As former Illinois state senator Kyle McCarter prepares to assume the role as U.S. ambassador to Kenya, terrorist threats in the eastern African nation remain heightened three weeks after a deadly attack at a Nairobi hotel and office complex.
The U.S. embassy in Kenya warned its citizens on Sunday (Monday local time) that Westerners may be targeted by extremists, and cautioned the public to be vigilant, especially in spaces such as shopping malls, hotels and places of worship. Twenty-one people were killed at a Nairobi hotel and office complex on Jan. 15, an assault claimed by the jihadist group al-Shabaab which targets places frequented by foreigners and government officials in Kenya and neighboring Somalia.
"Terrorism is an issue, and national security is an issue - not just for Kenya, but it is in our best interest to protect Kenya and to keep al-Shabaab from making its way into Kenya," McCarter said on Saturday. "The security of the embassy and those people that work there has got to be the forefront of everything I do. That's the job I have been given and I will do my best at it."
McCarter and his wife Victoria, who have more than 30 years experience in Kenya related to the Each One Feed One mission they operate, will depart for Nairobi on Feb. 16, with the ambassador assuming office the following day.
A parting gift for the McCarters
The embassy in Kenya, which employs thousands and is the largest in Africa, was established in 1964. Among its priorities are strengthening the nation's economy and democratic institutions, helping prevent spread of HIV/AIDS and promoting U.S.-Kenyan business ties.
McCarter will be the 17th ambassador to Kenya, succeeding Robert F. Godec who had served since 2012. The first ambassador was journalist and author William Attwood, who was appointed by President Kennedy.
Before his new job with the U.S. State Department, McCarter served as a Republican senator from Lebanon for 10 years. He made his mark as an outspoken conservative and policy advocate - particularly on fiscal matters - railing against tax increases and for reform of the state's underfunded pension systems.
He also was known to take on members of his own party, most notably Congressman John Shimkus in a primary challenge that McCarter lost in 2016.
Shortly after Trump assumed office, Shimkus was among the state's Republican congressional delegation who urged the President to nominate McCarter as ambassador.
Since his nomination nearly two years ago, McCarter said he has had to wait patiently for the Senate's confirmation.
"Patience has not always been my strong suit," McCarter said. "I have never been one to wait very long for people to act."
He and Victoria were honored at a send-off celebration on Saturday at Global Brew in O'Fallon, hosted by Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler and Melinda Hult of Belleville.
McCarter said that transitioning to a high profile U.S. diplomatic position is not at odds from a role he played when lobbing verbal bombs at political opponents.
He said the reason the state of Illinois is in dire fiscal straits - where taxes are going to have to be raised in order to meet obligations - is because its leaders have failed to engage in serious debate.
"We have failed to step out and take risks, to have those conversations," he said. "That's the reason we find ourselves where we are today."
He said his conscience doesn't allow him to not say things he believes need to be said, even if they are unpopular.
"Being diplomatic doesn't mean you sit back and allow things to happen," he said. "It means you address tough issues in the right way."
In addition to security being a top priority for the U.S. embassy in Kenya, so is economic development, McCarter said.
He said that a massive number of young people are coming of age and need opportunity as an alternative to lives of crime or terror.
"It's the obligation of leadership to step up and get investors in, to train and give people skills," he said. "I think the way the U.S. goes about it... is better than anybody else, with respect and dignity, focusing on the road to self reliance and sustainability.
"We are there to help. This is their country, but if we are going to invest we should do something today that will make a difference tomorrow."
McCarter said he is "so impressed" with the administration's doctrine of self-reliance.
"It is so respectful," he said. "People are encouraged and motivated. This is the way you help people. It is not just writing checks... it's that you actually care enough to work beside and mentor."
McCarter said when he is asked to comment on why it had taken nearly two years from the time he was nominated until his ambassadorship was confirmed, he said it "takes longer when you apply online."
He believes his journey to this position was prepared by the almighty.
"I believe that God builds you and prepares you for certain times in your life," he said. "This is one of those."
Asked what role Victoria might take on as ambassador's spouse, he said that she has ideas on helping women and young girls, and will continue working as a volunteer for Each One Feed One.
"Anyone who knows Victoria knows just to keep up with her is exhausting," he said. "And by the time this term is over I think they will know she was there."