Saturday, June 22, 2013

Diplomatic Life: I Get Paid to Make Decisions, Not Wait for Instructions

On the day after Christmas, 2002, I arrived in Cambodia to take up my post as ambassador. My wife and I had spent Christmas Day in Bangkok, walking the streets we remembered so well from our time in Thailand back in the 1980s, and having khao soi, which is fragrant curried noodle soup, popular in the north, for our Christmas dinner.
The road to Phnom Penh had been long, and not without a few speed bumps. I was nominated in the summer of 2001 when I returned to the US from Vietnam to attend the Senior Seminar. The incumbent was due to leave in the summer of 2002, so things should have worked out well. Things never work the way they’re supposed to work. Things apparently were not going well in Cambodia, because I was told I might not be able to finish my training, and to be prepared to go as early as December 2001. Well, that didn’t happen, but then in the spring of ’02, the incumbent was suddenly withdrawn, and my confirmation process went into high gear. High gear, that is, until it ran into the Cuisinart of the Senate’s Old Boy Club Rules.
My nomination was put on hold for a while by the delegation from North Dakota; not because of me, but because they were trying to arm twist the State Department to arm twist the Canadians to let the state drain a place called Devil’s Lake into Canada. The Canadians, of course, didn’t want our polluted lake water. That went on for a while – I never knew how it worked out, but the hold was lifted, and we were off to the races again. Then – another hold, this time aimed at me and the Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, because some senator was upset with the Immigration Service’s handling of Cambodian and other Southeast Asian adoptions. Again, a few weeks of sitting around waiting for the other shoe to fall, a situation made worse because my mother died of a stroke in September that year, so she never got to see me sworn as an ambassador.
Anyway, things finally sorted themselves out, I had my hearing; chaired by John Kerry, our current secretary of state, and I was sworn by Colin Powell, who was secretary, in early December. We had to pack our stuff in weather that was so cold my feet and hands were numb for days.
So, we arrived in Cambodia, and spent the next three-plus years trying to make sense out of things. They had elections scheduled, and that, of course, had everyone in Washington excited. Some felt that after only having had three elections in their entire history, they should be able to do it perfectly. This view coming on the heels of the US elections of 2000. Remember the hanging chads. I just smiled through most of my briefings. During my hearing, when I was asked if I was willing to twist a few arms when I got there, my response was ‘yes, but first I have to be permitted to take their hand.’ That quip got a laugh.
My first few months weren’t all that funny, though. Presented my credentials to the late King Norodom Sihanouk shortly after arrival. He and I hit it off immediately, and I had an audience with him almost every month. Sometimes we’d just sit and he’d talk about people he knew in the Nonaligned Movement. It was like World History 101. He also had these dinners for the diplomatic corps that started at seven in the evening and stopped around four the next morning. Dining, drinking, dancing, and of course singing. The last one, which he told me was actually his farewell dinner for my wife and me, I did an impromptu set with his brother’s band. I didn’t know there was a Japanese reporter present until the following week an article in a Japanese paper describing the ‘crooning’ American ambassador appeared. It was fun, though.
Six weeks after I arrived, in response to a perceived slight in a Thai TV show, Cambodian students and others in Phnom Penh rioted, burning the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses. We had a tense few weeks after that.
The elections happened. There was a little violence, but overall, it went well. The US monitoring delegation was headed by Christie Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor. She said it reminded her a lot of New Jersey elections. I didn’t press her on what that meant.
The most significant thing I did during my entire time though was quietly done, out of the limelight. I discovered during my first year that an Indonesian-based terrorist group was looking at the American and British embassies for a bombing attack. In fact, the aforementioned riots was the only thing that kept it from happening. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, few of which made sense, we had no relations with the military or police, so we were deaf and blind to such things.
I worked with the military command in Hawaii, which covers the entire Pacific region, and we decided that the policy was flawed. On one of my trips back to Washington, I suggested to the State Department that the policy should be reviewed, and was told to wait because there was a clerk of a congressional committee who might not like us talking about such things. I was shocked – sort of – at such timidity, but agreed to wait. Well, I waited for almost a year, and when I couldn’t get the bureaucrats to move, I exercised my authority as the president’s representative and sent a message to the secretary of defense recommending a policy review. I know the drill, so I sent information copies of my message to the appropriate senior people at the State Department. The bureaucrats at the bottom of the food chain, though, howled like a dog that’s been splashed with hot water. Took the deputy secretary himself to calm them down, and remind them that I was paid to make decisions, not wait for instructions. The policy was reviewed, and it was decided it did need changing, and surprise, surprise, the congressional clerk thought the change was a good idea. No one had the guts to approach him on it; they just preemptively capitulated rather than confront the issue.
Needless to say, among a few in the system, I wasn’t the most popular person. Always making trouble and ‘doing’ things.

Heck, I had a great time. We’ll keep going back in time in the next post; I’ll briefly talk about the Senior Seminar, but mainly I’ll talk about my three years as the first US Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, a city I knew as Saigon when I was there during the war.