Saturday, July 13, 2013

Diplomatic Life: Learning Some Hard Lessons

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

 This week’s post will be short. I’ll be talking about my two-year stint as special assistant to the director of the Office of Defense Trade Controls in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs (PM). I took the job in the summer of 1991 so I could be in the U.S. while my youngest son and daughter graduated from high school.

Not a lot of great significance happened during the two years, though I did enjoy the tour. I worked for the late Bill Robinson, a civil servant who was in his late seventies at the time, and who’d held the job for literally decades. Bill had been a bomber pilot in WWII, and a Foreign Service Officer. He had, in fact, been part of the crew that created PM. A low-maintenance boss, he let me have time to attend courses at FSI, insisted I not work on Saturdays, and didn’t believe in hanging about the office after 5:00 just to impress the bosses in the PM front office. As you might imagine, he wasn’t very popular with them, but his staff loved him.

I was the only FSO in an office of 80 or so people, so my duties as Robinson’s special assistant were pretty broad. I supervised the administrative section, helped edit the DTC newsletter, did congressional liaison, drafted messages going to overseas posts, and went to trade shows. I also, as I said, attended courses at FSI about every other month.

There were two significant events during the tour that I’d like to relate. One is about how bureaucrats can be really dumb and dangerous, and the other is about the danger of being too helpful to an activist.

The Office (U.S. TV series) / Rainn Wilson - S...
As to the first, a U.S. company had applied for a license to sell hovercraft to Taiwan. The application went through the usual process, with an added bit of processing because it was Taiwan, and no one complained. It was a relatively uncomplicated, non-controversial commercial transaction. Then, it ran into the bureaucracy. Two offices in State got into a pissing contest over which had precedence in signing concurrence on the memo – not that either had any disagreement; they in fact agreed with the sale – just over who signed first. They haggled so long the Taiwanese got tired of waiting and bought the damn hovercraft from the French. This little maneuver cost the American company several million in lost revenue. All because of some bureaucratic circle jerk.

The other involved an activist who was trying to force the government to his point of view on controls over a certain category of product – the specifics are unimportant. He was adamant and refused to accept any answer that he didn’t agree with. He got so annoying, people in the office stopped taking his phone calls. Customer service was one of my functions, unfortunately, and just as unfortunately, one day I decided to take the jerk’s call to see if I could placate him, or at least show that we were trying to be responsive. During the phone call, he asked all kinds of hypothetical questions about the outcome if he simply ignored the law and did whatever he wanted to do. I told him I was no lawyer and had no authority to adjudicate his request, but it seemed to me if he deliberately and knowingly broke the law, he’d face consequences. That, I thought, was the end of it until a few months later I learned that this nut was suing everyone and his brother for violating his constitutional rights, and that I was included in the list of people being sued. He posted an edited version of our phone conversation on the Internet, leaving out my caveats and making me sound like a Nazi storm trooper. Eventually, a judge threw the suit against me out of court, but it was a harsh lesson. People with single issue focus and a MISSION will stomp all over you to achieve their goals. It doesn’t matter that you’re trying to help them; you’re simply a means to their end.

I still believe in customer service, but I no longer answer hypothetical questions or any questions pertaining to legal advice.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, Your Humble Servant.

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