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Buffalo: The city of good neighbors – and ambassadors

WASHINGTON — America's new ambassador to Zambia used to keep the peace at Melanie's Pub in Amherst and Third Base in Buffalo.

"I got great diplomatic training as a Buffalo bar bouncer," said Daniel L. Foote, still tall and hulking and bouncer-like at 54.

And America's new envoy to Mauritania, a somewhat smaller 56-year-old diplomat named Michael J. Dodman, thinks his passion for serving his nation overseas began with his interest in the foreign country just across the Niagara River.

Those two new U.S. ambassadors, who took their oaths of office in December, are part of a contingent of envoys who grew up in metro Buffalo.

The United States has 188 ambassadors worldwide, and soon, as many as three will have roots in Buffalo. President Trump's nominee for ambassador to Colombia – career diplomat Joseph E. MacManus – is also a Buffalo native. And the region could have claimed four envoys but for the recent resignation of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador to Somalia.

By way of comparison, only two of the 435 members of the House serve the Buffalo region.

"I can't think of any specific reason for it, but it's a real honor for Buffalo to have that many people serving as ambassadors," said Anthony H. Gioia, a Buffalo businessman who served as ambassador to Malta during the George W. Bush administration. "It's probably the luck of the draw, but it's good."

It's certainly good for Foote and Dodman, who served on the diplomatic front lines in Iraq and other hot spots before their recent appointments to head U.S. missions in Africa.

"They've certainly earned their spurs," Gioia said.

From bouncer to envoy

Dan Foote spent seven years as a bouncer in Buffalo and New York City, but his diplomatic career took root before he was old enough to drink.

In Foote's social studies classes at Williamsville East High School, "I remember I was fascinated by all the places we studied," he said.

Foote played on Williamsville East's Section VI championship basketball team in 1981 and then moved on to Columbia University and its football team.

After graduation, Foote went to work in finance in New York and then Buffalo. He moonlighted as a bouncer at places like the No Name Bar, but got bored with finance.

Questing adventure, he joined the Peace Corps — and found his calling in the mountains of Bolivia.

"I was kind of a middle-class, suburban, somewhat entitled guy, and all of a sudden I was living without electricity and without water and I could barely communicate or speak the language," he said. "So it really did change my life. Every day was a great learning experience."

Foote fell in love both with Bolivia and in Bolivia. He met his wife, Claudia, there. He even dreamed of becoming a Bolivian rock star before settling on a career in the Foreign Service, America's corps of trained diplomats.

He passed the Foreign Service exam in 1996 and got the sort of prune assignment that most beginning diplomats get: processing visa applications at an American consulate in Mexico. The diplomatic life later took Foote to Washington, London and Luxembourg — where, in Foote's words, he and his wife enjoyed "French food with German portions."

Never one to settle for the best, Foote, in 2006, volunteered to leave his family behind temporarily and go to Iraq.

He put together a provincial reconstruction team and "did everything from soup to nuts," he said, adding that he begged for and borrowed computers and generators.

After a brief stint in Buenos Aires, he returned to Iraq to oversee several provincial reconstruction teams in a nation that seemed to be self-destructing. Rockets rained on the U.S. base where Foote and his colleagues lived in tents and ate military rations.

But it didn't stop him from working with the followers of rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr and helping rebuild Iraq after years of war.

"It was one of the best tours of my life," Foote said. "I'll probably never want to go camping again, but it was an interesting year."

For Foote, Iraq was the first stop on a diplomatic trail of trouble that saw him fighting drug trafficking in Colombia, working with U.S. troops in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, overseeing U.S. development in Afghanistan and most recently, running the State Department's anti-drug efforts.

Daniel L. Foote and Michael J. Dodman meet at Dodman's swearing-in ceremony as ambassador to Mauritania.

Now Foote is anxious to lead the nation's mission in Zambia, a nation of 17 million in sub-Saharan Africa where the big issues include HIV-AIDS and a volatile economy linked to copper production.

Foote's new post is the capstone of a career that's won him friends around the globe. At his swearing-in ceremony, his colleagues mingled with Williamsville East graduates, Zambian diplomats and actor Sean Penn, who befriended Foote while helping with earthquake relief in Haiti.

All that might make some people immodest, but not Foote.

"It's such a thrill and honor for a bonehead from Williamsville to have the opportunity to represent his country abroad and lead one of our missions," he said in an interview. "It’s a wonderful thing."

From DJ to diplomat

Mike Dodman took a course in Canadian history at Amherst High School, but it seems the Great White North wasn't north enough for him.

After graduating from Georgetown University, he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps — the Catholic order's version of the Peace Corps — and found himself spinning records and reading the news at a Catholic radio station in Nome, Alaska.

A year spent 143 miles south of the Arctic Circle convinced him to spend his life serving his country in exotic places.

Michael J. Dodman, America's new ambassador to Mauritania, signs papers as his wife, Joan, and other family members look on.

His first assignment was among his luckiest. In 1988, he and his wife, Joan, moved to Poland just before a wave of freedom swept away the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe. Traveling to Berlin a year later for a medical appointment for their new baby, Dodman witnessed history.

"I actually went down there and watched people knocking down the the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels," he said. "I saw people coming through the wall. It was incredible."

So began Dodman's first important challenge: working on the American effort to modernize Poland's economy.

After a few years, Dodman left for an assignment in Turkey and then for graduate school at Princeton, only to return to Poland after nine years to see a country transformed.

"The changes were just amazing," he said. "We had a 10-year program start to finish, and it was fully successful. We helped to build so many strong institutions — bank supervision, a tax system, a justice system — that live to this day."

Dodman later served in the Czech Republic and Iraq before taking over as the top U.S. diplomat in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2011.

Michael J. Dodman, right, dressed in local garb while serving as a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan earlier in the decade.

He arrived soon after Navy Seals killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without telling the Pakistani government, soon after U.S. troops accidentally killed several Pakistani officers. Then, after a Florida minister caused a dust-up by promoting an anti-Islamic video, mobs tried to storm the U.S. consulate in Karachi.

To counter that wave of anti-Americanism, Dodman took to the streets himself. He dressed in local garb in meetings with public leaders. He went to schools to talk up America. He set up events for disadvantaged kids with Pakistani cricket stars.

"I even played cricket with the kids, which was kind of a joke," Dodman said.

But the results were no joke. Dodman's efforts won him the State Department's Ryan Crocker Award for Excellence in Expeditionary Diplomacy. Most recently he held a top economic post at the State Department in Washington.

Now he's moving onto the embassy in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a West African country of 4.4 million where al-Qaida and ISIS have a presence.

Dodman isn't going to Mauritania with a set of goals, but with an "America first" philosophy.

"We don't create change overseas; we facilitate the change that others are making," he said. "Diplomacy is hard. You have to invest a lot of time and a lot of energy to see results."

Oddly, Dodman and Foote never met until this summer. Attending America's finishing school for new ambassadors, they took part in an exercise where they were asked to stand on the place of their birth on a giant map of North America.

Dodman stood atop Buffalo. Foote, born in Syracuse, lurked over the Salt City.

"I'm not quite sure I saw the value of the exercise," Dodman acknowledged. "But we were right next to each other."

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