At 6 feet 2, James McGee announces his military background through his bearing. His hair is now platinum, his shoulders often thrust back. Raised during the 1950s and ’60s in the shadow of the steel mills of Gary, Ind., McGee served in Vietnam, often sitting in the back of a World War II-era cargo plane stuffed with electronics. As a member of a U.S. Air Force intelligence unit, he listened through headphones for enemy signals or friendly distress calls so he could triangulate their positions. Almost four decades later, as the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, he again found himself trying to make sense of signals in hostile territory.
In March 2008, McGee met secretly with a member of the political machine of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe and Africa’s most notorious living despot. In 1979, Mugabe had led one of two guerrilla groups that liberated the former Rhodesia from a white-minority regime, a conflict that left an estimated 30,000 dead. Mugabe won democratic elections in 1980 but soon consolidated his power. He unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on a rival guerrilla force, killing an estimated 20,000, including thousands of civilians. The world was slow to react, but finally, in 2003, the U.S. levied sanctions against Mugabe and his cohorts, threatening any U.S. individuals or companies that backed them. By 2008, when McGee was ambassador, Mugabe and his ruling party had wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy and were on the brink of losing power.