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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Diplomatic Life: My First Diplomatic Tour

Bill Clinton
Cover of Bill Clinton

I’m off schedule again, which is supposed to be a bad thing for a blogger. But, I have a good reason to be way early with the penultimate article on my life as a diplomat; this weekend I will, like Jack Kerouac, be ‘on the road.’ I’m heading north to Chautauqua to participate in the 2013 graduation ceremonies of Chautauqua’s Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), where the Zimbabwean graduates will be honored. I’m looking forward to the week’s activities, and will blog about them when I return.

  But, for now, let’s look at my first diplomatic assignment – my first tour. Like a lot of my subsequent tours, I had to fight for it. One of the assignments opened to my A-100 class was Guangzhou, China, and I’d always wanted to see China, so I put that first on my list. Actually, I let it be known that it was the ONLY assignment I was interested in. The personnel office pushed back because my two youngest kids at the time were in grade school, and they didn’t think it was a good assignment for a first tour officer. I had to point out that I’d just completed 20 years in the army, and my family was accustomed to packing and moving, and the kids had already attended several schools at various places in the U.S. as well as in Korea. It took a little arm twisting, but they finally caved, and after six months of Chinese language and consular training, we were off to China.

Except for ten to twelve hour days interviewing immigrant visa applicants, it wasn’t all that much of a challenge. We had two to three officers doing immigrant visas, and some days we’d interview hundreds of applicants. Along with that, we had to answer Congressional inquiries – an average of five to ten a week. I had a little argument with my supervisor who felt my congressional drafts were to blunt and straight forward – I believed what was needed was a direct answer to the questions, but she liked to wax eloquent in her replies. Neither of us ever changed our minds or ways on that one. Thankfully, the head of the consular section liked the way I wrote, so the conflict abated.

After nearly a year doing immigrant visas, I moved to the citizen services section (ACS) for a while, and finally became the anti-fraud investigator. In ACS, it was mostly death cases and helping Americans who’d lost passports or were having disputes with local merchants. My biggest case was an elderly woman who’d fallen from the top of an aircraft landing ladder and was in hospital in a coma after a portion of her brain had to be removed. I visited her in the hospital every day, just sitting at her bedside talking to her in the hope that she was able to hear. She eventually improved enough to be moved back to the U.S.  I never heard what happened after that. That’s often the way it is – you help the best you can, and they move on, while you’re already busy with the next case. The freakiest case I handled was an American who’d committed suicide by jumping from his hotel window and going head first through a bike rack. The Chinese had let the body lie on the sidewalk for several hours before calling us, but they refused to let it be moved until I identified the body (from his passport, and thankfully there was enough of his face left to allow that) and said it could be moved. Not exactly something you want to do just before lunch, but it happened more often than I care to remember.

When President Ronald Reagan came to China, I was sent to Shanghai to provide TDY administrative support for the visit. Shanghai was and is an interesting city, and my first presidential visit in the Foreign Service was a good learning experience. Not for the reasons, though, that you might think. When the president was to visit with the consulate staff and families near the end of his visit, we support staff were excluded. In fact, the consul general ordered that we stay in the control room out of sight. Talk about a slap in the face, given that we’d been instrumental in the success of the visit. Then Secretary of State George Schulz demonstrated the kind of leadership I admire, though. When he entered the room where the consul general and his crew were assembled, he noticed the door to the control room which was ajar. Coming over, he opened it to find over a dozen support staff hanging around and taking occasional peeks through the crack in the door. He spent time with us, thanking each of us individually. An act I never forgot. When President Clinton visited me in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000, I made sure the TDY support staff was included when he paid a call on the consulate.

My tour was only 18 months, so I don’t think it deserves any longer treatment than this. In the final offering I will describe how I decided to join the Foreign Service, and how I almost didn’t make it.

Your humble servant.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Diplomatic Life: North of Nowhere

English: North Korea
English: North Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My second Foreign Service tour was in Northeast China, in the old Manchurian city of Shenyang. I reported for duty in March 1984, just a few months after the post was opened, the first American presence in the area since World War II.

Getting the assignment wasn’t easy. Even though James Hall, the first consul general, wanted me to head his consular section, the personnel system of the State Department and all the conventional wisdom, said that as a second tour administrative officer I should be looking for a job as a general services officer or some other administrative assignment if I wanted to be tenured and have a shot at promotion in the service. I suppose they thought they were making sense, but the job sounded fascinating, and I wanted it, so I fought. Fortunately, Jim was on my side, as were the ambassador and DCM in Beijing at the time. With a little creative editing of the consular chief’s job description making it possible for me to do some administrative work, I got the job.

In addition to being isolated (we were several hours flight from Beijing), Shenyang is not that far south of the Arctic Circle, so it freezes in November and doesn’t thaw until June. In 1984 it was a primitive place. Food markets were often limited to one item of produce at a time, so you bought potatoes this week and cabbage next week, and every time you got a chance to go to Beijing or Hong Kong you took an empty suitcase to bring back food items.

While it might not have seemed like a good career move on the surface, taking the Shenyang job was perhaps the smartest thing I’ve done in my entire career. Sometimes getting ahead is as much a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff as anything else.


A few weeks after I reported for duty, an American businessman, subjected to too many Mao Tais at an afternoon banquet, fell asleep in his hotel room with a lit cigarette in his hand. The ensuing fire caused the deaths of eleven people, including his business partner, and he was charged and taken to court. This took place in the northern city of Harbin, and I was the ONLY consular officer within a thousand miles, so I had to handle the case. Phone systems were rudimentary, so I often had to operate without being able to call the embassy for guidance. There were a lot of ups and downs – he was convicted, imprisoned, and then paroled a few months later – and, I was the sole American official at the center of events for nearly nine months. I was later commended for how I handled it – it was remarked that this was the first incident like this that had so much international press coverage that didn’t have any complaints from Congress. I must have done something right – I just did what seemed like the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.

Another plus was our proximity to North Korea and the presence of many ethnic Koreans in the region. My wife, being Korean, was the only person in the consulate who could translate and interpret, so most of the reporting on Korean matters fell to me with her assistance. We made a few trips to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, and got to know many of the ethnic Koreans who were involved in government. I also got to know the local Chinese foreign ministry people well, thanks to the fire incident, and the official who was responsible for North Korea used to come and see me after his visits to Pyongyang and brief me on what he’d seen. We provided some of the best inside views of North Korea available at the time.


The Chinese were just beginning to get involved heavily in international business, including bidding on contracts in Guam and the US, and as the consular officer I processed much of their paperwork, so I got a good look at their economic activity as well.

There were some interesting incidents during our tour in Shenyang. There was the hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant that became the must-visit place for visitors to the consulate. I handled Secretary Shultz’s visit to Dalian at the end of his tenure. Jim Hall and I did a great trip along the China-Russia border, including an impromptu visit with the Russian trade mission at the border.


English: Major General John K. Singlaub from h...
English: Major General John K. Singlaub from http://www.jedburghgroup.com/_html/index.html official U.S. Army portrait and therefore ineligible for copyright (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once, a dissident contacted me to provide information about the democracy movement in the region. We conducted a meeting on bicycles, navigating through Shenyang’s traffic while I tried to remember what he was saying and not end up under a bus.

 At a reception, I was approached by a one-armed Chinese man who identified himself as the last radio operator for the OSS team that operated in Dalian during the war. When I checked, it turned out that his commander had been Major John Singlaub, who was a colonel commanding MACSOG in 1968 when I was assigned to that unit. Talk about six degrees of separation. Through then retired general Singlaub, I passed money that the surviving members of the team collected for the gentleman. Just a few of the strange things you find yourself doing as a diplomat.

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Review of 'Seized: The Pipe Woman Chronicles" by Lynne Cantwell

Naomi Witherspoon, after graduating from law school and getting a job with a large law firm in Denver, decides she’d rather be a mediator rather than a litigator. She finds, to her surprise, that she’s really good at it, too, and has a string of successful mediations to back her up. Her former law school classmate, and fellow lawyer at the firm, Brock Holt, asks her to marry him. So, what can go wrong?
She soon finds out, when she starts having dreams about a white buffalo calf that bows to her, and in the dreams there’s a mysterious woman, the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman. When the woman speaks to her, and informs her that she is the Chosen One, her troubles begin. Naomi finds herself caught between what appears to be a materialistic money-grabbing scheme by one of her firm’s clients and her affection for a Native American man who is trying to protect sacred ground. Strange appearances begin to occur, not just in her dreams, but in reality.
What, she desperately wants to know, has she been chosen for?  When she learns that she is the one chosen to mediate a war between the gods, her life takes a complete left turn.
Lynne Cantwell’s Seized is a novel that weaves fantasy, religion, and reality into a pastiche that will seize your imagination and keep you turning pages until you find out what’s going on. Deft dialogue and narration, infused with a bit of humor, make this a must-read, and, not just for lovers of fantasy. Cantwell will have you questioning your basic beliefs as you root for Naomi during her quest to forestall Armageddon.  A great book, the first in the Pipe Woman Chronicle series, and a definite five stars.
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Only Way to Deal with Internet Trolls: Ignore Them

The Only Way to Deal with Internet Trolls: Ignore Them

A Strong, Professional, and Educated Foreign Service: Critical to National Security

Seal of the United States Department of State.
Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the July 2013 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, author Milan Vego in his article ‘On Military Creativity, writes, “Creativity is the key element in the successful planning, preparation, and execution of a combat action and ultimately in winning a war.” Vego further maintains that the U.S. military of today is hampered in the creativity necessary to ‘win’ wars by bureaucratic and organizational limitations such as the requirement for excessive conformity, intolerance of views that don’t agree with established policy, and lack of professional education and self-education of the military officer corps.

The same thing Vego says about warfare could be applied to diplomacy.

Like warfare, while diplomacy requires possession of a broad range of technical skills, success in diplomacy comes from the creative application of those skills at the most appropriate time. And, like the military, our nation’s diplomatic corps is currently struggling under a host of limitations that constrain its ability to be as successful in today’s uncertain environment as is necessary to ensure our national security and prosperity.

Unlike the military, which trains its members in tasks that they hope they will never have to perform, the U.S. Foreign Service professional is posted abroad with some tradecraft and technical training that must be applied on a daily basis in the performance of diplomatic duties. Similar to the military, though, Foreign Service professionals are committed to service in the nation’s interests, often at great risk, as was demonstrated in the unfortunate incident in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 in which the U.S. ambassador and several American staff were killed.

Organizational Limitations on Diplomatic Creativity

Creativity in an international environment consists of the ability of diplomatic professionals to find novel solutions to the problems they face, and then applying those solutions to best advantage. This ability is often hampered by the State Department bureaucracy, whose leadership is dominated by inexperienced political appointees and civil servants with limited experience operating in a foreign environment who attempt to micromanage events abroad based almost entirely on domestic considerations. Multiple actors with equities in a given situation, who insist on their views being considered – and, in some cases even being paramount for domestic reasons – make it difficult for the diplomat in the field to react to a developing situation based on his or her knowledge of the local environment.

The desire for organizational conformity also works against creativity in the field. Those who depart from the ‘party line,’ can find themselves subject to censure or blocking tactics by headquarters bureaucrats, or even being ordered to perform tasks that their knowledge of the local situation tells them would be counter-productive. An example of this happened to me when I served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2012. Three American medical volunteers who got caught up in a squabble between local suppliers were arrested near the end of their volunteer mission and charged with illegal acts. The charges were, on their face, ludicrous, and as might be expected, it caused an outcry in the U.S., with the congressional delegation from their district taking an interest. While my staff and I were working hard to keep the situation under control so that we could secure their release, the mood in Washington was ‘do something’ to show we’re doing something.

Local sensitivities to my activity were high because of completely unrelated activities, and it was our general impression that the best thing for me to do was remain aware of what was going on, but to maintain some distance from the situation so as not to fan the flames of national pride and arrogance that typifies the ruling elite in Zimbabwe. And, it was working. I’d had a few high-level meetings with officials who agreed that it could be settled if we didn’t engage in public bashing of the government. Unfortunately, in Washington, it was decided that a public action on my part was needed to reassure Congress that we were ‘on top of the situation.’ I was ordered to publicly meet with the arrested Americans to assure them the U.S. Government was concerned about their cases and was working to get them released. Completely unnecessary, as my consular staff was in constant contact with them, and they were made aware of my quiet efforts. It also risked backfiring, as it would then cause the officials involved to lose face with their colleagues and start a whole other argument about U.S. ‘meddling’ in the domestic affairs of the country.

I found myself in a dilemma. An outright refusal to comply with the order would anger Washington and endanger other initiatives we had going at the time, but to comply as ordered would put the Americans in further jeopardy. Thankfully, I’d encouraged my staff to use their brains to come up with ways to get things done rather than just check boxes. My consular staff, working with my public affairs staff, decided I could do what Washington wanted without actually doing it. I was hosting at the time a series of public concerts for young people at my residence, and we had a musical performance scheduled that week. The consular staff brought the Americans, who were out on bail, to the concert, and I spoke to them briefly in the reception line. I delivered the message, there was no publicity, and we ultimately got them released and the issue was settled peacefully.

Sometimes, though, the only way to make it work in the field is to be stubborn. In another incident, when an American had been arrested on trumped up charges in one of Zimbabwe’s provinces around the same time the provincial governor had started harassing NGOs working in his jurisdiction, Washington ‘suggested’ that I issue a strongly worded statement condemning his actions. Not a wise thing to do when I was trying to get his subordinates to release the American, and it also risked provoking the governor to increase his harassment in retaliation. So, I pulled up my pants and said, ‘No!’ in no uncertain terms. That didn’t go down well in Foggy Bottom, but I stuck to my guns. Fortunately, Zimbabwe was my last assignment before retirement, so there was really no retaliatory action the bureaucracy could take against me. The outcome was positive on both issues. The American was released, and no further action was taken against the NGOs, who, by the way, thanked me for not intervening as they were dealing with it locally, and a statement by me would have made it a national issue that could have adversely impacted on all NGOs in the country.

These are but two examples of how organizational rigidity and insistence on conformity can, if not countered, screw things up in the field.

Institutional Limitations

Unfortunately, the Foreign Service, as an institution, is ill-prepared to deal with the organizational barriers to creativity. While Foreign Service professionals are highly educated, motivated individuals, once hired, there is no program of professional education to prepare them to think and act creatively in the field.

Technical training, or tradecraft to use the Foreign Service jargon, is first rate. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers outstanding language and area training, and excellent training in a number of specific technical skills. But, the service does not provide a system of professional education that builds a cadre of technically competent, broad thinking professionals whose body of knowledge is periodically refreshed. The attitude seems to be, you’re smart and well-educated when we hire you; you don’t need any further education. This completely ignores the fact that the things we learn in school are often outdated before the ink on our diplomas is dry.

The service also doesn’t encourage or adequately reward self-education. This is due in part to the fact that it is small and fully deployed 24/7, unlike the military which has a training float that allows officers to spend as much as half their careers in education and training courses. In the Foreign Service, one would be lucky to spend as much as ten percent of a career in any training other than language or tradecraft.

The other limitation is the conflict-avoidance culture of the Foreign Service. While there are Foreign Service professionals who are as brave as any Army Ranger, and who go to some of the world’s most dangerous places when required, the institution as a whole tries to avoid bureaucratic conflict. It’s parent organization, the Department of State, is reluctant to confront Congress on issues of funding or personnel strength (the exceptions being former secretaries Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, who went to Congress to demand higher hiring limits), seems averse to taking its case to the American public, and often folds in the face of confrontation with other agencies, such as the behemoth Department of Defense. Many of my former colleagues are offended by this statement, but I stand by it – and the record of the past four or five decades supports it.

What Lies Ahead

The Foreign Service Act of 1980, P.L. 96-465, was passed to ‘promote the foreign policy of the United States by strengthening the Foreign Service of the United States . . .”

The following general provisions of the act spell out the importance of a strong, professional Foreign Service:

SEC. 101.1 FINDINGS AND OBJECTIVES.—

(a) The Congress finds that—

(1) a career foreign service, characterized by excellence and professionalism,

is essential in the national interest to assist the President and the

Secretary of State in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States;

1

22 U.S.C. 3901.

(2) the scope and complexity of the foreign affairs of the Nation have

heightened the need for a professional foreign service that will serve the foreign

affairs interests of the United States in an integrated fashion and that can provide

a resource of qualified personnel for the President, the Secretary of State,

and the agencies concerned with foreign affairs;

(3) the Foreign Service of the United States, established under the Act of

May 24, 1924 (commonly known as the Rogers Act) and continued by the Foreign

Service Act of 1946, must be preserved, strengthened, and improved in

order to carry out its mission effectively in response to the complex challenges

of modern diplomacy and international relations;

(4) the members of the Foreign Service should be representative of the

American people, aware of the principles and history of the United States and

informed of current concerns and trends in American life, knowledge-able of

the affairs, cultures, and languages of other countries, and available to serve in

assignments throughout the world; and

(5) the Foreign Service should be operated on the basis of merit principles.

(b) The objective of this Act is to strengthen and improve the Foreign Service of

the United States by—

(1) assuring, in accordance with merit principles, admission through impartial

and rigorous examination, acquisition of career status only by those who

have demonstrated their fitness through successful completion of probationary

assignments, effective career development, advancement and retention of the

ablest, and separation of those who do not meet the requisite standards of

performance;

(2) fostering the development and vigorous implementation of policies and

procedures, including affirmative action programs, which will facilitate and encourage

(A) entry into and advancement in the Foreign Service by persons

from all segments of American society, and (B) equal opportunity and fair and

equitable treatment for all without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion,

national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition;

(3) providing for more efficient, economical, and equitable personnel administration

through a simplified structure of Foreign Service personnel categories

and salaries;

(4) establishing a statutory basis for participation by the members of the

Foreign Service, through their elected representatives, in the formulation of

personnel policies and procedures which affect their conditions of employment,

and maintaining a fair and effective system for the resolution of individual

grievances that will ensure the fullest measure of due process for the members

of the Foreign Service;

(5) minimizing the impact of the hardships, disruptions, and other unusual

conditions of service abroad upon the members of the Foreign Service, and

mitigating the special impact of such conditions upon their families;

(6) providing salaries, allowances, and benefits that will permit the Foreign

Service to attract and retain qualified personnel as well as a system of incentive

payments and awards to encourage and reward outstanding performance;

(7) establishing a Senior Foreign Service which is characterized by strong

policy formulation capabilities, outstanding executive leadership qualities, and

highly developed functional, foreign language, and area expertise;

(8) improving Foreign Service managerial flexibility and effectiveness;

(9) increasing efficiency and economy by promoting maximum compatibility

among the agencies authorized by law to utilize the Foreign Service personnel

system, as well as compatibility between the Foreign Service personnel system

and other personnel systems of the Government; and

(10) otherwise enabling the Foreign Service to serve effectively the interests

of the United States and to provide the highest caliber of representation in

the conduct of foreign affairs.

 

While a lot has been done in the areas of language training, diversity, and compensation, the areas of professional development, policy formulation, and development of executive leadership qualities has been largely ignored. The proliferation of political appointees at all levels of the State Department has reduced the opportunities for Foreign Service professionals to get assignments that enhance their policy formulation and leadership skills, and there is NO professional education system to develop employees throughout their career.

 

If the spirit as well as the letter of the 1980 act is to be realized, these are areas that need serious attention. If the country is to be well-served by its diplomatic establishment in the uncertain years of the 21st century, everyone will have to take their heads out of the sand and start acting and thinking creatively. If the Foreign Service is to ‘effectively serve the interests of the United States and provide the highest caliber of representation in the conduct of foreign affairs,’ we must begin to act now.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Diplomatic Life: A Tale of Khao Soi and Kings

Moat surround Chiang Mai town -- Chiang Mai, T...
Moat surround Chiang Mai town -- Chiang Mai, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 1988, after completing six months of Thai language training, I reported for duty as administrative officer at the consulate general in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’d been in Thailand during the Vietnam War, but never in the north. Needless to say, it was quite different than I’d expected from my previous experience. The language and local dialect is different, the food is different, and while the people look the same as Thai anywhere else in the country, they have a different outlook on life – or so I observed.

The post was in the old royal palace compound of the last King of Chiang Mai. We rented it from the Thai government for a pittance. It was beautiful, but when I arrived, a little run down. We lived in a specially built housing compound on the opposite side of town, near the airport, in houses that were vaguely Spanish in design.

Even though my job title was administrative officer, my duties were varied. I was effectively the number two officer in a three-officer post (we had a secretary when I arrived, but the CG never used her, so when we were inspected, the OIG recommended the position be abolished and the embassy converted it into a political officer slot for themselves), handled American citizen services, refugee affairs, and narcotics – including crop substitution and drug suppression. Along with the four (later three) State Department people (me, the CG, a vice consul, and secretary), we had a large communications section, a PAO section (USIA was still independent at that time), a DEA contingent, and an Air Force seismic detachment.

I was busy from day one. The wall around the compound was in danger of collapse in sections, so I had to restore it, and the old wooden flag pole in front of the CG’s residence was dry rotted on the inside, so it had to be replaced. I also discovered that our little APO (army post office) annex involved a local employee picking up the mail bag at the airport, bringing it to the consulate and leaving it open in the middle of the floor in an empty room behind the local secretary’s desk. No one seemed to care that this was not only a pretty slipshod way to handle the US mail, but was a violation of federal law. I had a contractor build mail boxes and insert them in the wall of that room, and from that point on, the mail was sorted and put into boxes for each employee or agency – boxes that were locked and only accessible to me and the owner. You might think people would be grateful, but I took weeks of grief for changing what had become a comfortable routine for them. People don’t like change, even when it’s essential and for their benefit.

The first CG when I arrived didn’t like doing public engagements, so I was sent out to do a lot of meetings with local organizations, briefed visiting student groups, and went to the airport with the official greeting parties whenever the royal family came from Bangkok to stay at their northern royal residence. That way I got to know members of the royal family and the provincial government, and at times the local media was confused as to who the real CG was because it was almost always me seen in public. It got worse when the new CG arrived. He didn’t do briefings or airport meetings, so all visitors (including congressional delegations) fell into my lap.

I hired a contractor to run the Narcotics Assistance Unit (NAU) at the consulate – the husband of my consular assistant – and worked with him on the crop substitution programs. One of the things we did was conduct our own assessment of opium crop yields, which showed that the CIA estimates were off the mark by a significant amount. In order to do our assessment, I had to learn how to harvest opium. One of my favorite photos is one of me in a semi-military uniform, scraping opium from a poppy.

We weren’t too far from the embassy, but we might as well have been on the far side of the Moon for all the attention paid most of the time. A few hour flight, it was a day by train or car from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and people from the embassy didn’t come often – except the narcotics and refugee folk. So, whenever anything happened up north, they just dropped it on us. Like the time there’d been a news report in the US that the Lao government had used chemical agents (yellow rain) against Hmong in western Laos. Since that part of Laos was adjacent to our consular district, we were asked to check it out. I traveled north, got a driver in a border town to take me a short distance into Laos in one of the areas where the border is not guarded or even checked, and found out that what people thought was ‘yellow rain’ toxic chemical agent was actually just a yellow smoke grenade. Back then, we did what we had to do.

At one point during my tour, Chiang Mai was the venue for the Williamsburg Conference, and former secretary of state William Rogers was a keynote speaker. I met him at the airport and took him to his hotel. I received a pass to attend all sessions of the conference, which was neat. This was later parleyed into my being a speaker at the conference when it was held in Cambodia and I was US ambassador there. Things have a way of coming full circle.

The most memorable part of my tour in Chiang Mai, though, had little to do with diplomacy. A movie production company was doing location shooting for Air America, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downy, Jr., and they’d chosen Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in the north as the locations. After they arrived, one of the assistant directors, who happened to be a dual US-Israeli citizen, died. I was on the Chiang Mai set almost every day for a week before they started shooting, doing the death certificate, inventorying his property, and arranging to have his remains shipped to Israel per his family’s wishes. I was around so much, the producer and another person (whose name and title I forget now) suggested I sign on as an extra. The CG and the embassy approved as long as it didn’t interfere with my official duty, and since they were shooting at night in Chiang Mai, it didn’t. So, I ended up in most of the bar scenes in the movie.

When they wrapped shooting in Chiang Mai, and prepared to go to Mae Hong Son for the airfield and flight operations center scenes, they asked me to go along. Again, the embassy approved, but I had to take annual leave. Shooting in Mae Hong Son was a week, and I wound up not only in most of the flight briefing scenes, but was cast in a small speaking role near the end of the film with Gibson and Downy, when Gibson’s character rents a plane to move his supply of contraband weapons. In post-production they dubbed someone else’s voice, but it didn’t matter, because it was my face, and I got paid Hollywood scale for the scene – in addition to the daily rate as an extra. My slightly more than 15 minutes of fame. My kids still like to trot out the DVD to impress their friends.

My second favorite memory is a rustic restaurant across the river from the consulate that served the best khao soi, curried noodle soup, in the world. The owner was reported to have once worked for the royal family. I never proved nor disproved that, but I do know his khao soi was fit for a king.

During our time at Chiang Mai, our children, David and Denise, attended a British boarding school in Singapore. So, we traveled to Singapore often, and saw a lot of other parts of Asia as well, including Sri Lanka and Australia.

My tour in northern Thailand ended a few months after the first Gulf War started, a day I’ll always remember because it is the day the Thai army overthrew the prime minister and took over the government. Funny thing about that; a newspaper reporter friend of one of my local employees in Chiang Mai alerted us to the coup and we knew about it about three hours before the embassy in Bangkok was aware of it, even though the events were taking place at the airport there. I’m not sure the people in the embassy were too happy to have me call from Chiang Mai to inform them of things taking place under their noses. At least I let them be the ones to notify Washington.

If you think diplomatic life is one long, boring round of cocktail receptions, I give you Chiang Mai to illustrate that it isn’t.  Until next time, your humble servant.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Beware! Trolls Lurk Among Us!

Troll nicht fuettern pink
Troll nicht fuettern pink (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought I was a pretty up-to-date person, but I recently learned a new word – well, actually a new definition for an old word. The word is troll. For readers of fantasy, a troll is a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills. In most fantasy, trolls are noxious, unlikable creatures with few redeeming social graces.

Well, the new definition of troll relates to the Internet, and it refers to the noisome creatures who seem to spring from some nether regions to post extraneous, insulting, off-topic comments with the intent it seems to cause maximum discord. Like the troll of folklore, these noxious little creatures seem to delight in starting arguments or upsetting people.

Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines troll: “One who purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others on a forum without in any way listening to the arguments proposed by his or her peers. He will spark of such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks (i.e. 'you're nothing but a fanboy' is a popular phrase) with no substance or relevence to back them up as well as straw man arguments, which he uses to simply avoid addressing the essence of the issue.”

I haven’t before now paid much attention to the comments after articles, except to send thank you notes for particularly good comments at the end of my own. I hadn’t been subject to an attack of the trolls until I wrote a think piece on response to the not guilty verdict against George Zimmerman in Florida in the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. If one reads the introduction to the article, it clearly states this is a personal reaction, and in the article, I only lightly touch on the subject of race, which dominated most of the discussion of the case. My own position was that incidents like this also grow out of a sense of ‘being under siege’ that I’ve observed in many communities. The first comment got my attention. “News and opinion should not be on the same page” the commenter wrote. Huh? Then it just got worse. Comments were uglier and uglier. I was even accused by one troll of being racist for writing what I did.

This whole episode caught my attention. Where do these characters come from, and what motivates them? In a conversation with a colleague today, he told me of a similar situation with an automobile magazine, where response to an article on electric cars drew hundreds of condemnatory comments such as, “real men don’t drive electric cars,” and “this is part of Obama-care.” Hardly any of the troll comments really related to the article, which was a description of tests on the vehicle’s performance.

I have a theory. It’s just a theory which I have yet to prove, but it is intriguing. I think the trolls have been with us all along, but before the Internet, they were restricted in their ability to spew their noxious venom on large audiences. They strike me as a group of supremely angry and frightened people who live in the darkness of their fears, and when they come out, they strike out at the nearest target. Doesn’t matter the subject; they will spew about what angers them. It might be race, gender equality, immigration reform, government policy, whatever, they are pissed and want the world to know it. They want you to hurt, so they throw the most vicious slime they can right in your face. They dare you to take them on. Problem is, you can’t really take them on, because they are impervious to logic, ignorant of history (at least they seem to ignore it), and deficient in the empathy gene.

And, here I’d been thinking that trolls were creatures of fantasy, when they’ve been living among us all along.  

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GAO: Poor Leadership has Hurt MIA Recoveries

An interesting article on the MIA recovery mission from US Military.com.

How Have Technology and Social Media Changed the Profession of Diplomacy?


Over the past several years much has been written about how social media has changed the practice of diplomacy. As someone who was involved in the profession of diplomacy over a 30-year career that encompassed the pre-social media age and its height, I understand what the writers are trying to say, but take exception to some of the broad, sweeping generalizations they employ to describe the impact of technology and social media on how diplomats practice their profession.
English: An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 71...

  The situation when I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982 would probably seem stone age to many current diplomats, who were mere infants at the time – if indeed they’d even been born. We wrote our dispatches often in long hand at first, on yellow legal pads, using ball point pens or number 2 pencils. Then, using IBM Selectric typewriters, we transcribed them to the cable form, which was a multi-layer carbon paper monstrosity. If you made a mistake, you either had to make the change on each sheet individually, or scrap the whole page and type it over.

Fast forward to 2012, the year I retired, and drafting is now often done directly on the computer, and cables never actually need be on paper at all. You can compose the cable from your notes or memory, polish it, electronically send it around for comments and clearances, and then hit a key and it’s instantly on its way around the world.

So, you might say, that is a most significant change in the diplomatic profession. You’d be only partially right. It changes the mechanical tasks of what we do, but not the basic, underlying thing that diplomats do, and have done since the time of the Italian City States.

Diplomats represent their home countries and governments to the government and country of accreditation. The Vienna Convention uses the terms ‘sending state’ and ‘receiving state.’ The job of the diplomat is to study and understand the receiving state so that he or she can explain it to the leadership of the sending state. There is also the reciprocal duty of explaining the sending state and its policies to the receiving state. Scraping away all the high-sounding language, a diplomat is a channel of communication and understanding between nations.

In the past, because of the limitations of communications systems, that was done at what today would be considered a snail’s pace. You spoke with someone, and afterwards hastily scribbled notes of the conversation into a notebook before you forgot. When you got back to the office, you began the process of converting your notes into cable format, a process that could sometimes take several days. Once that green-sheeted cable was sent over the wire, you sat back and waited for any response. Sometimes, you might make a phone call to alert people, but connections overseas were often so bad, one didn’t bother except in an emergency or a really important situation. The cable would hit Washington, and paper copies would have to be made and sent around to the various offices and individuals to whom it was addressed. All of this took time.

Back at post, other than assistance to American citizens or interviews with visa applicants, most of a diplomat’s contact would be with officials of the government or with significant people in the economic sector. This was where communication was controlled, and where the power lay.

The situation today is far different. In the first place; with better telephone technology (video teleconferencing, etc.) and Email, communication between Washington and the diplomat in the field is often immediate and omnipresent. You can be discussing the subject of a report with someone via Email and that report will pop up on their computer screen. Things today move fast. That’s both good and bad. It enables quicker response to developing situations, but also limits the time to reflect on things before making decisions.

The other significant change is the shift in the center of power based on access to information. Information technology and social media have brought about an information revolution so that, now, power to influence or even initiate events has shifted toward people outside government. Witness the Arab Spring.

What this means is that diplomats can no longer just talk to the government or the power brokers of industry, because there are other power brokers out there that you ignore at your own peril. Diplomats now find themselves communicating with the population of the receiving state as much as, if not more, than its officials, if they want to know what is really going on.


Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...
When I was ambassador to Zimbabwe, I used social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and blogs (the embassy’s and my own) to engage in dialogue with the country’s young people. At any given time of day, in addition to talking to the ministers of government, I would be engaged in electronic conversation with thousands of young people. This often gave me access to information that the ministers didn’t have, as they were still wedded to the traditional model of top down rule rather than top down response to the people.

So, my thesis is that the new technologies haven’t so much changed the how and what of diplomacy as they’ve changed the how fast and with whom. Our basic mission remains the same, but we now have to do it at light speed, and do it with the student at the local high school or the news vendor on the corner, not just the foreign minister.

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