Editor’s note: Bob Krueger served in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and on the Texas Railroad Commission before becoming the American ambassador to Burundi in 1994. He spoke with Daily Texan associate editor Kayla Oliver about the death of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, the political prospects of Texas Democrats and the lessons of public service. This fall, Krueger is teaching a Liberal Arts Honors and Plan II class called “Heroes in Life and Literature.”
Daily Texan: When you were serving as ambassador to Burundi in the 1990s, you narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by an extremist group unhappy with your advocacy for the disenfranchised. Could you describe why you chose to take such an active role in the country’s politics, as did Ambassador Stevens in Libya?
Senator Bob Krueger: Well, an ambassador is a personal representative of the president of the United States. That’s what being an ambassador plenipotentiary means: you have all the powers of the president for United States citizens in that country. It is a huge privilege, of course, to represent the United States anywhere. The genocide I was amid — if you adjusted for the difference in population between Burundi and the United States — was like having ten Twin Towers attacks every week nonstop. Nothing was being reported. There was not a single international reporter there. I thought, I can do two things: I can do what I can to save democracy, and I can do what I can to save lives, and nothing else mattered to me. If I was to remain silent, then who was to speak? If the representative of the world’s most powerful country was afraid to speak, who else would speak?
DT: Does the Libyan government have any responsibility for failing to prevent the attack?
BK: What we have to understand is we are the oldest continuous democracy in the world. We are an immensely powerful nation, and we still have assassins and crazies who do things like killing Sikhs in a church or who take out a gun in a Colorado movie and shoot fifty-odd people. And that’s where we have a strong legal government. Think about what happens where you have a fledgling government just trying to get underway. We have to understand that their government is still under threat from radicals in Libya and radicals coming from outside. The government is seeking their own footing. We’ve had a couple of hundred years and we still have these challenges. We have to put this in a global and historical context and understand that their country is just trying to get underway in a democracy. It’s the same position we might have been in in 1777.
DT: How should the American government respond to the situation?
BK: I think we’re responding appropriately. We have sent Marines to shore up the defense at the embassy itself. Fifty United States Marines are worth a lot more than that many from any other location, and they will come equipped and trained and ready to protect American interests. And we are sending a couple of destroyers that will have drones for observation. I think there’s no doubt that we’re responding with strength, but we don’t know just which group was responsible for this attack, and we certainly can’t go out in another country and think we’ll find the perpetrators. What we need in such instances are cool heads, historical understanding, broad vision and not a silly ‘cowboys and Indians’ approach — saying, “By gosh, I’m going to pull out my gun and get ‘em!” We wouldn’t know who to get.
DT: You were the last Democrat to serve as U.S. Senator from Texas. What realistic odds do you give the Democrat on the November ballot, Paul Sadler, for that seat?
BK: Well, obviously the odds are against him. On the other hand, one never knows in an election what can happen. Sadler is a responsible individual; he is not an ideologue. He has sought to work with people of both parties, and I think he is better qualified to bring some sort of coherence and comity in Washington than an extremist whose economic and other policies are antediluvian.
DT: What have been the disadvantages for Texas to not have a Democrat representing it in the U.S. Senate when one occupies the White House?
BK: I think a Democrat is likely to be a better, more responsible senator and it’s always a benefit, particularly for the second most populous state in the Union, to have connections with both parties rather than just one.
DT: What could a Democrat do to win a statewide office in Texas in November, given the polls?
BK: I suppose hope, pray and do his or her best. We never know what can suddenly turn an election. The odds are against it, but when I first ran for the Senate the odds were against me — I was up against an 18-year incumbent — and I lost only by three votes per thousand.
DT: What one lesson do you think UT undergraduates may take away from their years on campus that will inspire them to work to stop, if they have the opportunity in their lifetime, a genocide like the one you made the world pay attention to in Rwanda and Burundi?
BK: My own experience in life is that there is no real satisfaction in simply seeking money or things. Looking back, the richest experience I had actually was not either during my time in the Senate or perhaps even in the House. It was when I was in Burundi, an assignment that most people would not have wanted. It gave me a chance to work to save democracy and work to save lives. That was for me an immense privilege. I wouldn’t trade a hundred million dollars for that privilege.