Saturday, February 16, 2008

E-mail is on Fire

The e-mail at work has been like lightning, shooting back and forth with links to articles about the State Department. Little of it good of course.

I'm sure that everyone (well, those interested in such things) heard about the internal memo from Manuel Miranda blasting our presence in Baghdad as he says in his assessment that "the State Department and the Foreign Service is not competent to do the job that they have undertaken in Iraq." This guy is a former top Republican congressional aide, and a lawyer who spent a year in Baghdad as Senior Advisor for Legislative Framework in the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office and the Embassy's Rule of Law Committee, and as Director of the Office for Legislative Statecraft in the Political Section. And honestly, I don't disagree entirely with his 9+ page .pdf memo. As Ian said, the Foreign Service was not designed to go out and build democratic governments. We're not lego masters. So putting us in a war zone and saying "Fix It!" probably wasn't the best use of our resources, and once we were in we didn't know exactly what the next step was. It's been a learning process from day one because honestly, it's NOT our job. Of course we take issue with being called incompetent and the number of other unfriendly comments made about our Service by Mr. Miranda, but the overall gist is pretty accurate. All those slots that were so hard to fill last year at Mission Baghdad may not have been so much a sign of fear of death and dying, but instead a fear of failure for a job no one seems to now how to complete.
Of course fear of death and dying is not to be taken lightly. Another note circulated the Consulate this week, from an anonymous evacuee out of N'Djamena, Chad. It read:
"Dear friends
I am sending you this email to let you know that I am fine. We were evacuated on Sunday afternoon and taken to the French military base. Early this morning at 3:00 AM US military base in Germany sent a military plane to come to bring us to Yaounde. We evacuated dependents and children on Friday before the start of the war. They left at 4:00 in the morning and the war started around 9:00. The DOD dispatched 10 navy Seals from Baghdad who arrived just on time. We were all divided into 2 groups. One group with the Ambassador was at the embassy, and the other group was on the US housing compound. We were all put in one room, and the 11 of us were right on the floor. We could hear the fight. One tank stopped right under our wall, and each time it fired, the room vibrated. We could hear bullets flying as well as the rocket propelled grenades. The Seals were on the top of the biggest building on the compound, and they had authorization to open fire if anyone came onto the compound. The fight lasted until 5 PM when everything got quite for the evening prayer. Then it started again till 9:00PM. On Saturday, It started over again. When they moved toward the President Palace, the looting started. We were hearing from the local guards who stayed at our separated residence how one after the other they had to abandon each post because the house was invaded by looters.
After several hours, I heard what I was fearing the most. My guard called to report that " This is the guard over at your residence. They broke through the gate, and they broke the front door." He said that he is going to wait to see if they will leave something that he could bring back to the compound. After 40 minutes, he came back on the radio to announce" Sir, if you are hearing this, I am sorry. They took absolutely everything". After that I told him to come join us on the compound.
Yes, I lost absolutely everything. Everything. And I am not the only one. We all lost everything except our life. God was looking over us. Two houses on the compound got hit by strayed cannon fire. We were hearing those fire all day on Saturday and part of Sunday. When the rebels stopped the fight on Sunday to regroup, that's when the French troops came to the compound in armored trucks that looked like tanks and took us to their military base. The French sent a helicopter to the embassy to airlift our Ambassador, the marines and other who were at the embassy.
I went to Chad with over 2000 Lbs of goods, I left with one bag which contained one pants, 2 sock and 2 shirts. They even took all my figurines and all our Christmas decorations which we have been collecting for many years and were planning to pass them to the children.
Do I regret having gone to Chad? No, not at all. We were doing a very good job and were helping Chadian Children. We were constantly in schools talking to them and helping them whichever way we could. I really loved this job. There was nothing more gratifying to see than a mother cry because we donated school supplies to her child or a Catholic sister cry because we gave her a grant to help her help Chadian abused women. I loved it and will go back if I have the chance. The only thing I will do differently is that I will not spend the fortune I spent to prepare for my life in Chad.
Again we are all fine, and I thank you all for all your prayers. Thanks to those prayers, even though a missile went straight through the Ambassador's office while a group of them were in the office burning classified documents; the missile just went through and just pierced both walls and exploded outside. I cannot explain how that happened, but that was what happened.
Thank you and I love you all"
Evacuations from danger zones are nothing new to Foreign Service personnel. It's estimated that every officer will be evacuated at least once in their career.
Of course some folks still think we all live in the ignorant, high-society Foreign Service of ages ago. The one with the pinky raised afternoon tea parties with slave servants scuttling about. An article from The Weekly Standard by Michael Rubin about "Living in a Dream World" portrays us blinded to the harsh realities of the countries we live in. He cites example after example of our Dream World and how we gloss over the bad parts to delude ourselves into feeling good. Like this snippet:
"Take Mongolia: "Until 2002, embassy staffers lived mainly in a Communist-era apartment block near the chancery affectionately known as 'Faulty Towers.' Today, almost all staff members live in Czech-designed townhouses or apartments in a modern, gated housing compound 15 minutes from the embassy," the political and public affairs officer wrote in a June 2007 feature. Diplomats there, we learn, can even enjoy pizza delivery."
Pizza delivery. Life can't be difficult if there's pizza delivery. Everyone knows that.
Or this bit:
"Certain diplomats evince a strange nostalgia: "Armenia was once considered the Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union, providing advanced avionics for Soviet aircraft and supercomputers," the public affairs officer in Yerevan explained in February 2005. Ah yes, things were great for the Armenians under Soviet rule. Housing for diplomats under communism? Less great."
A touch of sarcasm?
Anyway. The big problem with the article is the source material. The writer takes all his bits from a magazine called "State Magazine." "State Magazine" is, get this, an internal morale magazine for State Department employees. We know what our host countries are like, especially the bad parts. The bad parts get put on CNN. The bad parts get circulated in cables when governments collapse, disease spreads and Officers are evacuated. We actually do get it. "State Magazine" isn't written to go over all that again, it's written by those of us who've lived there and can give a bright spot of two for future bidders. We're not blind, we're dedicated. And even we know that pizza delivery does not a utopia make.
Now, I've already mentioned that there's a proposal to increase the number of Foreign Service hires to help the rest of us out. That's a good thing. I'm liking Rice's thoughts on it too. Like Mr. Miranda said, we're not fully equipped to deal with the changing demands put on us. Rice has come up with a few innovative ideas, written up in TIME article called "Is US Diplomacy Being Shortchanged?" My favorite being this one: "Rice is proposing the creation of a Civilian Response Corps. Similar to the military reserves, the new program would comprise doctors, lawyers, engineers, agricultural experts, police officers and public administrators, led by a team of diplomats, that could deploy with a military unit with 48 hours notice." Now that would be interesting.
So, like I said, a lot flying back and forth and little of it supportive. But we do what we do, and we learn as we go. It's not enough for a lot of people, but it'll have to do.

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