Rocky Road from Air Force to Ambassador

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UPI Photo / Roger L. Wollenberg

President Obama and Scott Gration, the Administration's special envoy to Sudan, at the White House in 2009.

The latest issue of the Air Force’s Air & Space Power Journal complains that the service’s promotion system leaves a lot to be desired, and quotes from its own officer’s training guide to prove it:

“Throughout the history of the Air Force, there have been more than 8 different evaluation systems with 14 major variations, at a rate of a new version about every eight years.” The cycle of these changes follows a pattern: (1) a new system arises in response to dissatisfaction with the old one; (2) substantial laws in the reformed system come to light; (3) attempts to correct these problems through formal and informal modifications make the functional process significantly different from the official one; and (4) failing to meet the needs of the service and officer corps, the system undergoes reform yet again.

Such a dysfunctional system not only leads to poorly-performing Air Force officers. It can also lead to poorly-performing U.S. ambassadors who used to be Air Force officers – even those with 32 years in uniform and 274 combat missions over Iraq. The State Department has finally released its highly-critical inspector general’s probe into Scott Gration’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

Gration retired as an Air Force major general in 2006, outranking all but about 60 of the roughly 330,000 men and women in the Air Force. He was an early ex-military supporter of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid. The attraction was mutual. “I have worked closely and directly with General Gration for several years,” Obama noted when he made Gration his special envoy to Sudan in 2009. “He is a valued personal friend and I am pleased he has accepted this assignment. He knows the region, has broad experience, and has my complete confidence.” (Before getting that assignment, he worked at the White House as special assistant to the President for presidential personnel).

In 2011, Obama tapped Gration to serve as ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya, whose 1,300 employees make it the largest U.S. diplomatic outpost in Africa. It seemed a good fit: Gration grew up in what is now the African nation of Zaire, and his first words were in Swahili. But, according to the IG report, he apparently didn’t benefit from whatever management training or charm-school classes he got while in the Air Force. Gration resigned his office two months ago, after reading the IG report but before it was made public.

After a third of a century in the U.S. Air Force – serving in the White House, as well as the Pentagon – a reader of the IG report can only wonder how much of this report is accurate. Gration himself takes issue with its findings, telling Battleland in an emailed statement that the IG report “contains an egregious number of categorically false statements.”

He adds:

 Since I announced my resignation, I’ve been flooded with letters of support from members of all branches of government, Kenyan leaders and the international community. These letters are testaments to my effective leadership, superb job performance, unyielding loyalty to U.S. government decisions and relentless efforts to promote American ideals and best interests.

Most of all, I’ve been deeply disappointed by the State Department’s decision not to give me the opportunity to refute the report’s false statements. While I seek to clear my name against the report’s baseless allegations, I remain committed to improving human conditions and promoting American values wherever I can make a positive difference.

Key passages from the IG report:

The Ambassador has lost the respect and confidence of the staff to lead the mission. Of more than 80 chiefs of mission inspected in recent cycles, the Ambassador ranked last for interpersonal relations, next to last on both managerial skill and attention to morale, and third from last in his overall scores from surveys of mission members. The inspectors found no reason to question these assessments; the Ambassador’s leadership to date has been divisive and ineffective…

The Ambassador’s efforts to develop and focus the mission’s work around what he calls “mission essential tasks” have consumed considerable staff time and produced documents of unclear status and almost no value to the Department in approving priorities and assigning resources. His efforts have also created confusion about the relevance of the embassy’s annual Mission Resource Request (MRR). The Office of Inspector General (OIG) team agreed with embassy staff that the mission essential task process added no real value to the management of the embassy…

The Ambassador’s greatest weakness is his reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions. He made clear his disagreement with Washington policy decisions and directives concerning the safe-havening in Nairobi of families of Department employees who volunteered to serve in extreme hardship posts; the creation of a freestanding Somalia Unit; and the nonuse of commercial email for official government business, including Sensitive But Unclassified information. Notwithstanding his talk about the importance of mission staff doing the right thing, the Ambassador by deed or word has encouraged it to do the opposite…

The Ambassador does not read classified front channel messages and has not established a system to have his staff screen incoming cables relevant to Kenya and U.S. interests in the region…

The senior staff meetings observed during the inspection were collegial and produced considerable dialogue and coordination, but they tended to be dominated by the Ambassador whose extensive comments ranged from the significant to the trivial. Many embassy staff members told the OIG team about other meetings that featured scathing criticism from and humiliating treatment by the Ambassador directed at senior staff. Interviews with agency heads and senior staff indicate that most try to manage their attendance at ambassadorial meetings to minimize any attention he might focus on them. His score as a manager in the relevant inspection questionnaire ranked him 83rd among the last 84 inspected chiefs of mission…

A careful review of the Ambassador’s calendar covering his year in Nairobi reveals him as essentially focused on internal embassy operations. He tends to spend most mornings in the office, often in scheduled group meetings, and most afternoons working at home. He is rarely available to consult personally on evolving issues with senior staff, some of whom also tried unsuccessfully over a period of many months to schedule a time to brief him on plans and activities. In his first year in Kenya he has met only between a third and a half of the prominent Kenyans the mission recommended he see in his first 100 days in country. Several of those he met subsequently conveyed a message of complaint to the embassy about the Ambassador’s patronizing tone…

The Ambassador told the OIG team that he made a conscious decision to adopt a low public profile and to be less critical of the Kenyan Government than his predecessor…His reluctance to speak out on key issues like corruption, or to engage senior Kenyan leaders on little more than voting mechanics in the run-up to what will be a major election, indicates uninspired and uninvolved leadership during a critical period…

In the inspection questionnaires provided to OIG, the Ambassador’s score for attention to morale is the second lowest of more than 80 recently inspected chiefs of mission, and his score on interpersonal relations is the lowest. (Personal questionnaires are distributed to all Department U.S. direct-hire employees and also to the heads of other agencies representated in the mission. The embassy response rate was approximately 72 percent, which is higher than average.) Furthermore, his refusal to accept fully the Department’s decisions on establishing an independent Somalia Unit, on safe havening in Nairobi of families of Foreign Service officers working in extreme hardship posts, and on the nonuse of commercial email for official government business, except in emergencies, is widely known and a source of confusion and discouragement within the embassy community…

Both of the full-time LE [locally employed] staff members in the protocol section, who worked directly for the embassy front office, resigned this year because they found themselves unable to work effectively with the Ambassador or to implement his redefinition of the responsibilities of the protocol section. Without any changes to their positions descriptions, the Ambassador charged the protocol section’s LE staff with oversight of the mission’s public outreach and community relations, in addition to their traditional duties of organizing representational events, arranging meetings with Kenyan officials, and handling VIP visits. The protocol section was not staffed for these extra tasks, but the Ambassador was insistent and suggested that another 50 positions could be established if needed to fulfill his vision…

Assessing mission morale to be low, the Ambassador designed and deployed his own climate survey of mission personnel. When the results pointed to him as the cause, he told embassy employees that senior officers had done a bad job of explaining his objectives. He subsequently sought—but did not obtain—access to individual survey responses that would have violated the anonymity of the respondents.


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