US Consul General Dean Pittman (Accent)

I hope the locally published Accent magazine doesn’t mind me reprinting one of their printed interviews with US Consul Dean Pittman; there, at least I’ve acknowledged them.

It is worth reading. Like him, I have found Northern Ireland society to be a conservative, traditional society.

Accent interview reprinted here:

US Consul General Dean Pittman, by Andrew Gill

The US Consul General, Mr Dean Pittman, speaks to Accent on a life that has taken him from a sleepy backwater town in Mississippi all the way to the White House, via Bosnia, Mozambique, Angola and Guyana. Dean is coming to the end of his first year in Belfast, so we caught up with him at the home of the Consulate in Stranmillis, to give us an insight into his life so far.

US Consul General Dean Pittman has had a career in the foreign service of the United States for 25 years. He has seen service in Guyana, Mozambique, Anglola, bosnia and more recently Iraq before taking the post of consul General of Northern Ireland last August.

His birthplace was the small rural town of Tylertown, Mississippi (inhabitants 2,000). His father, Paul Pittman, enjoyed a successful career in the Navy as a pilot, before goiing on to establish the town’s radio station and weekly newspaper, the Tylertown Times. Dean explains, “It was natural for you to assume there was a bigger world out there and want to see part of it. From a fairly young age I was always interested in seeing other parts of the world.”

Speaking with a soft Mississippi accent, Dean went on, “I joined the Peace Forps and spent 2 years in a small African village. It was just to see if I would like to live overseas before returning home and setting out a career in the Foreign Service.”

But if Dean had his eye on the bigger picture, what of his peers? In other words, what should he be doing if he hadn’t answered the call of those famous American attributes — service and duty.

“The people I grew up with are farmers and the community was heavily reliant on agriculture. But because of my father’s newspaper business, I would have sold papers on the street from the age of 6 and later become the photographer. I think my father would have liked me to have returned home to run the business after he retired. But, I think I’d had enough of it after 12 years … so that could have been a possibility.”

“Day to day life in Mississippi”, adds Dean, “is a lot like life in Northern Ireland. There is a sort of rural quality to Northern Ireland. I find it a conservative society in many ways, a traditional society and I think you’ll find that in Mississippi as well. There are a lot of similiarities between the South (US) and Northern Ireland in general.

“In Tylertown, a small rural community, a lot of activity revolved around the Church … many people knew each other, doors were left unlocked and it was pretty safe … it was nice.”

Running in paradox to this world of rural tranquility, the South in general was beginning to boil over with racial tension as the Civil Rights protests gathered momentum. Mississippi was a focal point of much of the protest.

“It was a tough time, a very tough time” explains Dean. “We had the Civil Right Movement, which was a very dangerous and scary time in many ways. My father through his newspaper was a strong proponent of civil rights and the integration of the school system and equality of all the races. The result was we had threats … bomb threats at our newspaper. I remember one morning waking to find broken glass had been dumped on our driveway … low level intimidation, so there were always things going on. However, a lot of courageous people from outside the state made the difference.”

After achieving equality and integration in schools, many problems still existed as the backlash from white supremists began to unfold. Violence forced many families out of the school system, due to intimidation and attacks on property. Dean explains, however, this was by no means the case in his local community. “In some areas, integration worked very well, particularly in my home town, because the local leadership got together and agreed that if the community was going to survive, it has to have a public school system that’s going to work, that’s open to all peoples … so they said, ‘we’re going to make this work’. So it was a very peaceful transition from a segregated to an integrated school system in my area. But that wasn’t the way all over the state. It was a very dark part of our history, but I’m glad to say it’s behind us.”

After college, Dean set out on his second experience of the outside world. “After I graduated, I came to Europe and travelled, which is sort of a ‘right of passage’ for young people in the States after they graduate, and spent 4 or 5 months travelling. I came to Northern Ireland for the first time during that trip 25 years ago.”

This was the time for Dean to make his break from the comfort of the familiar and break out on his own. His interest in politics, inherited from his father, ever-present during his late teenage years, was the eventual catalyst that saw him leave Tylertown for good. He enrolled in Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, in order to qualify for the Foreign Service. This combined his two chosen fields: policy/politics and foreign relations.

In order to fund his education, he went into the employment of a Congressman for the next 8 years (1981-89), running his political campaigns.

“I couldn’t afford to go to school without working and I ended up staying for a lot longer than I’d planned to. [The congressman] was hoping to run for the US Senate, which he did finally, so he kept me wanting to stay.”

Did he win?

(Laughing) “No. I went into exile in the Foreign Service. I had to leave the country!”

Dean’s first assignment took him to Guyana, a former British colony in South America and the only English speaking country in Latin America. “The country butts up to the Brazilian rain forest and the funny thing is, nobody’s really from there. I think only 10% of the population is native Indian and the remainder were brought over as slaves from Africa. So there’s a political dynamic that comes out of that as well.” At the time, the US policy was to establish an agreement with the government to hold democratic elections and the President, Jimmy Carter, personally brokered a peace deal to allow this process to begin.

Following his successful assignments to Guyana and positions in Mozambique and Angola, Dean was moved to the centre of power in Washington, working in the highest levels of Government. In the State Department, he has worked on issues related to Asia, both as a legislative managment officer and desk offier for Thailand and Burma. He also spent a year as a diplomat in residence with the National Democratic Institute where he oversaw democracy-building initiatives in Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a National Security Official, he made numerous trips to brief high ranking officials in the White House’s West Wing.

But what of the subterfuge that has made Washington synonomous with conspiracy and political intrigue? “You wouldn’t be wrong to think there was a lot of intrigue and a lot of politics going on in Washington. Certainly I saw a good bit of it. I worked for two years at the National Security Council in the White House, last year of the Clinton and first year of the Bush Administration, and you saw it pretty up close and personal. Being there at the transition from one administration to the other was quite interesting. To see who’s up, who’s down, who’s out of power, the jockeying for position was quite fascinating. Subsequent to
that I was working for the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, during a period of time when we were looking at our policy for Iraq.”

The brief of the National Security Council is to manage and coordinate the activities of the Department of Defence, Department of State and other Departments involved in foreign policy issues. At the time, Dean was Director for the Balkans within the NSC when Bosnia and Serbian issues were at the forefront of the world’s attention. “There were a lot of things happening at the time, it was a fascinating period to be working on it. But I have to say the overwhelming thing working at the NSC was the excitement, working right there in the White House. Looking out the window and there’s the White House in front of you. I go to a meeting in a room in the West Wing, to meet with the principals for discussions about whatever the policy issue of the day is. It’s quite an exciting thing and it’s something that never leaves you. You don’t get jaded by it.”

An then 9/11. Dean was in the vicinity of the White House and explains. “It was a scary time. At that point we didn’t know what was happening. We were simply told to evacuate and it wasn’t until later that we realised there was a real possibility that one of the planes might be heading for the White House or the Capital. But we weren’t the targe at the time … we were luckly.”

If the NSC was a time of high politics, working in Bosnia was undoubtedly Dean’s most challenging role. The Bosnian population had suffered greatly from three years at the hands of the superior Serbian army and airforce and the bombing was still all too vivid. “I served for eight months in Bosnia right after the end of the war in ’96 and I was charged with setting up elections. My language skills weren’t the greatest so I had an interpretor to go around to meet and train local officials to convince them that this was the way they needed to organise the elections … to meet international standards. I have to say they weren’t hostile to me but it was not long after they had been bombed during the war so there was a bit of anomiosity towards the West. In general, they realised what they had to do, and that I was there to help them do it right.”

Before arriving in Belfast, Dean was assigned to another war zone, this time in Iraq. For eight months, he worked in the Green Zone, the area taken over by American troops in central Baghdad guarding American and Iraqi Government buildings. Officials have attempted to govern the country from this location since the end of the war. Attempting to get into Iraq itself brought home the reality of just how dangerous the country had become. Dean recalls, “We started out in Kuwait for a few days before flying in on a military aircraft and it was a rather harrowing plane ride. The planes come in like a corkscrew, the wings turned almost perpendicular to the earth and descending in that way .. that was to avoid heatseeking missiles. It seemed to me like we were up there an awful long time and I’d just assumed they’d bring us on down. We were told that if you didn’t get in from the airport in the daylight, you had to stay at the airport because they didn’t want anybody travelling on the roads at night. Of course, our ride didn’t show up and it was getting darker and darker. We eventually managed to get a ride from someone going into the Green Zone and we drove like wild banshees down this road in the pitch black.”

The palace that Dean was driven to was formerly Saddam’s palace in Baghdad. The area was a hive of activity with military personnel in constant motion 24 hours a day. “The thing that got me about Baghdad itself” adds Dean, “is that it’s a big city! It has a population of five million people and it was bustling, a lot of people out and about, a lot of stores open, you could see the economy coming back into the city. i think one of the things people miss about Iraq is that we see the horrible part of it in the news, the attacks, the actions of the insurgents against the military and Iraqis, but what people miss is that out of 26 million people, 25-point something are going about their lives, they’re working, feeding their families and getting on with it. I think people in Northern Ireland maybe have a better understanding of that … what you see on TV isn’t always the reality for everybody.”

Working under Ambassador Paul Brimmer, Head of the Provisional Coalition, Dean’s brief was to assist in the setting up of the Government in Baghdad, as well as in each of the provinces, laying the building blocks of the democratic process that eventually led to the successful election in Iraq earlier this year. Dean explains, “It was very interesting because what we had learned very quickly was that the people in Iraq had a keen interest in democracy and they wanted to know more about it. We’d hold a town meeting thinking we’d maybe get a couple of hundred and we’d end up with a couple of thousand. One sector that was very good at organising itself and was very active in pushing for a role in the new Iraq was that of women’s groups. They wanted their voices to be heard.”

Similar to the current American admistration’s thinking, Dean is unapologetic on what was once, and still is in many people’s eyes, a very unpopular foreign policy. Critics have pointed to the fact that the second Iraq war was the first time a liberal democracy has attacked another country, without itself having been attacked first. “In all the debate over whether we were right or wrong to go into Iraq, I think people forget or lose sight of the fact that you’ve got 26 million people there who really want to have what we all have, and that’s the chance to run their own lives, to make their own decisions, to elect their own government. And that’s the road we hope they’re on.”

So what does a Consul General to Northern Ireland do?

(Laughing) “You know, people ask me that and I should have a better answer, (laughing) I should have a good clean answer. We’re the representative of the US here, we’re like a small embassy in a lot of ways. We report directly to the US Embassy in London, but we’re here to represent the US interest and do things such as work with US business, help US citizens, issue visas to people from Northern Ireland who are travelling to the United States … that’s sort of the text book on what we do.”

Dean goes on, “We’re sort of unique here in that we’re the only foreign consulate in Northern Ireland. No one has foreign representation here except us. We’ve been here for over 200 years (since circa 1790). There are very strong ties between Northern Ireland and the United States. So I think we have a special relationship here that we don’t have in many other parts of the world. Forty-five million Americans have some sort of history or contact with the island. So that gives us a long, historic and deep relationship with Northern Ireland. As a result we play a different role here in a lot of ways, what I call the role of honest broker on the political scene … in that all parties seem to find us as someone they’re willing to talk to.”

As for Dean’s family, he has delighted to play host to his mother, two sisters and their families when they all came to visit him at Christmas. “I was fortunate in that I live in a lovely old house in South Belfast that the United States has bought back in the 1950s, so I was able to accommodate them all.”

Despite the fact that Dean has a house in Belfast (on loan, of course) and another in Washington, Dean still considers the small community of his birth as home. “Mississippi is where my mother is and it’s where my roots are. But as time moves on, I look more and more to Washington.”

As to the future, Dean has two years left of his three-year posting remaining in Belfast
. “I’ve found with my predecessors that they hate to leave, so I might try to see if I can stay a little longer … but this is such a nice posting that I think they like to spread the wealth around.” (Laughing)

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