Saturday, August 29, 2009

Last Days in Rome

Writing about the end of my Foreign Service career in my previous post reminded me of my last days at the embassy in Rome before I went home for good.

I think I went to Rome from Warsaw because Rome had requested a replacement who was not a Foreign Service officer. The State Department personnel system wanted to send a Foreign Service officer, because in general, Civil Service employees don’t serve overseas. Rome needed someone quickly because Italy was taking over the Presidency of the EU, and the embassy science officer had just been let go by the State Department. He was a professional scientist brought to State in an exchange program. Like most people who come under such an arrangement, he didn’t want to leave. He had worked for Amb. Bartholomew for years while Bartholomew was Under Secretary of State, and then accompanied Bartholomew to Rome, when he was named ambassador. But finally State said that he had come to the end of his rope; it wouldn’t extend his program at State any further, and it wouldn’t let him convert to permanent employee status. I’m guessing he recommended the Civil Service employee who had been the deputy director across the hall from me in State/OES. When Embassy Rome tried to finagle the personnel procedures to get a Civil Service employee assigned there, the State personnel office asked me if I would go in order to keep a Foreign Service officer in a Foreign Service position. I agreed, not knowing that I was stepping into the middle of a war between Embassy Rome and the State Department personnel system, probably made even bitterer by the fact that State had refused to let the Ambassador keep the man he wanted in the job.

People may say I was foolish to step into the job without looking into the office politics, but I had taken other less than stellar assignments for the good of the country, the service, or whatever. I knew that I was not God’s gift the Foreign Service, and I was willing to do jobs that more elite officers frowned on. Plus, I knew I was probably being asked because Amb. Rey in Warsaw had already proposed eliminating by job there due to the decline in Polish-American scientific cooperation. It gave me an opportunity to move on to a more active assignment. Plus, the Washington decision not to comply with the five-year cooperation agreement had soured my relationship with my Polish contacts, who thought, correctly, that the US was failing to live up to its legal obligations. They were reluctant to make an issue of it, because at that time Poland wanted more than anything to be admitted to NATO, and would not do anything to jeopardize that objective. So, it was a convenient time for me to leave. But I was bitter that the US had not lived up to its obligations, especially when it had sent me there to carry them out.

It turned out that the day I was scheduled to leave Warsaw for Rome was the day that Newt Gingrich shut down the US Government. All of our clothes, furniture, etc., had been packed and sent to Rome, except for what we could fit in our car, plus our two dogs. The house we were leaving was empty. I had spent my last day in the embassy, and I was up in the Defense Attaché’s office saying good-bye, when I got a call from my Polish assistant saying that I had to come back to my office and speak to Rome on the telephone. Some administration flunky in Rome told me that because the government had been shut down, I should stay in Warsaw and not come to Rome. Of course, by then I had no place to stay in Warsaw. I was furious. I felt that the US was putting my wife and me (and our dogs) out on the street in Warsaw for the duration of the government shutdown. For the first time, I looked to see if I knew anybody in Rome, and it turned out that I knew the Deputy Chief of Mission, the second to the Ambassador, from serving with him in Brazil. I told him my situation, that I had no place to live in Warsaw, and he said to go ahead and leave for Rome; he would work something out. The solution turned out to be furloughing my American assistant, and keeping me on the State payroll as essential, rather than the other way around, which did not endear me to my assistant.

Being almost furloughed in Warsaw was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as my State Department career went. I was reminded of the old joke about the boy who pushed the family outhouse into the river. That night when his father confronted him about it, the boy said, “Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. I pushed the outhouse into the river.” With that, his father took off his belt and tanned his hide. The boy sobbed, “But George Washington’s father didn’t spank him when he chopped down the cherry tree.” The boy’s father replied, “George Washington’s father wasn’t in the cherry tree when he chopped it down.” I was in the cherry tree when Newt Gingrich chopped it down. He had already been messing with me by cutting off funding for Polish cooperation. I had had it. But while I didn’t really care that much about my career at that point, I still felt an obligation to the United States. I had promised to serve as Science Counselor in Rome while Italy held the Presidency of the EU, and unlike the US Government, I intended to honor my promise. Although I was unhappy, I was in a good position to leave. I had put in my twenty plus years and was old enough to retire anytime that I wanted. I didn’t have to give up my retirement pension over a matter of principle.

When I arrived in Rome, I found that two of the big issues that were my responsibility were North Korean nuclear proliferation and Italian swordfish driftnet regulation. The North Korean nuclear program was an issue because the Republican Congress refused to appropriate enough money for the US to fulfill its commitments under the agreement limiting North Korea’s activities. Therefore, one of my jobs was to go hat in hand to the Italian Foreign Ministry and ask them to get the EU to contribute enough money to allow the US to meet its commitments to North Korea, since Congress would not do it. It was like funding for Polish scientific cooperation all over again. The Republican Congress didn’t have the moral gumption to meet America’s legal commitments. I was unhappy to be once again the fall guy for the Republican Congress’ lack of integrity.

I had little interest in the swordfish driftnet issue. I had never worked on fisheries issues and there was a whole fisheries bureaucracy that I was not familiar with. My assistant had handled fisheries issues in Venezuela and had been handling them in Rome. I was happy to leave the issue with her. When I arrived in Rome, I discovered that my office was being sued by four environmental groups for failing to force the Italian government to obey UN resolutions restricting the length of driftnets used to catch swordfish. My assistant was in constant touch with the State Department legal advisor’s office, which kept her up to date on the trial. The actual courtroom argument was handled by the Justice Department. Washington assured us that we would win the case. We lost. As a result, a US District Court judge in New York City had to approve our office’s actions regarding the swordfish fisheries issue. I thought that this was unconstitutional because the Constitution assigns foreign policy matters to the Executive Branch. This seemed to be a usurpation of authority by the Judicial Branch. What happened was that when there was any proposal to take action regarding swordfish, the State Department informed the judge, and the judge contacted the winning environmental plaintiffs for their approval. They always contacted the Greenpeace expert in Rome who handled fisheries matters for Greenpeace. If he approved, then the environmental groups would approve, the judge would approve, and State could accept the agreement.

The US sent a big delegation to Rome to negotiate tougher enforcement by Italy. My assistant played a large role, since she and one of the key staffers in the Italian Agriculture Ministry, which handled fisheries matters, had a good working relationship. The US (i.e., State, the judge, the environmental groups, and Greenpeace Italy) and the Italian Government were all happy with the agreement. On my second to last day in the Embassy before I was to return to Washington and retire, the Agriculture Minister asked to see the Ambassador about the swordfish issue. It turned out that because of the tougher enforcement by the ministry, the fishermen had enlisted the Mafia to threaten the ministry’s enforcement officers. The minister was afraid that some of his officers would be injured or killed, and wanted the US to agree to some loosening of the enforcement regime. It sounds like a joke, but most of the fishermen lived in Sicily, the home of the Mafia. Some swordfish boats worked out of the port of Fuimicino near the Rome airport. A few days earlier, the fishermen had blocked the streets in front of the ministry, creating enough of a disturbance to get on the news.

On the day of the appointment, my assistant was too sick to come into the office; so, I had to accompany the Ambassador to meet with the Minister about an issue that I had tried to avoid for the whole six or so months I had been in Rome. (Payback for getting her furloughed? Probably not.) My main function in the meeting was to tell the Ambassador that he had no authority to revise the agreement with the Minister, because any revision had to be approved by a judge in New York. He was of course furious, because under the Constitution he should have been empowered to negotiate with the Minister. The agreement could be revised, but the Ambassador had to defer to the judge. I spent my last 24 hours as a working Foreign Service officer successfully getting approval from Washington for a revised agreement. For my efforts, I got a letter of reprimand from the Ambassador, who had not liked my keeping him on a leash. I wanted him to know that the State Department’s and his personal authority had been unconstitutionally usurped by a federal judge. Whether his letter went into my official file was a moot question, because at that point promotion was not an option. I was on my way to the Washington retirement seminar.

Before I formally committed to retire, I had asked the State Department to tell me how much my retirement pension would be. It was a big pay cut from my salary, but my wife and I thought that we could live on it. As icing on the cake, however, about the time I finished the retirement seminar, just one or two days before I was formally taken off the payroll, the retirement office told me that they has miscalculated my retirement pay and that it would be about 10 percent less than they had told me in Rome. I think that what happened was that while I was overseas, Congress had voted itself and other government employees in the US a locality pay bonus, which did not apply to me serving overseas. Therefore, my retirement was calculated on a base pay that was about 10% less than it would have been if I had been serving in Washington. I was punished for serving my country abroad, and all Foreign Service officers abroad have been until this year, when the rules were finally revised.

Well, this is not as funny to me as “Burn After Reading,” but I suppose that the characters in the movie didn’t see their lives as funny either, except maybe the senior CIA guy who was the Director of Operations or something. But if the Justice Department goes after him like it is going after the CIA interrogators now, even he may not be laughing long. At least I have a kindred spirit in Osborn Cox.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My Hero Osburn Cox

I've just watched "Burn After Reading" for the third or fourth time, and I still enjoy watching it. I identify with John Malkovich's Osburn Cox, the fired CIA analyst. I was even an analyst for a while in State's intelligence bureau, INR. I'm sure some of my old colleagues would say that my career did not even approach the success of Osburn Cox's, but I can dream. I didn't go to Princeton. I never lived in Georgetown, never had a yacht, but I did work on foreign policy. Probably at least one old boss, Richard Clark of 9/11 fame, saw me as an Osburn Cox, but because of the Foreign Service bureaucracy, he couldn't get rid of me. Amb. Nicholas Rey eliminated my job in Poland while I was still in it, although he was always very polite to me personally. Sadly he passed on recently. When I went to Rome from there, they immediately disliked me so much that from the moment I arrived, they finagled the personnel system to get rid of me and replace me with the man who had the same position I had across the hall from me in Main State years earlier. He was deputy director of the OES office of science cooperation, while I was deputy director of the OES office working on environmental conservation and health issues. We worked side by side for two years, and I really didn't think he was so much better than I. In fact, it was his office that persuaded me to take the assignment in Poland. Well, maybe they did have my number. On the other hand, his office was the one primarily responsible for the failure to fund our cooperation with Poland that led to the elimination of my position there.

I would like to think that Amb. Rey eliminated by job because the main part of it was promoting scientific cooperation between the US and Poland under a five-year agreement signed just before I got there. After two or three years, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took over the House during the Clinton administration, and quit funding the cooperation, thus eliminating about half of my job. Then Newt shut down the entire government while I was moving from Warsaw to Rome, leaving me with no job and no place to live in either city, until Rome finally took me in. An Army Vietnam veteran with over twenty years in the Foreign Service, and the US Government put my wife and me out on the streets of Warsaw in November with no place to live! So Newt and company made me a liberal Democrat. They represented the fools that I, like Osburn Cox, have been fighting. However, I don't plan to shoot anybody or chop them into pieces. I do plan to blog about it.

Perhaps someone will someday stumble over this blog and think that it contains sensitive information that they can sell to the Russians. They must decide, however, whether it is "drivel" or "dribble." You want dribble? Listen to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Bolton -- absolute idiots, numskulls, and cowards (because they didn't go to Vietnam, they didn't go to New York City on 9/11, and they tortured people). They are of a piece with Newt. And Tom DeLay is dancing with the stars. Idiots on parade! But I'm the one who retired and went away. Ironically, I had relatively good efficiency reports and was in no danger of losing my position as a Foreign Service officer, although I was having trouble keeping an assignment. Well at least I have a hero: Osburn Cox.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Military-Civilian Disconnect

The New York Times has an excellent blog on Unexamined Civil-Military Relations by a serving Army captain. The blog is definitely worth reading. My comment is posted below. One of the first comments was by somebody apparently from an Ivy League school, who wrote about how few veterans there were, but interestingly he said there were several veterans of the Israeli military, perhaps more than from the American military. There's something wrong with that, although we have the example in the White House of Rahm Emanuel, who served in the Israeli military rather than the American military. My comment:
I’m afraid that there is an increasing disconnect between the military and civil society. All this talk of “Support our troops,” means support them so that I don’t have to go. The disconnect means there will be less support for the troops when they come home, whether it’s military medical care (Walter Reed), the VA’s huge backlog, or just Americans not saying thanks by not giving vets jobs. It’s partly fallout from the Vietnam War (spoken as a Vietnam veteran), because so few of the social elites served despite the existence of the draft. Having avoided military service themselves, they can’t now say it’s a good thing. The latest travesty is the Congressional hold put on the nomination of the Secretary of the Army by the senators from Kansas, Roberts and Brownback. They are forcing the Army to fight two wars without its own political leadership. When the people of Kansas turn against the military, you know it’s in trouble

Saturday, August 22, 2009

No Compassion in America?

Everybody from Obama on down has criticized Scotland for releasing the man convicted of bringing down the Pan Am plane in Lockerbie, Scotland. I don’t get it. We, the US, are supposed to be the Christians, following a gospel of love and forgiveness, while the Europeans are supposed to be godless secular humanists. They are releasing this man because of their compassion, and the Americans are screaming to keep him in prison because they are so filled with hatred. I don’t get it. One explanation might be that American Christians embrace the Old Testament, but reject the New Testament, which actually would make them Jews, rather than Christians. How can you accept Jesus and reject the Sermon on the Mount?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Too Bad Obama Dumped Howard Dean

Obama needs Howard Dean's help on health care. Dean understands the issue; he is a doctor, was governor of Vermont, the best Democratic candidate for President in 2004, and former head of the DNC. This NYT article on Rahm Emanuel talks about how Sidney Blumenthal lost a job at State because he got crossed up with Emanuel, but a more serious rift is between Emanuel and Dean. Dean and Emanuel had very different visions for the Democratic Party's strategy in 2008. While Emanuel gets the credit for the sweeping Democratic victory in the House, Dean played an important role that may have surpassed Emanuel's by making the Democratic Party competitive everywhere, not just in strongly "blue" states. But because Emanuel and Dean fought during the 2008 election, Dean is persona non-grata in the While House.

Dean would probably have been a better choice for HHS Secretary than Tom Daschle, Obama's original choice. Daschle is just an old pol; he can slap backs and cajole, but he doesn't have the vision that Dean does, something that everybody says is badly lacking in the While House at the moment. Obama has just thrown his very fuzzy vision of health care into the lions' den of Congress. As a result, Obama may get something, but it may not be worth very much. Dean would have had a much more focused plan, and as former DNC chairman, would at least have had a shot at getting it approved. Emanuel has a lot of clout in the House, where many members may feel they owe him their jobs, but he doesn't have as much in the Senate, where the real problems lie at the moment.

It may be impossible for Obama to get Emanuel and Dean to work together. It's unfortunate for the country that he can't.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fareed Zakaria Was Top Sunday News Show Again

The good and bad news from Fareed's interview with Israeli Amb. Michael Oren was that the Ambassador defended Israel's positions about as well as they can be defended.

On Iran, Fareed pressed Oren hard on the issue of whether Iran was not allowed to have a peaceful nuclear power capacity by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They are. Oren's reply was that a normal state would be allowed to have nuclear power, but Iran's leaders have misbehaved so badly that they have forfeited their right to do so. The question is whether other countries, particularly Russia and China, would agree with Israel. Probably not, but it's a good argument. That brings up the mirror question of whether Israel should bring its nuclear program under the international monitoring of the NPT. On that issue or a related on about whether Israel has nuclear weapons, as I recall Oren begged off and did not really answer. He has some finely worded statement about Israel not being the first to introduce nuclear weapons, more or less a "no first use" statement, although I think he refused to characterize it as such.

Fareed also had a segment on the real meat of Hilary Clinton's trip to Africa, rather than just the 10 second sound-bite about not channeling Bill, or about the 2000 Florida presidential election mess. It just showed how poorly everyone else covered her trip. Poor Hilary gets no points for trying to help Africa. The news anchors could care less about people dying in Africa.

Anyway, kudos to Fareed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Great Article on Flash Trading

Whatever it is, flash trading of stocks is pretty certainly bad, as I pointed out earlier. This article in Asia Times has the best explanation I've read. I don't understand the problem enough to know if his proposed tax solution is the best one, but I would certainly support it while we look at other options.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sen. Coburn Approves Killing Poor Babies

Yesterday on "Meet the Press" Sen. Tom Coburn said the following:
We talk about neonatal mortality. Where’s the neonatal mortality? It’s not in the private insurance plans, it’s in Medicaid. Well, here’s the government-run program that is failing us in terms of neonatal mortality, and yet we use as an indicator neonatal mortality to say we need more government rather than less.
Rachel Maddow replied, "That is so disingenuous, that's unbelievable."

Rachel is right, although she didn't get to explain why. Medicaid is not a federal government insurance program. It's a joint state/federal program to provide last ditch assistance to people without health insurance to allow them to get treatment rather than die in the streets. Many of the 45 million people without health insurance probably benefit from Medicaid if they have a serious illness, or have a baby. So the people on Medicaid are the people targeted by the new program exactly to do things like allow them to have regular visits to a doctor while they are pregnant, rather than seeing a doctor for the first time when they go to the emergency room to give birth. If it weren't for Medicaid, many more poor babies would die, because mothers would get no medical care at all.

Coburn is basically saying that since people on Medicaid are poor, he doesn't care if their babies die. He would join Sarah Palin in calling for babies of trailer park trash to die so that Palin's Trig and other rich babies can live.

It's the same selfishness expressed in the town hall meeting protests that say, "Don't mess with my Medicare." They worry that their "socialist" government provided health care would suffer if the government tried to provide similar coverage to more people. They are saying I want those other people to die rather than give up my free health care.

Decent, loving people (which should certainly include people who call themselves Christian) would frame the issue as follows: We would like to have decent health care for everybody, not just me. How can we best do that, and how much can we afford? The latter question might also be phrased, how much am I willing to give my neighbor so that he can continue to live.

People screaming, "Don't touch my Medicare," are clearly not Christians.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Will Jobs Ever Recover?

Everybody is celebrating that the number of people who lost their jobs last month was smaller than the number for previous months, and the unemployment figure fell from 9.5 to 9.4 per cent unemployed. Meanwhile the stock market is going through the roof. What this means to me is that in the competition between labor and capital, capital is winning.

The consensus is that businesses are earning more money despite lower sales because they are cutting costs, which mainly means laying off workers.

The laid-off engineers and skilled mechanics may eventually get jobs, but many of them will end up working at McDonald's, Wal-Mart, or in similar unskilled jobs that pay considerably less. This is good news for Wall Street, where executives will hire replacements for them in India or China for much less, thus cutting the bottom line as they begin rehiring at the end of the recession. The recession has been a great opportunity for American business to get rid of higher paid American workers forever, not just during the recession.