Robert G. Loftis served as a Foreign Service Officer from 1980-2012.
Interview conducted June 2016 by Volunteer John Thomas Wiseman IV.
How would you briefly define National Security and in what capacity have you been involved with United States National Security. (Approximate dates and job titles if possible).
Broadly speaking, “national security” is the protection of the nation’s core interests: ensuring the physical security of the homeland and its inhabitants; promoting sustainable and equitable economic development; fostering a sense of shared citizenship, and; investing in the future, particularly through education.
I was involved in implementing and formulating national security policy as a Foreign Service Officer and diplomat from 1980 to 2012 (although I would also argue that my current role as an educator fits into the last part of my definition of national security.)
Where I had the most impact was as Deputy Chief of Mission in Mozambique (1999-2001), Ambassador to Lesotho (2001-2004), Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements (2004-2007), Senior Representative for Avian and Pandemic Influenza, and as Acting Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization/Officer in Charge of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (2010-2012).
What is one of the more memorable or impactful experiences you faced during your National Security Career?
One of the more memorable experiences was taking the lead role in negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2008. As originally envisioned, the agreement would have allowed for a long-term presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq. As far as anyone was aware, this was the first such agreement in living memory with a country that was involved in fighting an active war, which made it particularly challenging. Moreover, there was far from unanimity within the Iraqi government or population that the U.S. should be allowed to stay. In the end, after negotiating most of the agreement, I was replaced in part over differences with more senior members of the Administration over what we should be prepared to cede to the Iraqis. And while my job had been to negotiate a long-term presence, political pressures in Iraq turned the agreement into a strict commitment for the U.S. to withdraw all of its forces by the end of 2011.
Was there a particularly funny or comedic experience?
More of a diplomatic incident than a national security incident: South Africa financed the construction of two large dams in Lesotho, mainly to supply water to Gauteng Province (home of Pretoria and Johannesburg). South African President Mbeki came for the ceremonies on the completion of the dam, where he was hosted by the King of Lesotho who, while younger and from a much less important country, outranked Mbeki in their clan hierarchy. In such situations, an exchange of gifts is normal and the South Africans had gone with the standard engraved bowl commemorating the occasion. Secretly, and with the connivance of the South African High Commissioner (ambassador), the King decided to surprise Mbeki with a beautiful and spirited stallion. Mbeki was clearly uncomfortable, but had no choice but to try to mount the beast, much to the amusement of the King and the crowd of dignitaries. No American ambassador would have survived such a scene, and the incident was funny to all but Mbeki and his immediate staff.
What is one of the most valuable lessons you learned from your NS time?
There are several sides to this coin: the United States is not as powerful as either we or others think, and there are limits to how much we can influence the behavior of others. In my last assignment, I had sent a number of staff to South Sudan to work with the embassy in trying to preemptively defuse tensions between different ethnic groups in the South, both immediately before and after the referendum on independence. As events over the last several days have shown, we were not successful and South Sudan is perilously close to a new civil war.
Because of this, we have to be clear in defining what are the real threats to the United States. As bad as some actors are, they are not existential threats to us. Indeed, I would argue that we do not currently face an existential threat. By overstating the danger, we run the very real risk of diverting our attention and resources from what we really need to do to ensure our prosperity and security.
What was one of the most difficult experiences you faced during your NS time?
In early 2000, I was the Charge’ at the U.S. Embassy in Maputo (the ambassador was on leave), when Mozambique was hit with the first of seven devastating typhoons. The damage was widespread and severe; over 700 people lost their lives in the flooding. I had a leading role in organizing and coordinating the American relief efforts, working with USAID, the UN, the U.S. military, and the Mozambican government. We worked non-stop for six months to get aid to those most in need. It was physically exhausting but emotionally rewarding.
Could you discuss your involvement with the Lesotho electoral reform process?
When I arrived in Maseru in mid-2001, the country was in the final stages of revising their electoral system, moving from an 80-seat legislature where each seat was allocated by a majority vote in a geographic district, to a mixed-member proportional representation system where the original 80 district seats were retained but an additional 40 seats were added. These latter were allocated by proportional votes for party lists. The intent was to get away from the situation where even a fair vote could produce a result that saw one party win perhaps 65% of the total vote but 78 out of 80 seats (as had happened in 1998: the resulting protests had sparked a coup attempt and prompted a military intervention by the South Africans that left Maseru in ashes). The revision of the constitution came about through the help of the United Nations, the Commonwealth, and a handful of interested countries such as the United States, Germany and New Zealand.
With those changes in place, my concern was helping to ensure that the upcoming elections in early 2002 were peaceful and that the country remained so after the elections. In prior years, the troubles came not during the elections but months afterward, when the losers took their grievances to the streets. To that end, I worked with the small diplomatic community and the UN to organize (and finance) an international election observations mission. We covered most of the country’s voting places, and I spent election night in a mountain schoolhouse counting and verifying ballots by candle lights (which went a bit beyond my role as an observer). We were confident in declaring the elections free and fair, and the ruling party continued in power, albeit with a significantly reduced majority in the parliament.
Things went well for several months, until the former military dictator and leader of one the largest opposition parties, started crying foul. After exhausting his appeals in the courts, he began planning demonstrations and said he was unable to keep “his boys” in line because they were so upset the election had been stolen. This was a clear threat of renewed violence. The British High Commissioner and I decided to meet with the general privately and warn him off. Because the U.S. was one of Lesotho’s main export markets (the textile industry employed over 50,000 people and all of the exports went to the U.S.), I decided to use that as leverage, telling the general that if there was violence again, and if the factories were destroyed, I would make sure that everyone knew he was responsible. Moreover, I would argue against any American aid coming to the country to rebuild. I knew that he controlled his followers, so any violence would be due to his incitement. After going back and forth, he relented and promised to keep his followers under control if I would press the government to keep the police under control. Since I had assured him that I supported his right of peaceful protest, I agreed to do so. In the end, the protests were non-events. In part because of our intervention, but also because of the work that my predecessor and her colleagues had to change the system. None of the other opposition parties, who now had seats in Parliament, were willing to follow the general down that road.