Tag Archives: Character-Driven Leadership

John McCain – My Model Fellow American

John MCainI first met Senator McCain in 1988 in Panama.  I was a mid-level diplomat at our Embassy there during the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega.  The Senator had led one of his legendary Congressional visits (CODEL) to the country to examine U.S. policy and the security of the Panama Canal.

Our diplomatic presence in Panama was an odd one.  The U.S. did not recognize Noriega’s regime, which had seized control of the government from the democratically elected President of Panama, who was in exile in the United States.  We maintained an Embassy, but we had no formal diplomatic contact with the Noriega government.  We maintained military bases there, and our forces exercised our treaty rights to move about Panama City and the rest of the country.  These movements led to regular interference from Noriega’s thuggish military during which our forces often withdrew and consistently avoided the use of force.

You can only imagine what Senator McCain thought of this situation.  To him, U.S. military forces in legal execution of their treaty rights do not retreat from an opponent.  I agreed with the Senator and had in fact voiced my opposition to our ambivalent policy toward Noriega.  After a day of meetings, the Senator addressed what he considered the commanding U.S. general’s soft approach to Noriega’s provocations.  “What’s wrong with that guy?”, the Senator asked me.  Despite my own frustration with our approach, I defended the general, arguing that his orders from Washington limited the scope of his response.  The Senator was clearly not happy and shot me a disapproving look.

I learned a lot from that short exchange with an unhappy John McCain.  I am convinced that his subsequent advocacy for a more decisive policy in Panama helped usher in the U.S. invasion of Panama in late 1989 and the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Noriega on drug charges in U.S. federal prison.  Panama then returned to democracy and full sovereignty over and responsible operation of the Panama Canal.  The Senator’s typically firm position helped convince me to proceed with my formal dissent with our policy, arguing that Noriega would only depart the scene if we forced him to – three months before we invaded.

Many years later, as a senior U.S. diplomat in the Balkans, I was warned by one of my colleagues that I had a reputation in Washington as a maverick and that this would hurt my career. My initial reaction was one of concern and then I remembered John McCain, the real maverick, and decided to serve a cause greater than my own interest.  It did hurt my career, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, as Senior Director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, I have the honor of recruiting and developing character-driven leaders from all over the world to carry forward the Senator’s name and vision.  They are now spread out around the globe creating positive change that will carry forward his legacy of leadership.

I came to the United States as an immigrant and this amazing country gave me the opportunity to become an American Ambassador.  Thank you, John McCain for teaching me how to honor our country by serving her.  You will always be my model of an American original; full of brash energy and a deep respect and love for country and the dignity and rights of all people everywhere.


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Filed under American Values, diplomacy, Peace and Security, U.S. Foreign Relations, U.S. Leadership

American Leadership In And With Europe: The Balkans

I had the honor to serve as the last U.S. Ambassador to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro starting in 2004 and ending as Ambassador to Serbia in 2007.  During my time leading our diplomatic mission in this volatile region, some of the remaining parts of the former Yugoslavia entered the final stages of dissolution.  Montenegro achieved its separation from Serbia in 2006.  And after long and arduous, but unsuccessful negotiations by the U.S./European/Russian “Contact Group”, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.

In both cases, the separation was the best course of action. Best for Montenegro, best for Kosovo, and best for Serbia.  Montenegrins and Kosovars agreed.  Serbs did not.  Long days and nights negotiating, arguing, cajoling, and offering multiple pathways of making this right for all parties failed. Neither I nor my Washington colleagues, nor our European partners were able to convince our Serbian counterparts to accept Kosovo independence and to focus instead on a united European future.  Serbia today remains unalterably opposed to the independence and territorial integrity of Kosovo.

After Kosovo’s independence, the U.S. sadly started to lose interest in the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, deferring to our European allies to take the helm.  In 2016 U.S. policy toward Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationship overall began to shift dramatically.  The new President openly questioned the importance of NATO, the U.S. security presence in Europe and even our economic relationship across the Atlantic.  But the Administration pursued its interest in settling the Serbia-Kosovo issue without and in competition with our European allies.  Pressure was put on Kosovo to relent in its reciprocal measures against Serbia’s delegitimization efforts.  A land swap of ethnic communities in Serbia and Kosovo was floated.  The WH has now issued an invitation to the two countries to come to Washington on June 27 for discussions.

Neither European nor American experts expect these discussions to yield a lasting and balanced agreement.  Sadly, this WH effort, like so many others, is not about the interests of the two parties, but about the upcoming U.S. elections. The outcome may well be a declared diplomatic victory for the U.S., but not a real settlement of a highly complex and emotional international issue.

Our friends in Belgrade and Pristina deserve serious, principled, character-driven U.S. leadership on their dispute.  Leadership in partnership with our European friends, who after all will have to work with both countries on the ultimate goal — integration into a Europe “whole free and at peace.”  An empty “agreement” without Europe that potentially unravels the broader geopolitical borders of the entire continent is dangerous, destabilizing, unsustainable, and not in the U.S. interest.



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Filed under Balkans, diplomacy, Europe, U.S. Leadership

Returning Character to American Leadership

anthony-garand-7rehTDIfR8o-unsplashAs a member of the McCain Institute, I have the honor of developing new character-driven leaders to carry forward Senator John McCain’s leadership vision of serving a cause greater than self.  I came to the United States as an immigrant and this amazing country gave me the opportunity to become an American Ambassador.  But not everyone in our country has been as blessed as I, as the recent tragedy in Minneapolis so powerfully reminds us.  The murder of George Floyd, a deadly pandemic, and the resultant economic crisis have all highlighted the dangerous absence of character-driven leadership in the White House.

In 2016, we opened a Pandora’s Box.   The legitimate fears of many Americans afraid for their future in a country of so much disparity led to the election of a man who offered simplistic panaceas while attacking key institutions of our democratic society.  Like so many other charlatans who throughout history have seen opportunity in the misfortune and fears of others, our president released some of the worst vices in Pandora’s infamous box.  

On Thanksgiving Day 2017, in my personal blog, I argued for all of us to accept individual responsibility for serving the greater good of our nation to overcome the divisive leadership of Donald J. Trump. Sadly, almost three years later, some of my worst fears over a self-centered and irresponsible presidency have been realized. A perfect storm of leadership challenges has swept over a leader utterly devoid of character and decency. 

But the answer to our challenges lies not in the complaints against the actions of this president, but in the articulation and most importantly, the decisive actions of character-driven leaders.  Character-driven leaders like John McCain, who sacrificed and suffered serving our country.   The senator lived the values enshrined in character-driven leadership:  truth, honor, decency, respect, humility, charity, and compassion.  The commitment to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.  John McCain taught us to know character when we see it. 

More than two centuries ago, at a time when the future of our new nation was anything but secure, another leader of character who would become our first President, called on all of us to be just, merciful, charitable and humble in shaping “a happy nation.” A century later, another president believed so strongly in the importance of preserving George Washington’s  “happy nation” that he was willing to commit the nation to civil war and to ending the stain of slavery.  The tragic loss of George Floyd is now moving so many of us to rise up again in demand of leadership that will deliver fully on the promise of our country’s founding aspirations.  We owe it to each other to lead responsibly and with compassion – in our communities, among our neighbors, in the streets in exercise of our civil rights, and at the ballot box.  Abdicating that responsibility to the current occupant of the White House will assure that character will not return to American leadership. 

The views expressed in this contribution are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the McCain Institute or Arizona State University. 


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Filed under American Values, Civil Society, U.S. Leadership