Former American ambassador bitten by the Kenya bug
Posted Saturday, August 18 2012 at 19:30
- ‘Home boy’ Scott Gration hopes to put the controversy surrounding his abrupt exit behind him and return to the country for the long haul
Western ambassadors have an unofficial uniform: dark suit, white shirt, tie to match and a pin with their country’s flag on the suit lapel.
That’s how Maj-Gen Scott Gration was dressed when he sat down for his final interview before leaving his post as ambassador to Nairobi.
With a twist. The pin on his lapel did not bear the stars and stripes of the United States of America but was decorated with Kenya’s national colours. That little detail probably sums up the man President Obama tapped to be America’s representative in Nairobi.
He is almost as Kenyan as he is American. He grew up in East Africa. His first complete sentence as a baby was in Kiswahili. He went to school here. He came of age in the Rift Valley and served for years as a missionary in Marsabit. His wife Judy’s parents were born in Nairobi and are buried in Kabete.
Gration probably has deeper roots in Kenya than any ambassador sent to the country before him.
But because he did not have the love for the microphone and camera that his predecessors had, he remains an enigma to many Kenyans.
Few know, for example, that the general played a pivotal role in Obama’s surprise victory over the runaway favourite in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton — a win which set Mr Obama on his way to the White House.
Gration was one of the very first senior members of the American establishment to endorse Obama.
Obama faced in the early days of his campaign a major challenge rebutting Clinton’s message to voters that he was too inexperienced to be trusted with America’s security.
Her campaign produced a now famous attack ad showing a telephone ringing in the dead of the night voiced over by retired US General Wesley Clark. Gen Clark told viewers that a crisis could occur any time. Of the two candidates, he said, “(only) Hillary will be ready to act swiftly and decisively,” when disaster strikes.
To help counter this Obama was lucky to have Gration by his side. A Republican, Gration had been so impressed by the young senator when they met in the course of work that he defected to the Democratic party and endorsed Obama in the early stages of his run for president.
It was a crucial development considering the stock Americans place on the words of military veterans. The magazine New Republic called him one of the “campaign’s earliest, most high-profile foreign policy ‘gets’” and Nicholas Lehmann of the New Yorker described him as “The most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met.”
Gration was drafted to serve as the Obama campaign’s national security adviser and he helped craft many of the team’s foreign policy positions especially, according to reports, the promise by Obama that he would pull American troops out of Iraq once elected.
Gration first met Obama while the general was serving at the Pentagon as Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate, a division of the military which at the time had oversight over 93 countries, including all of Africa.
One of his duties was to give regular briefings to the Senate and, as luck would have it, Obama sat in several committees Gration engaged with, including the Foreign Affairs committee and the European Affairs subcommittee.
“I was very impressed by him,” Gration says. “I liked the way he thought. He didn’t want to know what we were doing around the world but why. He is a deep thinker. I realised that we had many viewpoints that were similar. He believed that relations between nations should be based on respect. He understood that global problems need global solutions and it was a mistake to see terrorism as the only thing that crosses borders without tackling other problems such as poverty and health. We spoke a lot and he said when you go to Africa, we’ll go together.”
This engagement between nations based on respect would later become a subject of contention with articles appearing in the American press claiming he did not take the more abrasive approach of his predecessors in Nairobi, something the State Department was not happy about.