Following the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Laurence Pope ’67 came out of retirement to serve as chargé d’affaires in Libya. Pope completed his tour of duty this month, and spoke to the Orient about his career in the Foreign Service.

When did you return from Libya?

I came back on January 5. When I went to Libya to begin with I told them I would go until the end of the year, that was the commitment that I made…I never intended to stay longer, I couldn’t stay longer—I made that clear, I have a life here and my wife is here, and obviously she couldn’t come out there.  There are no families there for obvious reasons. Security is so tight…So that meant that I was by myself, and three months of that is enough. But I was glad that I could do it.

When we spoke in October, you said that you were focused on security and bringing the perpetrators of the attack in Benghazi to justice. What steps did you take to achieve those goals?

The issue involved the cooperation of the Libyan government. This was a crime committed on Libyan territory. It was the responsibility of the government of Libya in the first instance, but it was also of interest to the United States and we have laws in our books that make it a crime to kill American citizens abroad. The FBI sent a team to Libya and I worked with that team to try to make sure that the Libyan government cooperated with the investigation that we were conducting on both sides. That was one focus of the embassy’s work there. The FBI Director Robert Mueller was just in Libya for a couple of days ago, so the process continues.

Have you been following the Senate hearings on Benghazi?

I listened yesterday to the Senate hearings. I was working at my desk on this book I’m writing about American foreign policy, and listening to the hearings while I was doing that.

But you are not participating in or weighing in on the proceedings?

I retired from the State Department in 2000. I said I’d come back because of the unique circumstances—the tragedy in Benghazi—until the end of the year, and now I’m retired again.

How was this experience different from your previous tours of service?

It was a unique situation—this was an embassy whose ambassador had been killed, and the folks there had gone through that experience, and I arrived there about a month after the Benghazi events so they were still somewhat fresh. The embassy [in Tripoli] had been separated in two separate compounds. One was the office, and the other the place where the staff lived...Before I arrived, for security reasons, it had been decided to close the office compound so the staff wouldn’t be moving back and forth. So that meant that everything had to be moved from the office compound and relocated into the villas, the compound where everyone was living and working. So there was a lot of disruption in the operation of the embassy.

In addition, a couple days after the Benghazi events, because of concerns over security in Tripoli, fifty marines had come to be a protective security force. So, when I arrived on October 10—and I arrived on a military aircraft courtesy of a general who is the commanding general of what’s called AFRICOM—we recently created a separate combatant command for Africa. I stopped to see him on the way out and he volunteered very kindly to fly in with me, so I arrived with him, General Carter Ham, and he dropped me off and I arrived at the embassy, which is kind of in a suburb of Tripoli.

When I got there, there was still considerable disruption, because of the move…but mainly because the embassy had lost its leader, and other colleagues. A sizeable number of the staff had been evacuated back to the United States, still leaving about 100 left. So it was a question of getting the embassy back and operating—and it was operating, but there were some issues there.

And then [it was a matter of] reporting to the Libyan government, checking in with the Libyan government, going to see the foreign minister, going to see the prime minister and the president, and saying the United States is still here, and even despite what’s happened we’re not going to abandon Libya.

What was it like working with the Libyan government?

The Libyan government is a work in progress. It’s a transitional government, the purpose of which is to run the country during an interim period until permanent institutions can be put in place—a constitution, and the institutions that guard that constitution. There had been an election in July, which was quite a successful election for the General National Congress.  Two hundred representatives had elected a prime minister—when I arrived the first prime minister had resigned as a result of the withdrawal of the confidence of this General National Congress, a sort of proto-legislature, in him, and a new government was taking shape…when I arrived they were sort of between governments, between transitional governments.

...Now they have a lot of problems, and their principle problem is establishing security in Libya, and what happened in Benghazi is part of that. The militias, the popular uprising that did away with Qaddafi with some help from NATO and the air force of the United States, they’re still there. And so making the transition from a state which was liberated by militias to a state which is governed by the rule of law and permanent institutions, is [ongoing].  

And your office was helping with that process?

The answer is yes, but the larger point is that this is something that the Libyan people are going to have to do. So I used to like to say that in the United States, from 1782 to 1787, it took us five years to go from revolution to state, and they are still at that process. They would say to me, ‘Well, we’ll do it more quickly than you did.’ But it’s not an easy process. Revolutions are not rare events in politics, and a real revolution can turn things upside down.

Would you call the revolutions of the Arab Spring “real revolutions?”

Very much. Egypt and Tunisia, those are real revolutions—Egypt is a little different because the army is still there, the institution is there—but yes…the Arab Spring is a wave of popular unrest that started in a little Tunisian town called Sidi Bouzid, where a man who had been humiliated by a bureaucrat killed himself in a public square—something that’s very unusual in Arab society. The Arab Spring that started there and spread to Egypt and Tunisia continues. It’s an ongoing historic process.

Do you think we’ll see that elsewhere in the Middle East in the coming months and years?

Certainly in Syria we’re seeing it, and the last chapter there hasn’t been written yet. Elsewhere in the area, what’s happening in Bahrain—a very advanced, westernized society where I lived a couple years—is part of this larger moment of change, but in Bahrain it’s been oppressed by the government in power. In Syria, where the birth pangs of something new have gone on now for the better part of two years, and unfortunately there’s no immediate sign of them coming to an end.

How has the State Department changed?

The State Department is our foreign ministry—like all states you could say we have a foreign ministry. The institution with which I was associated for thirty years was the United States Foreign Service, which is our diplomatic service. Over the last decade, our energies and our people have been consumed by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… In the process, a couple of things have happened in Washington. One thing that happened is that there has been a lot of concern about making the State Department a partner in these enterprises of counterinsurgency and nation building. And a feeling in some quarters that the Foreign Service wasn’t pulling it’s weight. That the military was fighting, that the Defense Department was at war, but that the rest of the government wasn’t necessarily at war. So that created some real changes inside the State Department and the Foreign Service.

Now as we emerge from this decade of war and put Iraq and Afghanistan behind us, as the president is trying to do, there’s a need for the Foreign Service to go back to its principle business, which is the management of relations between states. That may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it isn’t in Washington today.

[On Wednesday], Secretary Clinton referred in several of her comments to something called the QDDR—now this is much too inside Washington to talk about too much, but the QDDR was a two year study project presided over by the former Princeton Professor Anne Marie Slaughter. It resulted in sort of a new program for the state department, a new way of thinking about the State Department--at least that’s what the Secretary  of State would say. There were a couple of ideas in that document that [set up] how the state department has changed, how the Foreign Service has changed. Both of them I think are quite wrong. One of them is that the principle business of the Foreign Service is not the management of relations between sovereign states, because, the idea is that sovereign states are not really as important as they used to be.

And why is that? Well, because of the information revolution, because of the development of civil society…because of this globalized world in which we live, so goes the argument. The new frontier involves working above and beneath the state, through civil society, through networks.

The two ideas in this QDDR reform project which is associated with the Secretary of State, which she spoke about yesterday in her testimony. One idea is that the state is no longer the central focus of our operations or shouldn’t be, and if that is true, we don’t really need a diplomatic service, or at least not the kind of diplomatic service that we’ve had in the past, in the world of sovereign states.

The second idea is that the state department should be a better partner to the military, and our foreign aid agency in their operations, which would involve nation building and counterinsurgency. But that’s over. So what has happened is, because of these two ideas…the notion that the world isn’t composed of sovereign states—and of course, as far as we’re concerned our sovereignty is untouchable, it’s just other people’s sovereignty might be a little less than sacrosanct. And, second that the foreign service needed to be a better partner with the military and the development agencies, the Foreign Service has lost a lot of its sense of mission and focus in my view. There are still wonderful, talented, dedicated people there, but the foreign service and the state department need to get back to that central focus, which is the management of relations between states—which is what in fact Secretary Clinton and her colleagues did for four years. They just decided that’s not what the institution should be focused on. 

My own view is that institutions like the Foreign Service are important to the country’s national security, and that a Foreign Service that has a sense of mission and a role, bearing in mind that it’s the president who conducts foreign policy, but without a great diplomatic service we’ll have a harder time in the world, which is still a world of nation states. So that’s kind of the change from a conceptual, theoretical point of view.

Do you have any advice for students hoping to enter the Foreign Service?

When you look back, my father, who also went to Bowdoin...and he was chair of the board at Bowdoin for three years—he’d been in the Marine Corps in the Second World War. He used to make fun of people who used to say ‘Oh, you should have been in the old Marine Corps,’ the pre-war 1930s Marine Corps. So you look back at institutions and it’s easy to say ‘it was great when I was there but then it’s deteriorated ever since.’ I would not say that about today’s Foreign Service—I do think it needs to recover a sense of what it’s mission is in the world and that requires some political leadership. There’s a problem there when political functions migrate to the White House and when the Defense Department has too large a role in foreign policy as opposed to defense policy, and when political appointees of the State Department are it seems at a lower and lower level as it seems every year. But, the United States is a state—we think of ourselves as an exceptional state, but we’re still a state. And the rules of the world involve state-to-state relations, and there will always be a need for skilled, experienced people to conduct those relations, and you call them diplomats.

It’s an honorable career, and a career which I would recommend to anybody, without illusions about the current state of the institution and the problems that it faces. I think that in some ways the pendulum in these matters tends to swing, and I hope it will swing back to a recognition of the importance of diplomacy and the diplomatic service and the relations between sovereign states, even in the world of information revolutions and globalization.

How did you enter the Foreign Service after Bowdoin?

When I graduated from Bowdoin I was kind of lost. It was during the Vietnam War and I didn’t much like the Vietnam War, so I took the Foreign Service exam and I passed it somehow, and it was a job, I had a job. Then I went off to the Peace Corps for a couple years and came back and ended up in Vietnam anyway working at the embassy as a consular officer, which is what most entering foreign service officers do.