TV Special: U.S. Diplomats Under Fire

Lara Suziedelis Bogle
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2002
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For many people, the sight of the Stars and Stripes waving from the rooftop of an American embassy is a symbol of hope and freedom. But that same image can be a potent, highly visible target for enemies of the United States.

A new television special by National Geographic, Ambassador: Under Fire Overseas, focuses on the lives of U.S. diplomats working in some of the most difficult and dangerous places around the world.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and four ambassadors are among those interviewed in the one-hour program, which looks at the personal side of a powerful American institution.

The four ambassadors in the film explain what diplomacy means to them, and how their lives and their families have been affected by their chosen career.

Whether in Islamabad or Tokyo, ambassadors must work closely with the leaders of foreign governments to secure key alliances and lasting relationships. That work gives ambassadors an unusually strong understanding of conditions in their host countries.

"They have a better sense of what's going on in that country than any expert sitting back in Washington," Powell observes in the film.

Building Relationships, Mending Fences

One of those featured in the program is first-time ambassador-to-be Robert Royall. Viewers can follow his progress in a specialized two-week crash course designed to prepare him for his assignment in Tanzania. Headed to a country that has extreme poverty, terrorist threats, and sometimes strained relations with the United States, Royall has a lot more to learn than how to entertain heads of state.

In Tokyo, National Geographic captured on film one of the first official duties performed by newly appointed Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker—offering, in person, his nation's apology to the families of those who died in the fatal collision of an American submarine and the Japanese fishing ship Ehime Maru.

The incident "has special symbolism," Baker tells viewers, "because the Japanese still remember the conflict between the United States and Japan."

Baker said he goes "out of my way—as ambassador, as the president's representative, as the presence of the U.S. in this country—to make sure that the Japanese understand that not only are our two countries allies, but we're friends."

Expecting the Unexpected

Besides navigating delicate situations, ambassadors must be prepared for difficult circumstances and even danger, as Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin learned quickly: She arrived at her new post in Islamabad, Pakistan, just one month before the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States last year.

Although well aware that her host country lay in a delicate geopolitical region, Chamberlin hadn't expected to confront a massive military operation. In the film, she describes the days following the U.S. attacks and her critical meeting with Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in which she urged him to side with the United States in a fight against terrorism.

Chamberlin speaks candidly of the conflicts between her personal life and her diplomatic duties.

When her two teenage daughters were forced to return to the United States after the terrorist attacks, Chamberlin had to make a difficult decision. By May of this year, the stress of their separation had become so great that her daughters made it clear they wanted her home.

So Chamberlin cut short her term to rejoin them in the United States. "They wanted me back," she says, adding: "I owe it to them. I'm a mother first."

Making Connections

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, who has just returned to Washington after finishing an ambassadorship in Guatemala, also knows firsthand the dangers of representing the United States abroad. Her previous post was Kenya, where she survived the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassy, now believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden.

"I still feel the effects of that day," she says. "I've come to realize that terrorist acts are a part of modern life, and part of being an ambassador is never letting your guard down."

But Bushnell is quick to point out the rewards of diplomatic life.

"When you go out to the countryside, representing the most powerful country in the world, as the personal representative of the most powerful human being in the world, the president of the United States, and you meet someone who is different from you in every way, shape and form—language, culture, often race, religion, gender—and you connect, it doesn't happen all the time, but it is just amazing," says Bushnell. "To have two people, for one moment, connect and understand one another. It does not get better than that."

Michael Rosenfeld, senior executive producer of National Geographic Specials and Event Programming, said the special program had been in production before the September 11 terrorist attacks. "We began to produce this film before September 11. Even then we recognized that we would be covering people who are often in the line of fire," he said.

"Today," he added, "every embassy is potentially at risk. These are symbolic targets for America's enemies around the world."

Robin Goldman was the producer for Ambassadors: Under Fire Overseas and National Public Radio's Alex Chadwick wrote the film and also narrates.

The National Geographic television special airs in the United States on Wednesday, September 4, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS. Check your local TV listings for details.

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