly politicized and remains a very delicate topic. Chris had been in Libya as ambassador for less than four months when he died with three others. We all understand why he felt it important to go to Benghazi to maintain his contacts there, because that’s where the revolution started. But Benghazi had witnessed a lot of violence in the six months preceding, and there were numerous indicators the revolution wasn’t quite over. Mahmoud Jabril had oversold his ability to unify the country to Secretary Hillary Clinton. There wasn’t a lot of appetite for making the mistakes we’d made in Iraq, and the Libyans didn’t want foreign forces in their country. They all knew the revolution was unfinished as well. There were those who believed the overthrow of Gaddafi would lead to genuine democracy and those more inclined to stick with a more benign authoritarian regime, “Gaddafi Lite.” This is not about Islamists versus secularists; there are extremists and moderates on both sides.

September 11, 2012, was an ill-fated day. Beyond the resentment of the revolutionaries toward countries they thought were interfering in Libya’s internal matters, there was a video made in the US denigrating the prophet Muhammad on the 9/11 anniversary, when we typically lock down all our missions across the world because we know that extremist groups will exploit that date. In fact, a number of US embassies across the Middle East saw violence that day; it was not unique to Benghazi. But no one was killed.

When I arrived at post, I realized that a number of staff members were still feeling the effects of losing an ambassador they’d loved and the ability to interact freely with Libyans as they had before. Many were angry because they felt the State Department had not addressed their needs in the wake of the tragedy or spent much effort on counseling. I spent a lot of time simply listening to people, focusing them on our purpose, and preparing our mission statement and how we would accomplish our goals. It was hard to comprehend what they had experienced, but as ambassador, you are the captain of the ship. It’s your mission.

Sudweeks: Any advice, in particular, for women pursuing careers in foreign policy and diplomacy?Jones: Do your homework and know your stuff so that when you offer a perspective or viewpoint, you can do so with confidence. Break the habit of beginning statements with “So I think . . .” and then ending with that upward lilt in your voice that suggests you are seeking someone else’s approval. Just say what you have to say as a conclusion based on your research or observations. And someone may differ. Don’t take it personally.

Be aware, keep your mind open, learn and listen to people, and reaffirm your colleagues. Make it a practice when you hear they’ve said something that hasn’t been acknowledged to credit them for their insight. People like being acknowledged and will support you in turn (the laws of physics, remember!). Be alert to what triggers reactions, and be prepared with rational arguments for taking actions. Practice a tone and cadence of voice that allows you to interject politely when you are interrupted or your ideas are appropriated by others.

And here's the best part, the 'secret sauce' that's so cool: You have this extraordinary reservoir of talent working for you, all these people who are dedicated to serving the nation and the people of the US and to fulfilling its mission. They're good. They know what they're doing. And they make you look even better than you are!

It may also be useful to deploy what I call “gender jiu-jitsu,” especially (but not always) when dealing in other cultures. The famous traveler and British official Dame Freya Stark once said, “The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.” This is a double-edged sword; she could accomplish the things she wanted to get done and obtain access others could not by playing dumb. Sometimes rather than a Clausewitzian approach, i.e., a full-frontal attack, take the Sun Tzu approach of smoke and mirrors and deception. The best victory is the battle that is never fought. Be prepared, and don’t expect charm to substitute for substance.

Leonard: What do you think we misunderstand about diplomacy careers?
Jones: The Department of State is a journeyman-apprentice organization, and most top leaders have learned their skills through practice and observation. Diplomacy is not all negotiation and receptions. It’s a lot of management—of policies and personalities and schedules and dynamics over which you have little control. There is endless coordination within the interagency and with Congress and other stakeholders. You spend a lot of time on writing and projects that may go nowhere. You can find yourself in dangerous places, due not only to military conflict but to crime or gang violence. The hours are endless and stamina is often your most important asset. After I left Tripoli in July 2014 and went to Malta, my job was almost purely negotiation. I spent 80 percent of my time traveling for talks in London, Rome, Geneva, and Morocco with the Libyan factions, more like a special envoy than an ambassador. But this is highly unusual.

Two of the hardest and best jobs I had were as ambassador in Libya and as a second-tour general services officer in Baghdad, running logistics as we restored diplomatic relations. I leased residences, dealt with broken air conditioners, and ordered furniture for demanding FS personnel during a SCUD missile war between Iran and Iraq. It was a very weird time. Iraqi military defectors were robbing people, and their government was spying on us. With missiles falling and no daily flights offered by the airlines, our deputy principal officer called our regional executive office in Washington to see if we could get danger pay and was asked, “Has anyone been hurt yet? No? Then carry on!” Benghazi and earlier bombings of our other embassies has changed all that.

Leonard: What are you reading now?
Jones: Bill Burns’s The Back Channel, a great behind-the-scenes of how diplomacy works. And I’m always interested in US history, so Jill LePore’s These Truths. Other books include Joseph Ellis’s American Dialogue and Kim Ghattas’s Black Wave, which is about how 1979 was pivotal for both Iran and Saudi Arabia and the competition between Shi’a and Sunni Islam and its implications for the Near East region.