John Buzbee, a veteran Foreign Service officer who served across the Middle East, including two stints in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, has died from complications from metastatic colon cancer. He was 50.
Buzbee served in Iraq during the effort to rebuild that nation after the ouster of Saddam Hussein — first in Tikrit, under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, and later as a political officer in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009.
The Kansas native started his career as a newspaper reporter, including with The Kansas City Times and The Kansas City Star.
In Tikrit, he worked closely with local Iraqi officials, visiting schools and promoting democracy, economic and education efforts as the U.S. sought to rebuild the devastated country before a violent insurgency took hold. He remained optimistic about the long-term chances for democracy in the Middle East despite the region’s troubles in recent years.
“He loved serving people,” said Ambassador Stuart Jones, Buzbee’s longtime friend and colleague, who served with him in Iraq, Egypt and Washington. Jones most recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“The question with him was always, ‘How do we make people’s lives better?’ It was something that animated the work he did,” Jones said.
Buzbee, who died Thursday, started his career as a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles and Kansas City, covering police and city hall. But a longtime fascination with the Middle East prompted him to change careers in his early 30s.
After earning a degree in Arab Studies and studying Arabic at Georgetown University, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service, working in U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department in Washington over the next 16 turbulent years.
Buzbee served as a political officer and vice consul in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; an economic officer in both Cairo and Jerusalem; and a cultural affairs officer in Cairo. In later years, he served in Washington as deputy director for Syria in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; as a senior adviser in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs; as a researcher at the Foreign Service Institute; and as an adviser in the office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs.
He also worked on Balkans issues in the Bureau of European Affairs as the deputy director for South Central Europe.
“He was so passionate about public service and about helping our country get back on its feet,” said Raed al-Jabbouri, the current governor of Tikrit. “He’s someone I called a friend.”
Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, described Buzbee as “unflappable” as they grappled with the escalating war there.
“John Buzbee was a real gentleman, which is about the highest compliment I can give somebody,” Ford said.
Buzbee was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer five years ago. On his personal blog, “Sunny Days and Ice Cream,” he wrote, “My odds of celebrating my 50th (birthday) were no better than the odds of ice cream surviving a sunny afternoon on the Potomac.”
He took a medical retirement from the Foreign Service in January 2016. A few months later, he turned 50, reflecting on the milestone in his blog:
“Between the time in hospital beds and chemotherapy lounge chairs, I’ve also traveled around the world with my daughters, hiked in the Scottish highlands, kayaked in California, snorkeled down to a shipwreck in the Caribbean, climbed up Buddhist temples in Thailand and Moorish castles in Spain, watched a thousand innings of baseball, drank a hundred bottles of wine (or maybe a few more, but who’s counting), worked, played, ate, drank, made merry, and piloted that boat down the Potomac and through a Naval firing range that was, according to the insistent man on the radio, in hot status that afternoon. (Long story that.)”
Buzbee was born in Olathe in 1966, and moved in high school to Hutchinson, where his father was editor and publisher of The Hutchinson News. He earned political science and journalism degrees from the University of Kansas and later graduated from Georgetown University with a master of arts in Arab studies.
He is survived by his wife, Sally Buzbee, bureau chief and a vice president of The Associated Press in Washington; his two daughters, Emma and Meg; his parents, Richard and Marie Buzbee of Hutchinson; and his brothers, Bill Buzbee of Half Moon Bay, Calif., and Jim Buzbee of Centennial, Colo., and their families.
He was preceded in death by his daughter, Anne Marie Buzbee; and his brother, Bob Buzbee.
He was a passionate and loyal fan of the Kansas City Royals and the Washington Nationals. He had a sarcastic sense of humor, reflected in the satirical newspapers he started in high school and college.