The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian, with Robert D. Kaplan
February 10, 2021
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome to our Carnegie Council book talk. Thanks for joining us.
Our guest today is Robert Kaplan. Bob is the author of a new book, The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian. I can't think of a person or a book that better embodies and exemplifies the mission of the Carnegie Council than Bob Kaplan and this book.
Bob, thanks so much for Zooming in to join us today.
ROBERT KAPLAN: It's my pleasure, Joel.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Most of you will know Bob for his many books and articles on history, geography, and culture. Bob has traveled to and reported from the most remote places on the map. His writing reflects on the human experience from poverty-stricken and war-torn countries to the most incredible landscapes of the natural world. Bob is deservedly well known for his political analysis, but I am always most moved by his human-centered approach, what it means to live in specific times and in particular places.
In this book Bob has found a way to tell at least three stories: The story of Bob Gersony, a great humanitarian; the story of an essential moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War and after; and his own story, the story of one analyst at a moment in time trying to make sense of the often brutal consequences of power politics and the human impulse to respond in a moral way. This book is a real gift, showing us the broad sweep of history and the impact of a great, if not well-known, man.
Bob is going to kick things off with an introduction to the book, and after that we will have some conservation and Q&A. Please use the Chat function to submit your questions, and we will take those up at the back end of the hour.
Bob, over to you.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you, Joel. Thanks so much for the invitation to once again speak at Carnegie Council, as I have been doing I think for about 26 or 27 years.
This book is a story about an epic biography of the greatest humanitarian you have never heard of, and that's the whole point. He was only known before this book to an inside culture of State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) workers essentially and to some people in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council. People inside-inside Washington know all about him, but to a larger group, even to the human rights community in New York, they have probably never heard of him, or if they have, it has just been very incidental, for one thing or another. It was a story too good to refuse to tell essentially. In fact, I interrupted another book in order to break away and spend three years on this.
Imagine someone from a wealthy Jewish family of Holocaust refugees in Manhattan—his father did very well in business in the commodity trade—who nevertheless not only did not go to college but did not graduate high school because he had a very mild reading and learning disability—that has since been cured essentially—which made it impossible for him to study in the usual way.
What did he do? He went into the commodity trade like his father, which becomes very crucial later on during his humanitarian work, and then joins the Army and volunteers to go to Vietnam and is awarded a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. Think of this: This is a kid from Manhattan who drops out of high school and wins a Bronze Star in Vietnam.
After that, to make a long story short, he got his start doing refugee work during the great Guatemalan earthquake of  and was discovered by USAID. Even though he did not even have a high school education, he began a career that would last over 40 years, working for the State Department and USAID in one conflict and disaster zone in the developing world after another.
We talk about storied, great foreign correspondents, who may have covered most wars and who may have interviewed dozens upon dozens in each place. Here is the story of someone who was not specifically a reporter, but basically that is what he did. He was literally everywhere, every foreign war and disaster area, and he interviewed not dozens but hundreds in each place and brought back his analytical reports to USAID and to the State Department, and consequently made foreign policy a bit smarter and a bit more humane, sometimes dramatically so.
A few examples of the kinds of things he accomplished:
In 1984 he discovered a mass murder in central Uganda in a region called the Luwero Triangle. He brought the news back to Washington, and the result was that it led to the collapse of the murderous regime of Milton Obote, who had succeeded Idi Amin, and it brought to power someone who at the time—35 years ago—was a beacon of light, Yoweri Museveni, who was educated, who had a disciplined army that did not loot when they took over towns, and who also improved the standing of the United States in East Africa. It would become a theme of Gersony: "If you do the right thing in a humanitarian sense, you improve the American strategic and geopolitical position."
Southern Africa in the late 1980s was a maelstrom of war. There was massive, epic, cinematic war in Angola, in Mozambique. The Portuguese empire had collapsed, and both east and west forces were fighting over the carcass of the empire.
The Reagan Administration was all ready to anoint the RENAMO guerillas in Mozambique as recipients of military aid under the Reagan Doctrine. Gersony shows up in his typical fashion, interviews hundreds of refugees all along the 1,500-mile border of Mozambique, from South Africa in the south to near Tanzania in the north, and then all through Mozambique in the heart of the country, and comes back and says: "RENAMO are a bunch of murderers and rapists. They have no political plan whatsoever. Even though we are supporting another anti-communist guerilla group in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique is nothing like the group we're supporting in Angola."
Result: Gersony comes home, briefs George Shultz in his office with Maureen Reagan—very common for Gersony to come back from sleeping in a sleeping bag in the field for weeks and weeks and brief high policymakers. Shultz goes to Reagan. RENAMO was cut out of the Reagan Doctrine, and the result of that is that the Mozambique Civil War starts to wind down, saving hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of one man going around and just asking peasants and refugees what happened to them and putting it through his commodity trader/accountant/math mind analytical filter. Bob Gersony was not enraptured by causes. He was not a liberal arts major. He was very much a math mind with an interest in commodity prices, prices of agricultural goods, the lifeblood of peasants, who he spent his life with in the developing world.
Then there was Rwanda. A genocide of 850,000 people had just occurred. There was a new government in power, and Gersony goes up and down Rwanda, across the whole country, interviewing hundreds. He comes back and says: "Guess what? The new government has now mass-murdered 30,000. It's not a genocide like 850,000, but it's mass murder."
This complicated policy to no end because the United Nations and the United States were foursquare behind supporting the new regime. The result was that the United States and the United Nations brought pressure to bear on the new regime, and the killing stopped, mainly because of one man and what he did.
Bob Gersony solved the problem of Vietnamese boat people, who were being besieged on the high seas by Thai pirates. He engineered an intelligence operation on the docks where the pirates congregated to talk about their exploits in dockside bars, and through this intelligence operation the problem was solved within three years.
Bob Gersony was the first person to discover face-to-face and report from the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and the human rights depredations they were recording. It would only be 13 years after he filed a massive report on it that social media would pay attention. He was that far ahead of the curve.
I will give you one final example of the many examples in the book. We were spending billions of dollars on Plan Colombia to eradicate coca production in the farm fields from which cocaine is made, but despite spending billions we had no idea if we were successful. Bob Gersony goes into the most dangerous parts of Southern Colombia, the parts occupied by guerilla forces who are producing cocaine, and with his fluent Spanish walks into the fields and asks farmers face to face: "Hey, you stilling growing coca in those fields?" That's how he found out what billions of dollars could not.
Bob Gersony is a neurotic Jewish character right out of a Saul Bellow novel. If you have read Saul Bellow novels, you know all about Bob Gersony. But he spent his life in settings best described by Joseph Conrad. There is an element of Saul Bellow, an element of dangerous, tropical, and gloomy settings of Joseph Conrad.
Bob Gersony exposed the illusion of knowledge where none actually existed. In this age of Internet, of social media, of the digital video world, we have this assumption that we know what's going on in Myanmar, not just in the capital city but in the countryside. We have an assumption that we know what's going on in Ethiopia and all these places, but you don't really know unless someone goes there and asks questions and finds out because it's only by being alone on the ground that all the nuances and subtleties of a place come at you that you can bring back to high policymakers in Washington to warn them about things ahead.
I interviewed over a hundred people about Bob Gersony's career, and they all said he always found the truth, no matter how inconvenient it was, truth that often nobody wanted to hear in Washington, but which they acted upon because he always had a way to show how human rights belonged in the hierarchy of needs of a superpower.
The United States is still a great power. It has interests. Many of those interests are not immoral; they're amoral. They have to do with controlling sea lanes, supporting one regime over another, and on and on it goes. Bob Gersony was able to speak to policymakers one-on-one and explain to them why a human rights policy would help America's geopolitical position. That was the real genius of him. He understood national interest very much. He was a Vietnam veteran and proud of it.
He was basically—and this will also sound weird, among all the other weird things I have said about him—a conservative pessimist, not an ideological conservative, just a bit right of center, a pessimist who always thought of what could go wrong, and because he always thought of what could go wrong the worst things didn't happen because he warned policymakers in advance that if you don't do something about this, this will happen.
He was like a genius at "anxious foresight," which is a term that comes out of Machiavelli really. The best policy emerges from early warning. Bob Gersony was like a human rights early warning system. He was one person who made a difference and who showed what can be done with the American brand, and he operated at a time, the late Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War, when the State Department really worked, when you had neoconservatives working hand in hand with realists, when the policy battles that would come after the end of the Cold War, and particularly after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq, were very muted, so that it was a much less ideological State Department. You had people right of center and left of center, but the center ruled, in other words.
Bob Gersony during the high point of his career had the luck to work with George Shultz, who just passed away the other day at age 100. George Shultz in his very person inculcated national interest and human rights. He was a Cold War hardliner, but he supported Gersony's work in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, and all over. He was very receptive to Gersony's arguments about human rights, not only in Africa but in Central America and elsewhere. So George Shultz is like a minor, distant character in this story, and you see a side of George Shultz that you may not get elsewhere, despite all that has been written about him over the last 48 hours.
Finally, I will just say that this is a book about history from the ground up. It is about the middle levels of the State Department, the assistant secretaries, the deputy assistant secretaries, diplomacy at the ground level. We recently had a great biography written about James Baker III, and that is about high policy, policy from the top. Look at this book as a complement to that, to what was going on at the bottom levels, among people you never heard of but who accomplished great things in their very anonymous way.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Bob, that was great. Thank you for that introduction.
I have a couple of questions just to follow up and to tee up the conversation. I wanted to start by talking about the book itself, and then we will get to Gersony.
For me the title of it was very telling, and it had echoes. The title is The Good American. As I think of it, I was thinking of echoes of The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick and also The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Just to give you my interpretation, The Ugly American is about arrogance, the arrogance of power.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: The Quiet American was about the innocence in a way of America. I just want to prompt you to say a little bit more—you have already said a bit—about when you say "good," and you are putting it in a realist perspective. My interpretation is that what you meant by "good" was something about awareness, the limits of power, a sort of self-knowledge in a way, combined with pragmatism and empiricism, these sorts of American qualities of problem solving. Anyway, he seemed to capture that. There was a sort of "can do" but also a sense of what the limits were. Maybe you could just say a little bit more about that.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Sure, Joel.
It was a very conscious decision to make the title The Good American, not "great," because as I say at the end of the book greatness involves a high degree of ambition, and Gersony was never ambitious except to get the truth out of each assignment. He never wanted to be an assistant secretary of state or anything like that. He just wanted to be out in the field, like the best foreign correspondents are people who never want to come back to be foreign editor of the paper. They just want to die out in the field essentially.
Gersony was the good American in the sense that there is very rarely a great poem; there is a good poem. Philip Larkin wrote good poems. Robert Conquest wrote good poems. And Gersony is a good man, who is against the arrogance of America.
In fact, I will give you an example. His whole methodology of interviewing people was a weapon against arrogance because he always assumed that each peasant he spoke to was an expert at what they knew. They were an expert at what they had experienced, and he had to find out their experience, so he had to tap into their expertise. He always treated them with great dignity and respect, telling them: "I need to learn from you," essentially. "You don't need to learn anything from me." Therefore, he was able to draw them out for hours upon hours in each interview by flipping the whole thing of who had power in that conversation.
He was against arrogance and he was against innocence too because as I said he was a conservative pessimist. He started in Vietnam, and in Vietnam he fell in love with the books of the European American journalist and historian Bernard Fall. Bernard Fall predicted in his books that the Americans would fail in Vietnam just as the French had failed because of arrogance, because they didn't take the time to learn the cultural nuances of the situation, of who exactly they were dealing with. Bob Gersony made it his life's work to replicate Bernard Fall essentially. So he was against arrogance, against innocence, and that's why he was a "good" American as opposed to a "great" American.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Bob, following on that, let's talk a little bit about his independence as well. He didn't work for the State Department.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Officially no.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: He was an independent. Can you talk a little bit about the pluses and minuses of being in the system but not really in the system?
ROBERT KAPLAN: He spent over 40 years as a private contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department and occasionally for the United Nations or for a relief charity that would hire him. So essentially he was a freelancer who had to be rehired for over 40 years in succession over and over again, even though he always ruffled feathers. He didn't make people angry at him, but he made them very inconvenienced because he would come back with the kind of inconvenient information that would force people to rethink policy.
But because he was essentially not a staffer, not even a Foreign Service officer officially speaking, he was not part of any groupthink. He was not part of any bureaucratic personality or mindset. This allowed him to come back with counterintuitive truths all the time.
It also made him more vulnerable, and he felt this vulnerability, so he needed that much more energy to make sure that the new assignment would not be his last one. He suffered bouts of anxiety throughout his life that required medication, all because he felt insecure. It was his insecurity that drove him, that drove each assignment.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I was going to then turn it to you because in some ways you are an independent operator. You have lived a life very similar in a way to Bob Gersony, and I know that is probably part of the attraction for you to write about him, but could you just reflect a little bit in terms of your own experience in independently operating and reporting and how all this falls on you in terms of Gersony's story?
ROBERT KAPLAN: That's absolutely right, Joel. Gersony and I have led parallel lives. We met each other in Khartoum, Sudan, in a cheap hotel 35 years ago during what was then a front-page news story. It was the great Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, and the link was with Khartoum in Sudan because that was where the refugees poured out of Ethiopia into Eastern Sudan.
I liked Gersony immediately. He wasn't like the other journalists or aid workers. He was not voluble. He was not a conversationalist. He was a bit awkward, a bit quiet and different. Over the decades we constantly crossed paths with each other.
Like me, he was a freelancer essentially, a freelancer of the spirit if not technically always a freelancer. There have been periods in my career where I have had W-2 forms, staff jobs, built up pension points, and that kind of stuff, but essentially I was a freelancer in the same way Gersony was. We often came back with unpopular truths in that sense, and we always had to produce because if we didn't produce on each assignment, there may not be another one. So I felt very close to him.
He was also, like me, a bit conservative, a bit of pessimist, which caused a mutual attraction. So we were like brothers of the spirit in a sense. Also, he was very analytical. He spent his life with liberal arts human rights types in the developing world. He had a friend, Tony Jackson, who is a character in the book. Gersony always joked: "Tony, you're my ambassador to the left. Come with me on this assignment. You know how to talk to these people." Tony Jackson was a Brit. He speaks fluent French, several languages, and is very outgoing and idealistic, the opposite of Bob, but they were great friends.
The same thing with myself. I have always been an analytical geopolitical sort, spending significant portions of my career and in fact overseas assignments with people who were a bit opposite, who were more liberal, less analytical, and more involved in telling human-interest narratives, so to speak. In other words, I was interested in big forces, and a lot of journalists are interested in telling the personal story. In this book I flip it, of course, because I tell a personal story, but there is a geopolitical angle in almost every chapter of this book in order to set the stage for what Gersony has done.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: It's interesting because I was thinking about your work and Gersony's work. There is a part in this book—and you say it repeatedly about how Gersony worked with facts and not ideology. You are interested in both, but this is what you said about Gersony, how his life is about "how granularity of distant places defeats all theories."
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. It defeats all -isms, whether neoconservatism, conservatism, realism, or idealism, because Gersony believed in the uniqueness of each place.
There was one USAID person, the director of USAID in Quito, Ecuador. This was about 20 years ago. Her name was Hilda "Bambi" Arellano, and she hired Gersony to look at the border between Ecuador and Colombia to see what was going on. She said to me: "What I liked about him immediately is he did not say something like, 'Well, Northern Ecuador is like this place in Asia or this place in Africa.' He respected the uniqueness of each place, and then when he spent weeks traveling through Northern Ecuador, he said, 'Well, the east part of Northern Ecuador is very different from the central part, and we will need different solutions for each part.'"
It was that kind of granularity—I have discovered as a foreign correspondent that sometimes the most unpleasant thing you can do in Washington is to tell people what you actually saw and experienced because it flies in the face of their "grand theories" about the world, so to speak.
That is another thing that attracted me to Gersony. He is not a "big think" person. He is a very granular person, like: "What's going on here on the ground, and what specifically can we do, if anything, to alleviate it?"
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Where do you think we are now? There has been a lot of discussion about the hollowing out of the State Department and the devaluing of all this expertise and so on. Do you think as we sit here today the United States has learned a lesson of the need for this kind of ground truth informant-driven facts? Where are we? Can we build that capacity into the system, or do we have the means to find the next Bob Gersony or people like him?
ROBERT KAPLAN: We are at a time when the larger forces are working against the next Bob Gersonys. There is a famous line in Ernest Hemingway's first book, The Sun Also Rises. There is a character who has gone bankrupt and is an alcoholic because he has gone bankrupt. Another character asks him: "How do you go bankrupt? How does it happen?"
He said, "Well, first gradually and then suddenly."
That is kind of like the State Department and USAID because the drift downward actually began at the end of the Cold War once the whole U.S. foreign affairs bureaucracy lost a good deal of its focus because it didn't have one enemy to focus on, one ideological system to oppose. So already there was this gradual diminution of the importance of State, of USAID, of CIA, and of all of this. The 1990s were an era where we felt that we were the unipolar power and nobody could challenge us. It made us sloppy and a bit lazy.
But it all went sudden with the Trump era. The Trump era was a real decimation of the State Department and USAID, but it is important to realize that it actually started sooner in a more gradual way.
Also, social media is a disruptive technology. It gives people the assumption that we don't need people out in the field, that you can know anything by the Internet or by following the Twitter feed from this country or that. Also, email itself has made it harder for diplomats at American embassies in foreign capitals to escape from the embassy and take a bus or travel around the country and file a cable about what they have seen because email chains them to their desk. They are getting emails not only from their immediate superiors at State but from Commerce, Agriculture, all these departments who now, because it is so easy to get in touch with a first secretary or second secretary, bombard them with questions.
It's a matter of getting back to the basics in many ways at State and USAID, and the basics are about cable writing. Now obviously you do it on a computer, you file it, but it is historically called "cable" writing. It's like what the great print-and-typewriter newspapers of the day used to do so wonderfully. It was best expressed on what used to be page three of The New York Times, A3, where you didn't get the front-page story, but you got a 1,400-word story by one of their best correspondents about "What's going on in Thailand?" or "What's going on in the Central African Republic?" or something like that. It was fascinating, even though it was not a page-one item. That is when we really learned about the world. It is a matter of spiritually getting back to that, discovering the importance of old-fashioned reporting, whether it's State, CIA, USAID, or whatever.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: With that in mind, what do you think about the future of humanitarianism generally as part of U.S. foreign policy? In the book you talk about how during the Cold War era there was a certain logic to it, that strategy and altruism went together in the service of anti-communism. Then you talk a little bit about how that aids after the Cold War. Where is your sense of where we are now in terms of U.S. foreign policy and humanitarianism?
ROBERT KAPLAN: The Cold War made humanitarianism both harder and easier than it is now. It made it harder because we would put up with great atrocities if the country in question was anti-communist or anti-Soviet. That's what made it harder. It made it easier in the sense that we cared about every country on the map because we were in a battle for influence with the Soviet Union, and influence meant having humanitarian aid programs, foreign aid.
Now it's different. The crucial thing that has happened is that the world has become smaller because of digital communications. We are already more and more of a human community, a nervous, anxious, claustrophobic world out there, and because we are united by global media reputational issues, like a country's respect for human rights, achieve more importance.
So while it is important to compete with China and Russia in the military sphere and other spheres, it is also important for us to promote humanitarianism because that gives us a leg up against these two autocratic powers. If we don't have humanitarianism baked into our foreign policy, then we are just following a one-dimensional realpolitik like Russia and China are.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm just curious. Do you have some sense of optimism? I know you are a realist and perhaps a pessimist by disposition, but what you are describing requires some degree of humility but also resolve. Do you see elements of that as we think about this next post-Trump period? There is an idea of a new internationalism of some sort.
ROBERT KAPLAN: I think various things, Joel, on this. First of all, the Biden administration will be a vast improvement over the Trump administration in this matter, no matter what happens. But keep in mind the Biden administration is not dealing with the America of the Cold War or even the post-Cold War, when the United States had a vast dynamic and united and very robust middle class, which underwrote big foreign aid programs, a big Navy, and everything like that. It acquiesced to whatever our ambition was in the wider world.
The America of today has a battered middle class that is divided between a cosmopolitan upper middle, centered around the two coasts and university towns, and a lower middle drifting toward poverty, which is alienated by any internationalist form of foreign policy. So it's a less united country than it was, and it will be harder for the Biden administration to serve up anything beyond rhetoric.
America is not what it was. It cannot bring back civilian government in Myanmar by snapping its fingers, or things such as that. But I still think because it is a smaller, more claustrophobic world, where human rights violations get immediate attention in the news through social media and other things, that it will drive us to what I call "inserting human rights high up in the hierarchy of needs of U.S. foreign policy."
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Interesting.
Bob, we have a few questions that have come in. This will now drill down a little bit, but it's good because it will give a sense of the book and the very rich examples that you have. I am just going to read one here. This one is about Iraq, and then I want to come to one about the Balkans later.
The first one is from Charles Flynn: "I realize that you could not detail every assignment, and others have written volumes about Iraq, but I am wondering what truth-telling Gersony did about Iraqi reconstruction."
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. There is a whole chapter on Iraqi reconstruction in the book. It's not a big chapter. It's a small one.
Basically, the post-invasion time of the Iraq War was a failure on many levels. This book goes into the failure on the USAID level, which does not get much attention in many of the books written about Iraq. Gersony is sent out to Baghdad to find out why USAID failed in its mission to immediately be on the ground, up and running with aid programs in the aftermath of the invasion. He interviews in his typical style hundreds of people, comes back, and then is sent back again to come up with ways in which it could be improved.
So he makes a second trip to Iraq. He comes back saying it failed because the chain of command wasn't there. Quite honestly, the aid community was not completely onboard with the military authorities because they were not used to taking orders from generals and colonels. The aid community thought of international operations as humanitarian operations like in the 1990s in the Balkans, but Iraq was different. It was a military occupation no matter how you parsed it.
Iraq is dealt with in the book. One of the conclusions that Gersony came up with and which I share with the reader is that like Vietnam, where he discovered Bernard Fall, Iraq was wrong from the beginning. But having been wrong from the beginning, nevertheless it could have turned out much better than it did had the right programs and the right people been in charge on the ground. In other words, Iraq was a disaster, but it could have been much less of a disaster, to the point where we would actually be arguing about whether it was worth doing or not.
Gersony came back with all of these recommendations, which were in fact implemented, but it was too little too late. Remember, at the end of the day he was just one man against vast impersonal forces.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's good.
To go to another example, one I was very much taken with was the description of his interventions in the Balkans after the war, basically in terms of the resettlement issues in the late 1990s. The issue there was what was possible in terms of bringing people back to their homes.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Right.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Maybe you could say a little bit about Gersony's perception of the peace agreement, what it called for, but also what was possible on the ground as he was interviewing the actual refugees.
ROBERT KAPLAN: One of the aims about this book was to show you regions, not only obscure regions that you knew very little about in the first place but regions that got a lot of news attention like Rwanda, like the Balkans, but show them in a different way than any of the newspapers did.
The Balkans was like Rwanda. Gersony went in after the fact, not before the fact. He went in just as the Dayton Peace Accords negotiated by the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke had been initialed and were about to be implemented. This was the fall of 1995.
Gersony goes to Croatia, goes to Bosnia, and then would spend three months going up and down Bosnia, interviewing not only refugees and displaced persons but aid workers who had been on the ground in war-torn Bosnia for four years already. Because remember, the Bosnian War started in force in about 1992, and Gersony doesn't get there until late 1995. So the aid workers he's dealing with are people who stayed the course and were what he called "the RAND Corporation of humanitarian aid for Bosnia." That's the kind of expertise he was getting.
What he discovered was that the Dayton Accords stopped the war, but the situation was so fragile it would not take much to restart the war and make Dayton seem to have been a failure. It was a fragile situation, and some of what Dayton recommended was impossible to implement at the moment.
Specifically Dayton wanted "minority return," which is a fancy Washington word. For instance, if you have a village of 300 Croats and there were four Muslim families, those four Muslim families had to go home with the 300 Croats and be accepted by them, have their school-age children accepted by them, and have nothing bad happen to them, get their home back, because that was what Dayton intended to do, rip up this whole legacy of interethnic war in the region.
Gersony, after interviewing hundreds, including human rights workers on the ground with a lot of experience, said that minority return has to be postponed, that you are just not going to be able to protect 24/7 a minority family literally right after a four-year-old interethnic war that killed people in the most horrific ways and in which the embers of dislike and distrust were still so high.
Gersony argued for majority return. In other words, he said that most of the people in refugee camps are majorities in their villages. Get them out of these refugee camps, get them resettled in their houses, build up community centers, get the electricity started again, repair the roofs, in other words, give Dayton some foundation so it doesn't slip back into war and render Dayton a failure. And once you do that you can think about minority returns.
In other words, his philosophy—and not just in Bosnia but elsewhere—was "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." And the good thing to do was to get the majority back in place, to close down some of these refugee camps. Eventually that's what happened.
They built I think 2,500-and-some-odd homes for majority returnees, and that led other aid agencies to piggyback on USAID and provide electricity, community centers, schools, and that kind of thing. I don't want to exaggerate it, but that played a role in keeping the former Yugoslavia peaceful so that it did not slip back into war. Dayton therefore remained a great limited success, limited in the sense that it stopped the war in its tracks and it didn't continue on, even if now, 25 years later or so, interethnic relations in the former Yugoslavia are often not good.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for sharing the details of that particular example. What I wanted the viewers and the listeners to get from this conversation is a sense of both the geographic sweep of, as you say, the "epic" life of Bob Gersony in terms of the places he visited, but then the level of detail that he got into. We go everywhere from Micronesia to the former Yugoslavia. It's incredible.
My question, Bob, and this is an age-old question about generalists versus those with particular expertise in a language or an area. As a generalist myself—and I think you are a generalist—could you give us some reflections on that in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of moving around from place to place as Bob did and as you have done?
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes. Bob Gersony was both a generalist and an area specialist. His specialty was Central America essentially. He spent more years on the ground in war-torn Central America than elsewhere, and he was a fluent Spanish speaker. So he was a specialist, but in a larger sense he was a generalist. He had to parachute in to places and not spend a week there but spend four months there interviewing hundreds of people, and I should say each of these interviews often lasted several hours.
A generalist is a quick study, has an analytical side, and can focus in on the most salient facts and relate U.S. interests to the interests of whatever country he or she is representing. An area specialist spends his or her whole life dealing with one country or one linguistic region or something and sees all the nuances that a generalist often fails to see. But when it comes to policy, policymakers don't have time to listen to six-hour briefings about all the nuances. They need someone who they can trust analytically who could give them a bottom line. I have been a generalist because I have read books on various parts of the world, but in the course of writing the book I had to delve into area specialty and interview a lot of area specialists.
The best kinds of generalists have a feel for granularity in each place. Bob Gersony was a great generalist because when he started reading books about each place before he went there, he would read books by area specialists, by journalists, by travel writers, and by academics who had spent their whole life covering one country or one region, so he tapped into area specialty. That is what the best type of generalist does.
The worst kind is someone—and I'm generalizing about generalists—in a big imperial capitol who believes we should spread democracy or just do this because America's own historical experience, for instance, with democracy supersedes that country's own historical experience. Gersony was always sensitive to other people's historical experiences.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. We are coming towards the end. Just a couple more questions, getting back to Gersony himself, and we will end with this.
I am trying to get a sense of the thread that runs through the book. Did he feel that his client was always the government of the United States? Because he was so practical, he was almost like a consultant in a way, and as you said he was a great-souled person but he had the approach of an accountant. I just want to make sure I understood correctly that the client was the United States government in terms of what the government's capacity could be to deliver some humanitarian outcome.
ROBERT KAPLAN: In the case of Rwanda, he had two clients. He had USAID and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In other words, USAID hired him for Rwanda but then loaned him to UNHCR to actually carry out his investigation.
Yes, he served the United States of America. He was very much a nation-state American in that sense. And he came back with facts, and he believed that truth and facts could liberate essentially, that there was such a thing as truth, that it's not just a world of competing narratives where you have your narrative and I have mine, and we have to tell each other our narratives. That was not Gersony. Gersony believed that there is a real truth here. Good and bad may be complex or they may not be. There may be good guys and bad guys, or it may be more complicated than that, but it was the truth. So he was loyal to the truth, and he brought back the truth to what was for most of his career the most powerful country in the world.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Just to wrap up, Bob, tell us about Bob Gersony now. He is in retirement. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about him and your relationship and how the book came to be in that sense.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Yes, certainly.
Bob Gersony now is 75, 76 in a month in fact, I believe. He lives in Great Falls, Virginia. He married late because of all the traveling he did. It was he and his wife's plan to have perhaps one child, and they had triplets, believe it or not. They are all great kids, and they are all in college now. He is 75; they're in their second year of college. They all celebrate the same birthday. They were all bar mitzvahed and bat mitzvahed together in the same ceremony.
So that's Bob Gersony now. His wife, Cindy, by the way, was a humanitarian aid worker throughout most of her career, and she figures as a character in some of the chapters, like in Bosnia and Rwanda, where she accompanies him.
Bob and I are great friends. But I didn't decide to do this book until about four years ago because I knew about Bob's traveling and his interviewing of refugees and all of that and how the journalists in a war zone would interview dozens, and he would disappear and come back weeks later, having interviewed hundreds. I knew he was very special and unique, but I didn't put it all together. You know some things you know, but you don't know that you know.
It was one night four years ago. A mutual friend of ours had died, a fellow by the name of Jerry Weaver, who is a minor character in the book, by the way. Jerry Weaver had passed away, and Bob and I decided to have dinner together at the Cosmos Club in Washington, as it happened. I asked Bob just for curiosity where he went to school, because all along I thought he had gone to Yale or Harvard or someplace like that, because he's polished, and spent his life working for State and USAID. He said, "Well, actually I didn't go to college." Then it all came out, that he dropped out of high school. I didn't know that he had been to Vietnam. It kind of hit me: This is a real story. This is a very unusual character.
But I still didn't jump on it. I waited about four months and was mulling it over and figured good book ideas aren't handed to you on a silver platter. You have to tease them out. It was only after I started on the book and I started interviewing dozens upon dozens of people at USAID, State, and elsewhere, and how each of them told me how extraordinary and reliable with information Bob was, it was then that I decided to really pour myself into this book.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Well, great. It was a wonderful investment. We genuinely appreciate it. It's a great story. Among its many virtues too is telling the story of, as you put it so eloquently, somebody who labored in obscurity, unknown, and still to this day is not seeking to be known or to be even an "influencer," to use the current jargon. But I think it does a wonderful job of explaining so much history and so much geography. It's just a great story.
Thank you for it. We really appreciate it.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you, Joel, and Carnegie Council for hosting me.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you all for joining us.