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Guest Host: Steve Roberts
In 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent Todd Moss, the Chief U.S. diplomat for West Africa, to Mauritania in the middle of a coup. His mission: to talk down the military general who had overthrown the government. Six years later, that former State Department official has used his experiences as the basis for his first novel, a political thriller centering around a fictional coup in Mali. Set against a backdrop of dysfunction in Washington, his re-creation of foreign policymaking is also a love letter to Africa and a call for increased U.S. partnership with the continent. Author Todd Moss joins us to talk about U.S.-Africa relations, in-fighting in Washington and using fiction to give readers a glimpse behind the closed doors of the State Department.
- Todd Moss Chief Operating Officer and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, and former chief U.S. diplomat for West Africa under president George W. Bush.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Reprinted from The Golden Hour by Todd Moss by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Todd Moss.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment and will be back in this chair very soon. Author Todd Moss knows firsthand about intervening in overseas conflicts, as the top U.S. diplomat for West Africa under George W. Bush. His experience exposed him to interagency infighting and the frustrations of foreign policymaking in Washington.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSBased on his time at the State Department and his decades of work on African issues, his new political thriller aims to illuminate the inner workings of government and give leaders a glimpse of how foreign-policy decisions are really made in times of crisis abroad. His new book is entitled, "The Golden Hour." And Todd joins me in the studio. Thanks so much for being here. Welcome.
MR. TODD MOSSThanks, Steve. Good to be here.
ROBERTSTodd just told me, off the air, that the book has debuted at number six at The Washington Post bestseller list, so congratulations on that. So perhaps some of you have had a chance to read it or look at it. So give us a call, 1-800-433-8850 is our number as always, email firstname.lastname@example.org and our website, www.drshow.org. And, Todd, this phrase, the golden hour, is one that comes from emergency medicine and is familiar to folks who know about it as a medical term. And you've applied it to diplomacy. Tell us how and why.
MOSSWell, that's right. Well, I learned about the golden hour when I drove an ambulance in Boston, when I was a college student. And, you know, it struck me that the U.S. government is constantly called on to react to crises. Things are popping up all around the world. It seems like the headlines every day are about a new crisis. And we always seem to react slowly. And so I thought this was a good motivator for thinking about a time-bound mechanism where heroes would have to react quickly in order to succeed in foreign policy. And that's really the driver for "The Golden Hour."
ROBERTSBut is it something you made up or is it something that actually is a widely-held concept in foreign policymaking?
MOSSWell, I think it's widely held that if you don't react quickly, if you're not a shaper of events, you're just reacting to events.
MOSSI think President Bush's memoirs made that very clear. He wanted to try to shape events, not just have the U.S. react. Whether this actually exists in data on international crises as the hero in my story finds, I don't think that exists. But there are lots of political scientists looking for these anomalies.
ROBERTSBut there -- so there's -- it's not as if, when you join the State Department, they teach you about the golden hour.
MOSSNo. Not yet, they don't.
ROBERTSAll right. I just wanted to get that clear. But, you know, as you point out and I mentioned in my introduction, Todd, that you have a lot of experience as a diplomat. You had diplomat in West Africa under George Bush. Condoleezza Rice was the Secretary of State, and that you've written four nonfiction books, and that when you left government service, your original intention was to write another nonfiction book about how things really worked. Why did you decide that you could do it better through fiction?
MOSSWell, I think I experienced something that a lot of people in government feel, which is an intense frustration with just how big and sprawling the government is, which makes it very difficult to get good decisions, to get quick decisions, and often to get the right decision for U.S. national interests. So I -- that's what I started writing about. But what I realized was that the good stories, the good ways of telling how decisions are made, what is the sausage machine inside the U.S. government, I could never do that through a nonfiction format.
MOSSWell, first, you know, you can't tell all the stories, especially things which might have classified information, which might be the juicy bits. And then also I just thought that a thriller -- which I like to read on the beach, many people like to read on vacation -- is just a way to reach a lot more people. And so when they pick up their newspaper and they say, you know, why is our government not doing this or why are they doing that, they would -- maybe they would think of the book and a little bit about what goes on inside government.
ROBERTSThat's interesting that, when you say that if you actually wrote a nonfiction book that there were a lot of classified things you couldn't talk about. And presumably, also, you had relationships, you had conversations you couldn't relate. I remember when my late mother-in-law wrote a memoir of her years in politics, she said to me once, "Darling, think what a great book I could have written if I told the truth."
MOSSWell, I mean, you also don't, you know, there are any -- in government, there are so many good, hardworking people, that the system often sets them up to fight with each other. And it's not because they mean to do bad things. It's just that that's how the system is structured. So this weird -- there's a weird dichotomy where I hope readers of the book will feel frustrated with our government because of the way it works, but that also have some sympathy for those working hard inside government to get to the right result.
ROBERTSNow we should say, too, without giving away the plot, we want to tell our listeners that your protagonist, your hero is a professor named Judd Ryker at Amherst, who has been working on this theory of the golden hour and applying data to diplomatic and political decision making. And then through a variety of circumstances, old mentors, he gets invited to join the State Department and apply some of his theories to the real world.
ROBERTSAnd in fact, the main event is a coup in the West African country of Mali. Now, you actually, as a diplomat, had an experience in a nearby African country of Mauritania, that sort of helped set the stage for this fictional event in the nearby country. Tell us about your experience in the real world that helped lead to the fictional account.
MOSSSure. It was in August of 2008. And I was having brunch with my family in Silver Spring and got a phone call that there had been a coup overnight in Mauritania. Now this is a country that not many Americans know of. I'd never been there. But it was a close counterterrorism partner for the United States. And they'd had a democratically elected government. And I was asked to go and try to talk this general down, who had overthrown the regime. And if I couldn't talk him down, we were to cut off all of our assistance and to withdraw our military support. In the end, General Aziz refused to step down and we did cut our assistance and we moved our troops and our planes to neighboring countries.
ROBERTSSo you failed in your mission.
MOSSI did. I did. You know, in these cases, often our leverage is quite limited. You know, the coup...
MOSS...the circumstances of the coup were about domestic politics in Mauritania. And our ability to influence those events are much less than we often imagine.
ROBERTSNow, I'm talking to Todd Moss. He's a first-time novelist. His new book, "The Golden Hour." But as a diplomat, he has lived and worked in Africa for many years and writes from real-life experience. And we have some lines open. So give us a call, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at email@example.com, and join the conversation with Todd. But, now, okay, Judd Ryker, right? He's this professor and he gets caught up in this. Are you Judd Ryker?
MOSSYou know, everybody asks me that. You know, all of the characters in the book are fictional.
ROBERTSYeah, yeah, yeah. We know that, yeah.
MOSSA few of them have been inspired by people that I really know.
MOSSI'd say I certainly used the Judd Ryker character to vent some frustrations from my own experience. But he's absolutely not me.
ROBERTSYou never taught at Amherst.
MOSSI never did. I never did.
ROBERTSBut, you know, we were just chatting before we went on the air, Todd, that this device of the professor who turns from his bookish life to a life of action has actually appeared in other novels. "Indiana Jones" of course, is a great example. And Robert Langdon, who was a hero, the Harvard professor of the Dan Brown books. So this is an interesting genre.
MOSSWell, I think, I have taught -- I taught at the London School of Economics. And I do think a lot of professors think that governments, you know, they don't work well. You know, officials don't know what they're talking about and they could do a lot better job. So I could imagine that, you know, certainly Judd Ryker thinks that he could do that. And he comes up against what I thought was an interesting tension, which is he's a numbers guy. He's not -- this is not your typical thriller or, you know, gun-wielding action hero.
MOSSHe's a numbers guy. He crunches data, comes into the State Department, thinks his analysis is going to win the day. And of course at the State Department, that's not what wins the day at all. He has to build these relationships, some of them quite back-channel, in order to try to succeed.
ROBERTSSo Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones in the movies. I forget who played Robert Langdon in the Dan Brown books. But as you write, has this book been optioned by the movies yet?
MOSSIt has not.
ROBERTSWell, if -- as you write there, who do you see playing Judd Ryker? Who's your prototype on the wall, when you think about it?
MOSSIt's a good question. You know, I think it's somebody who would be, you know, a sort of vulnerable, likable nerd, who has this sort of inner hero that he has to sort of dig deep and pull out. So, you know, I'm not sure who that would be. I've gotten a lot of advice. Everyone has their favorite -- their favorite actors and say...
ROBERTSWell, what's the leading suggestion you get from people who've read the book?
MOSSYou know, I've gotten a lot of Matt Damon suggestions. I think people like the "Bourne" series and they think that he would be a good match.
ROBERTSAnd of course, "Good Will Hunting," he played kind of a likeable nerd in that movie.
MOSSExactly. A sort of genius out of -- who gets thrust into difficult situations.
ROBERTSAll right. Well, we'll see what happens. The -- and you're working on another one already. Or is it done?
MOSSSo I'm on -- I've got a four-book contract from Penguin's Putnam. It'll all be Judd Ryker. It would be a series with the same main characters. The second one is called "Minute Zero." That's finished. It will be out next year. And Judd Ryker is sent into Zimbabwe -- a country I know very well, it's where I got my start in Africa -- in the middle of an election that's about to blow up. Right now I'm working on the third book, which is about Cuba and South Florida.
ROBERTSExcellent. Well, Todd Moss is a first-time novelist. But as he was just mentioning, he's -- you will be -- this will be a series, the Judd Ryker books. "The Golden Hour," is the new one. It's just out, debuted at number six on The Washington Post bestseller list. And you can join our conversation. We've still got some lines open, 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Steve Roberts. I'm sitting in today for Diane while she recovers from a voice treatment. And we're going to be back with your comments and your calls in just a minute. So stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. The subject this hour, novelist Todd Moss, former diplomat and now out with his first novel, "The Golden Hour" it's called. And it's about West Africa. It's about a former college professor Judd Ryker who has a theory about how to use numbers to analyze foreign policy. He becomes a State Department official and gets caught up in this book in a coup in the West African country of Mali.
ROBERTSAnd Judd -- Todd, Judd -- you placed Judd in Mali and yet when you were writing this book there actually was a real life coup in Mali.
ROBERTSI mean, you didn't arrange it or anything as part of your publicity tour I assume.
MOSSNo. Despite what many people think, the U.S. government doesn't do that. So, you know, I had -- I'd been writing the story inspired by my experience in Mauritania but I set it in Mali because no one's heard of Nouakchott in Mauritania and everybody's heard of Timbuktu even if they don't know where it is or even if it's a real place. And so a lot of the action does take place in Timbuktu. And I'd spent some time in Mali so I wanted to draw on that.
MOSSAnd about six weeks after I finished the book, Mali had a real coup. Frankly, I did not expect it. I put it in Mali because it was a better place to set the novel. But sometimes these things surprise you.
ROBERTSBut also a big part of the book is set in the State Department. And one of the key dimensions of this is the in-fighting. And you and interviews I've read of you said that the -- when you yourself joined the State Department, one of your mentors advised you that the real enemy is in this building. What did he mean and did that turn out to be true?
MOSSWell, what she meant was that -- what she meant is that we have things that we want to accomplish. The president and secretary of state had set out some clear goals for the -- by the end of the administration. And that what was holding them back were not dictators or terrorist groups, but actually the bureaucracy within the building and within the U.S. government system.
MOSSSo what I wanted to do through the story was to take the reader -- when you read about a coup in Egypt or an airstrike on Somalia, as we've just had, take you inside the White House situation room to hear those conversations, inside the classified rooms in the corners of a U.S. embassy overseas to hear how do the different parts of the U.S. government hash it out and come to a decision?
ROBERTSNow, have any of your former colleagues read this book? And what kind of reviews have they given?
MOSSSo I've heard from a lot of former colleagues. It's been mostly positive. You know, I think people, first of all, like to read stories about themselves.
MOSSCertainly people in the diplomatic world feel that the CIA and the military gets all of the love in the thriller world, so I think they were glad that somebody was trying to make diplomat sexy, although I'm not sure that that's the right adjective in this case. But also that people day to day are trying to do their jobs, they're trying to do things in the interest of the United States government and they're often extremely frustrated by the way that the system works. And to see that in print and in an accessible format like this I think can be -- you know, it can be burden-lifting for people.
ROBERTSYou say mostly favorable. What were the negatives?
MOSSWell, I had some folks from DOD, from the Defense Department worry that I wasn't painting them in, you know, the nicest light.
ROBERTS...possible light, huh?
MOSSYeah, but I would say that in each agency there are good and not so good actors.
ROBERTSOne of the dimensions here too, you mentioned earlier that you studied in Zimbabwe, the site of your next Judd Ryker novel. And in the interviews I've read with you, you say that one of your motives here is to help people understand the beauty of Africa and the soul of Africa, a place that you've come to love deeply over your career. Talk about that dimension of what your aim here is.
MOSSWell, I got hooked on Africa pretty much from the moment I stepped off the plane in Zimbabwe as a college student. I've been working on it ever since. And, you know, I think people thought I was a little bit strange. It was low -- Africa was lower down on the foreign policy ladder, not as many careers -- you know, as I was building my career, Asia was booming and Africa wasn't.
ROBERTSYeah, you're supposed to be taking Chinese, right?
MOSSExactly. So, you know, but I stuck with it because, you know, I was -- I caught the Africa bug. A lot of people catch it. A lot of former Peace Corp -- I'm not a former Peace Corp volunteer but a lot of former Peace Corp volunteers, people that work in Africa, on Africa, they get the Africa bug. And I certainly had it.
MOSSBut what I'm seeing now, and this is really a major sea change, is that interest in Africa is growing tremendously, especially in the last couple of years. Economically Africa is booming. Companies are, you know, tripping over themselves to invest in Africa. And so we're seeing a lot more interest there. We're also seeing national security interest. You had earlier in the show talking about Ebola. There are certainly some terrorism issues in Africa that mean we're going to need to build closer alliances with Africa.
MOSSAnd all -- both the positive economic story of Africa and the worrying national security threats all mean that Africa is going to be more important to the United States than ever before. And I thought, why not try to write a thriller that's set in Africa and treats it like any other region of the world, not some exotic faraway place.
ROBERTSNow this is a good lead into our callers because we have a former Peace Corp volunteer from Africa. Hattie from Cleveland, Ohio, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
HATTIEOkay. Thank you for taking my call. I was really excited to hear this was the topic today. And I'm super excited to read your book. My question, I guess, has to do with, you know, like when you're in Africa and I was in a place where I could see Mauritania out of -- you know, every day as I was walking down the street. I was in Saint-Louis with is in northern Senegal. And when you're on the ground it's like the disconnect between where you are and, like, Washington. It feels like a different planet let alone, you know, just a different continent.
HATTIEAnd with all of the cultural differences -- and I listened to the earlier part talking about Ebola -- like, how does the culture -- I mean, the culture is so different, how do those cultural differences get taken into account, you know, in the political dealings when you've got a coup or, you know, like -- or you have Ebola. Like in the State Department what are the conversations into -- like, how do you take those cultural differences into account when the government -- U.S. government is making decisions, you know, for national security or, you know, just, you know, different -- you know, those kinds of conversations? Because the culture is so different and needs to be, you know, handled with care.
ROBERTSHattie, thanks so much for your call. We appreciate it. And, you're right, in our first hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" we got into that question quite deeply, rather the cultural differences that were obstacles to treating effectively the Ebola virus. But please answer Hattie's question.
MOSSSure. And thanks, Hattie, for the call. You know, for all international dealings, you know, Japanese culture is very different from American cultures, diplomats have to learn to adapt. We have to do what we can to try to understand cultures that we're interacting with. We're not very good at it. It can be difficult particularly in societies that we don't understand very well.
MOSSYou know, I've been working on Nigeria for many years. It's a country I love but the more I learn about Nigeria the more I realize how little I understand about what's going on in Nigeria. And I think that's true in a lot of places. Certainly in Mauritania when I was going over there, I could barely scratch the surface of what was really going on. And that hamstrings us in our ability to influence events or to try to shape policies in an effective way. It's something we're just going to have to continue to struggle with.
MOSSYou know, unfortunately when a lot of decisions get made based on passive aggressive bureaucratic either in-fighting or horse trading, almost to the total exclusion of local cultural issues, which is why we often get bad outcomes.
ROBERTSTodd Moss, we also have an email from Joe who gets at the one dimension of your answer about the State Department. He says, "Does Dr. Moss think, from what he sees now from the outside, that things have changed in Washington since he was at the State Department or have things gotten worse?"
MOSSWell, at one level they're getting better in that Africa is being recognized as a more important region. There are more resources being dedicated. Certainly the U.S. military is paying a lot more attention to Africa than it ever did before.
ROBERTSAnd as the president's announcement just today, an example of it.
MOSSVery indicative. On the other hand, the U.S. government almost never shrinks. So we're actually -- we're seeing a proliferation of even more agencies even within the State Department even more bureaus that get involved. And that makes decision-making more complicated. So I think the Africa diplomacy piece is probably getting better as we start to recognize our real interests there, both positive and negative. But the problem of U.S. government coordination is much, much worse as we just get bigger.
MOSSI think that's true in the Ebola case too where there are more than six agencies involved and you have to, you know, insert the U.S. military to create some order.
ROBERTSOne trend that is certainly visible in American foreign policy, and one that you mention in the book and which you've talked about, is the growing role of women. You worked for a female secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. We've had three now with Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. And many of the strongest characters in your book are women. The ambassador in Mauritania who Judd Ryker works with is a woman. This lobbyist who sort of seems to know everything and wants to work with is a very powerful woman. And then Ryker's own wife who plays less a role in this book but I gather is going to be in the future book. So talk about that dimension and why you chose to utilize female characters in these roles.
MOSSYou know, really it wasn't a conscious decision. You know, I think after seeing, you know, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, it seemed natural to have a female secretary of state. And, you know, my experience in government, and in the private sector and nonprofit world has always been powerful women in these positions. So it seemed very normal. And of course I grew up in a house of powerful, strong women and I continue to live in a house of strong women. So that just seemed like the new normal.
ROBERTSAnd I gather from some interviews you've given that Jessica Ryker plays a bigger role in the second book.
MOSSSure. I think, you know, thrillers that, you know, don't want to just tell a story about the plot of what the hero's doing, getting a sense of their personal struggles is part of it. And certainly Judd who goes from a very genteel life in, you know, Western Massachusetts is thrust into the State Department. That put a lot of pressure on his family, his relationship with his wife. And she's an extremely interesting character that will develop more as the series progresses. And I thought that that was a good parallel. And it also mirrors experiences of a lot of people in government that do have to really balance quite difficult personal and professional lives.
ROBERTSI mean, the first scene of the book is he's called away from a vacation to answer the...
MOSSIt happens all the time.
ROBERTS...all the time. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn to a couple of our callers, Todd. And we have Claire in Cornelius, N.C. Do I have that right, Claire?
CLAIREYeah, that's it.
ROBERTSWelcome. We're happy to have you. What's on your mind?
CLAIREThank you. I just have sort of a comment. I am a professor of political science. And my focus is Africa. Been studying Africa and going there for over 20 years. And the last couple years I've worked pretty extensively with the Department of Defense both with U.S. Africa Command and living in and working on a base in Djibouti, Africa. And my experience is that you have -- while there is this bulky administrative structure that academics sort of run into in working with the U.S. government, it also depends a lot on really the personality of people you're working with.
CLAIREThere are -- you know, one of the stories I have is we had a fellow -- I had a fellow colleague PhD who was working with me. And when the crisis in Liberia occurred, I think it was Gbagbo, and when he didn't want to step down, we had a PhD who was -- had done over a year of fieldwork in Liberia. And she was not allowed into any of the planning meetings with the DOD folks, the DIA folks. And, you know, it's just -- I think it's different cultures that perhaps make it very difficult for the academics and the government folks to work together a lot of times.
ROBERTSClaire, thanks so much for your call. What do you think, Todd?
MOSSWell, I don't know anything about the incident she's talking about but, you know, I think there is a very clear culture clash between the sort of academic world that wants to be, you know, very purist on methodology and government people who are trying to -- you know, they're responding very, very quickly.
MOSSYou know, I spent -- you know, when I'm outside government I spend a lot of time looking at data models. And in my entire time in government I never saw one. There was no time for that kind of reflection. And so decisions get made on a very different basis. But Claire's main point that personalities matter a lot is exactly what the story is about, that Judd realizes that you're not going to win with a killer chart. You actually have to build personal relationships with people to figure out what's really going on.
ROBERTSAnd one of the main dramatic elements of this book is here's this guy who has sat up there in Western Massachusetts creating these models and crunching the numbers. And, yeah, it gave him a framework and an approach but he found when he really got his hands on a problem it was, as Claire said, a very different culture with very different demands, time pressures, bureaucratic in-fighting. I mean, just a very different world and it looked like in that common room up in Amherst.
MOSSThat's right. I mean, Judd, you know, he reflects a lot of people that I know who are, you know, very smart, you know, brilliant people. But their personal interaction skills are not so good. And they need to -- you know, if you're going to succeed in an environment like inside the State Department, you need to build those relationships. You need to figure out who can help you, who are your allies and who's trying to block you. And that's really what he does.
ROBERTSAnd have you found, as readers have started to give you some feedback -- you set this, as you point out, in a country that very few, if any, Americans have ever visited or know anything about. This is not Robert Langdon going to Rome where everybody could recognize all of the streets. Do you have people who are connecting to the place? Your idea of teaching people about Africa, is that working?
MOSSWell, it's not even been out a week so it's a little early. You know, I've gotten great feedback from the other folks that have caught the Africa bug. That's a natural audience. But what I hope -- the audience I hope to reach are the people that think about Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt but are looking for thrillers set in new places.
ROBERTSThat's Todd Moss, "The Golden Hour." We're going to be back with your calls. I'm Steve Roberts. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane while she gets a voice treatment. She's gonna be back in this chair shortly. But my guest this hour is Todd Moss. He's published a new novel, "The Golden Hour." Todd, former State Department Official, drawing on a lot of his own personal experiences in West Africa to craft this novel. And we, Todd, a number of our callers, a number of our listeners have said, really, explain this concept of "The Golden Hour," which you took from emergency medicine, but is being applied to, in your novel, applied to a diplomatic situation. Give us an account here.
MOSSSure. In emergency medicine, the idea is somebody who's had a major trauma, you have to get them in front of a doctor within 60 minutes, or their chances of survival plummet. In the story...
ROBERTSOften a battlefield concept.
MOSSIt can be. It's certainly rural medicine after an accident. In the story, Judd Riker, the political science professor, is crunching data on international crises, and he finds a similar pattern with coups. Which is, if you don't reverse a coup within about four days, the likelihood of the coup being reversed plummets. And therefore, he concludes that if the US wants to reverse a coup, they have about 100 hours to do it, or their chances go close to zero. And that -- her presents that at the State Department, the Chief of Staff for the Secretary of State likes it, launches an office and asks Judd to head this up.
ROBERTSBut as we were saying, as he enters the real world, his ability to crunch those numbers and apply the theories gets sidetracked.
ROBERTSOr undermined. Or whatever word you...
MOSSThat's true. But you know, it's actually a very common phenomenon inside the government where somebody has an idea and you set up a special office to work on that. We've seen that many times, and of course, so Judd comes in and he thinks he's got all these brilliant ideas for accelerating US response to crisis, but he realizes nobody's going to listen to him. He has no authority. No budget to do this. And that's exactly what happens to a lot of these special offices.
ROBERTSUntil, in your book, the coup happens in Mali, and the Chief Diplomat in West Africa, who I guess was the job you once had, is off negotiating a truce somewhere and they turn to him and say, okay, you.
MOSSExactly. He's given this, through this series of accidents, he's given his one opportunity to prove the golden hour.
ROBERTSWe have a lot of our listeners, Todd Moss, who -- here are some emails. This one's from Bernard. I appreciate the author's love of Africa, he writes. We lived in Cameroon in the mid-70s, loved being there. Since then, over 40 years, we have often worked in Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, others. The reality of living in Africa is so different than the portrayal of Africa in the US press and in policy. And I would like to understand this phenomenon. How do you account for this discrepancy and how do we correct it?
MOSSExcellent question. I'm not sure I have an answer. But I do -- it does seem very clear that many Americans view Africa through the lens of famine relief commercials on TV or "Blackhawk Down" or what kind of charity is Madonna or Oprah up to lately. But I do think that that's changing as more Americans interact with Africa, as more Americans invest in Africa. And as Americans start to see Africa as not some sort of other planet far away, but integral to the future of the United States, that that will start to change. And I do think the media images are now starting to change.
ROBERTSOf course, one of the moving parts here is the ability of news organizations to have correspondents in Africa. And as news budgets get trimmed, foreign reporters are often the first to go. And this is one of the vectors that inhibits the ability of people to know a lot about it. But I also have an email here from Kay, who says what's your advice to current diplomats on picking up that pen to write fiction?
MOSSYou just have to sit in the seat and do it. You know, I didn't know, when I sat down to do it, whether I could write a thriller.
ROBERTSAnd it took you three and a half years to write the first one.
MOSSIt took about three and a half years. I did it in little bits and pieces, early in the morning. But you know what, it was really fun, so I would encourage people to try it.
ROBERTSOn this question of African culture, we're happy to have Ibraheem, (sp?) from Arlington, Virginia, who I believe is originally from Mauritania. And Ibraheem, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
IBRAHEEMHi. Thank you Mr. Moss for writing this book. I actually would love it if you had actually taken place in Mauritania instead of Mali. That would have given Mauritania a little bit of exposure. My question is, what does the state department do when it goes from condemning a coup in a country into actually accepting the person who did that coup and starting doing business with him? Are there internal fighting inside the fed department? Certainly, certain convictions challenged, certain beliefs and principles, democratic principles.
IBRAHEEMThat's, I think, my question. And just a little story. Every time somebody asks me where I'm from, I will usually say Senegal, because nobody has ever heard of Mauritania. And that will give people an idea, actually, just of the geographic location of where I'm from. Thank you very much and thank you again for writing the book.
ROBERTSWell, thank you, Ibraheem for the call. Okay.
MOSSThanks, Ibraheem. Well, so the story I told about General Aziz refusing to step down in 2008. Eventually, what he did was he out-waiting us. After about a year, he set up and rigged an election to win, and the region, the African Union, accepted that election as legitimate. And they recognized him. And the United States followed the region's lead in this case. The US doesn't always do that, but usually, we'll defer to the regional leaders. And of course, it was now President Aziz, who's the Chairman of the African Union, who helped to open the Africa summit here in Washington last month, standing side by side with Secretary Kerry.
ROBERTSBy the way, we're musing on the question of who played Robert Langdon in the movies. You said, off the air, it was Tom Hanks, and Sarah writes to us and said, you are correct.
ROBERTSIt was Tom Hanks. Let's turn to Jack in Tampa, Florida. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Hello, Jack? You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
JACKHey, how are you? I had a question. I'm actually very interested in political service, and foreign service at that, with the department of state. (unintelligible) my time in college studying the southern African continent in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe. And I was just wondering, from your stance, how does the State Department, or the diplomats go from say, having an Ian Sniff government with Rhodesia to transitioning into this Robert Mugabe -- you know, in making these new attachments, these new friends. How did they go about that?
ROBERTSThanks for your call. That's similar to the previous point.
MOSSYeah. The United States, you know, it's not omniscient. It's not all-powerful. We're still the most powerful government in the world, but we don't control things very often. It's -- you know, we're trying to react to events and we're trying to respond to what we believe to be our national interests. And political transitions happen all the time, and the US government has to make a call about, okay, what do we do? Is this legitimate government? Is this government likely to be supportive of US interests? And this is going on, you know, right now in the Middle East.
MOSSIt's going on right now -- it's constant. It's not a fixed issue. So I wasn't in government in 1980 when Zimbabwe became independent. Clearly, the US has taken a position right now that it does not recognize the legitimacy of Robert Mugabe's regime. We've got sanctions in place on many of his top officials and him and his family. So we will be trying to encourage a transition in that country over time. And that's actually the subject of my second book.
ROBERTSAnd as you point out, this gets very messy. You know, you mentioned the Middle East. Look at Syria. Our national policy is to depose the government, the Assad government. The strongest military force against Assad is ISIS, which we also oppose. So, choosing between them gets extremely difficult and it's often, I think, not just a question of who you're against, but who are you for? It's a very difficult question.
MOSSWell, foreign policy is never about just sticking to your principles or just real politic interests. You're always balancing these things, and the United States has multiple interests everywhere. And there's always going to be tensions and tradeoffs there. I mean, that is the art of foreign policy making. And that is the sort of narrative of "The Golden Hour," which is, you know, there are security officials that want to prioritize counter-terrorism. There are democracy officials that want to prioritize democracy. There's other interests coming in, and that's how it happens.
ROBERTSWell, and Iran is another very good example. You know, those who are focusing on arms control and controlling the nuclear capabilities have one set of priorities, but the folks who want to use Iran as a counterweight to ISIS have a very different set of priorities.
MOSSThat's right. That's right. You know, very often, I pick up the newspaper and I think, I'm glad I'm not in government today.
ROBERTSWell, we have several other callers who want to talk about this question. And if I can get to Carol in Dallas, Texas. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Carol.
CAROLHi. How are you? I was just wondering if you could sort of sum up what he thinks about how...
ROBERTSYou can talk to him directly. He's right here.
CAROLYes. I wondered what the changes that the US is making, or needs to make, considering China's growing influence in the whole African continent.
ROBERTSGood question. We discussed that a little bit the first hour on Ebola. Please take the question.
MOSSSure. It's, you know, it's very clear that China's making major economic and diplomatic investments in Africa. For the most part, the vast majority of that is actually good for the United States. China's investing in all kinds of infrastructure, in ways that the United States would never do. And in a way that infrastructure's a tremendous need in Africa, particularly power and roads. Politically, I think that the United States is sort of trying to catch up, because we're noticing, belatedly, that everybody seems to be pouring money into Africa and what are we missing.
MOSSSo, there's a little bit of catch up. President Obama hosted 50 high level delegations, most Presidents of Africa, just about a month ago. And a lot of people saw that as the US trying to show that it's not just China, that the United States is paying attention and interested in Africa as well.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Papiz, (sp?) if I have your name correct. And we're delighted to have you on the phone from Cincinnati.
PAPIZYes, that is correct. And thank you for having me. And Mr. Moss, thank you for writing this book. I'm also from Mauritania. And as the previous caller said, I'm a bit disappointed that the setting wasn't (unintelligible). It would have displayed our beautiful culture and also exposed our (unintelligible) making skills to the world. But I'm still excited about this book, which I'll get, you know, as an avid reader of political thrillers.
PAPIZBut my question is about US relationship to countries like Mauritania. Does the United States refer to France, since Mauritania is a former colony of France? And also, to add to that, discussions, such as in these cases, does the subject of human rights ever -- do you ever get the subject of human rights in these discussions with these generals? These military coup leaders?
ROBERTSPapiz, we certainly welcome your call, and thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Todd Moss, your answer.
MOSSThanks Papiz, for that, and I'm sorry that I didn't put it in Mauritania. You know, the United States -- you know, human rights is a bedrock American value. And it certainly goes into the mix. It doesn't trump everything else, as I think a lot of people would like it to. Clearly, the State Department reports on the human rights situation in every single country, and it usually does so in very, very blunt terms. And absolutely, those issues get raised and those issues can have a major effect on the US ability to cooperate with countries. But does it trump all other interests and all other discussions, you know? In reality, that just doesn't happen.
ROBERTSAnd we have another caller with an interest in this region. Zana, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show" from Baltimore.
ZANAHi. Thank you for taking my call. And thank you for writing a book with the sort of inner story and inner workings of American policy towards Africa and how it takes place, you know, on the ground, so to speak. But my comment was, when you talk about American policy towards Africa, first of all, we talk about it in terms of Africa, whole continent. As diverse as anyone can imagine. And then, we never talk about the regional powers, in terms of what they're able to achieve.
ZANAOr if there's any good news coming out of Africa. That's very seldom, you know, discussed. And what really troubles me though, and the reason why I called is whenever everybody has called in just now, and whenever we do discuss it, we talk about African culture different -- how different Africa is from the West. And to me, that's laughable, because we discuss it as though we're a whole other planet. We forget it's part of the human race. There is no difference that is so great. It's not that much of a difference between China and America, but now that we have interests there, we will do something with China.
ZANAOf course, every sovereign nation goes into international politics understanding that you're looking after yourself. I mean, that's real politics. We understand that. But African cultural difference is not such a great leap. It doesn't require such a great peoples' imagination to work with an African nation. We only talk about African nations whenever we talk about American aid, which is less than one percent of the GDP, or whatever it was when I last checked. This is my comment.
ROBERTSWe appreciate it very much. Thanks for calling us this morning. Todd Moss.
MOSSWell, I really, I couldn't agree with Zana more on the cultural question. You know, when I was a student, a college student, I'd never been to Africa before. I grew up in suburban Rochester, New York. Very little interaction with Africans. I stepped off the plane in Zimbabwe and I was just shocked. I was shocked at how absolutely normal it seemed. It was very familiar. I lived with a Zimbabwean family. Our dinner conversations were pretty much about the same things. You know, school, work, traffic, sports teams. And I think that familiarity actually makes Africa quite accessible to people in some surprising ways.
MOSSAnd that's, I think, one reason that the Africa bug, as we call it, spreads so quickly. Is that you think it's gonna be very different, and it's often not. And so, I would absolutely agree with Zana on that.
ROBERTSAnd a final point here, Todd Moss. If you want people to carry some impression or some of Africa from your novel. Because you said, it's, in many ways, a love letter to this continent, what do you want people to feel when they read this book?
MOSSI'd hope that when people -- first of all, I hope people just have fun reading it. That's the point of a thriller. But I do hope that when people read in the newspaper about something happening in Nigeria or Kenya or South Africa, that they'll think of it as just a normal place somewhere else in the world where we have interests, people are going about their business. And it's somewhere that matters to the United States in ways that they hadn't thought before.
ROBERTSThat's the final word from Todd Moss. His new novel, "The Golden Hour." Number six on the Washington Post best-seller list. Congratulations for that. And we'll be looking for the next novel next year, set in Zimbabwe. I'm Steve Roberts. I'm sitting in today for Diane. She's getting a voice treatment. She'll be back in this chair shortly. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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