Love Letters to Congress and Who Gets Magic Dragoned Between FSI and First Post

I added a new tab in this blog for Love Letters to Congress and Other Notes. I will try to update the page as I am able with appropriate selections. But I hope somebody out there will volunteer to curate the online collection and give it the attention it deserves, a sort of an oral history, the blog edition for the Foreign Service.  

I must add that I have now gotten off this joy ride to nowhere — for real — so whatever Congress do to the locality pay will have no effect on my household income. But I still look at this as a fairness issue for those who remains in the Service. I just hope you all don’t get get stuck in the OCP fight. If you are a member of the FS community, your main mission if you decide to accept it — ta-da! –is to to help educate Congress and the American public about your work and your life abroad in the service of this country. Congress is not the enemy, ignorance is.

The U.S. State Department as an organization has never been good at explaining its work to Congress and the American people. You don’t believe me? Ask your neighbors what they know about Foreign Service Officers, and they’d probably ask which foreign country these officers serve. If you tell them, the United States of America, they’d probably ask if these officers are, you know … real Americans, being foreign and all. And those who are able to identify them as American diplomats would inevitably bring up the words, “pinstriped, cookie pushers,” “cocktails”, “elite” and most recently, of course, “voluptuous blond” and “WikiLeaks.” To others they are nothing more than visa stampers and passport shufflers. A good number of the American public who travel overseas have no reason to see them at US embassies or consulate unless they have lost their passports, marry or adopt a foreigner, lands in the foreign hospital or jail, survives a plane crash, is a victim of crime, is evacuated, or in a host of other emergency crises abroad.

It is a sad truth but the American public know diddly squat about the work diplomats do overseas.  You are in Iraq for a year, and what exactly it is you do there?  You drone on, and the public switches their teevee to American Idol.You will hear officials insisting that State is full of really smart, really talented people. But you just have to take their word for it because the officers themselves, smart as they are, are not allowed to have their own opinions or tell their stories. Even in their private capacity.

What? Like we’re afraid FSOs would wikileaked themselves in their blogs? C’mon, now, as the kids say, that is so lame.  Diplomats back from overseas are allowed to do gigs called hometown diplomat or something, but who the heck has heard of those?

21st century diplomacy, anyone? Why, of course, that seems popular these days.  In real life, this is what it means:

I saw this blog post from an FSO codenamed, Diplochick. She presents us with a new acronym — “BNA” for “blogs not allowed” and writes:

“So I’m taking down this site – or at least changing the topic of the blog forever more. Maybe i’ll write about gardening or baking…

I love blogging about our crazy new adventure, but the word about town is that Big Brother does not like it at all. Now I could rise up and rebel, but I’m chicken.”

You think Diplochick just got an earful at an A100 training session? Show of hands? Can’t blame her for being chicken.Just so sad…. you see all these wide-eyed newbies entering the service and then puff, their blogs get magic dragoned between FSI and their first posts. But being chicken, I’m sure is better than having trouble as your last name before you even get to your first post.

Still, that’s one less “live” connection between the institution and the public.

She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last. 

Telling the story of the Foreign Service is not an easy thing. You walk that fine line of either coming across as too whiny or as too bland if you’ve got nothing else to blog but brown grass in your backyard due to drought. A good thing that the FS has some talented writers who are able to straddle the fine line.  May your ranks multiply.

Check out my Love Letters to Congress and Other Notes here.

Any future SECDEF who advises POTUS to again send a big American land army to XYZ should “have his head examined”

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gives a g...Image via Wikipedia

Did not make that up. Defense Secretary Robert Gates actually said:  “[In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Well, Bob Gates … he was always a quotable one and I can’t help but like the guy.

During Secretary Rice’s tenure at the State Department, the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. launched its Dean Acheson Lecture in 2008.  It’s first ever lecture speaker was no other than — Secretary Gates. I probably was not the only one who thought it weird that a  Secretary of Defense delivered the first lecture named after a Secretary of State. In 2009, Secretary Clinton was invited to deliver the second lecture, I don’t remember it as an exceptionally memorable speech, tell you the truth. But a sitting secretary of the State Department did deliver that lecture.

Last week, Secretary Gates delivered a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point.  As we have come to expect, it was down to earth, straight-shooting and always touching and inspiring. He says, “We have never once gotten it right” on predicting the next military engagements from the Mayaguez to Iraq.  I’m struck at how his speeches often looks inward, backward, and to the future and the next generation of soldiers.  He talks of entrepreneurial leaders who are “full-spectrum in their thinking.” He says, “The military will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as you might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.” He asks how to keep experienced soldiers in the Army after troop deployments end in 2014, and how it terrifies him that junior leaders and men and women in the prime of their professional lives may get stuck in cubicles. (I wished he talked about how to bring troops home from Asia and Europe but one can’t have everything).  

Anyway, you don’t hear that kind of talk in the State Department, which has never been particularly good about talking about its past or future, only of what is now.  Not enough money is often the excuse. Not in its institutional DNA is more like it.    

Here is Secretary Gates, still my favorite ultimate insider/outsider bureaucrat in all of DC:  

[W]hen it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect.  We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.
The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.  And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars.  Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.  The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions.  But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.
I hope you take some instruction and inspiration from the career of Russell Volckmann, Class of 1934.  At the outbreak of World War II Volckmann was serving as a full-time embed in the Philippine army.  After the Japanese invasion, Volckmann fought alongside his Philippine unit, and rather than surrender, he disappeared into the jungles and raised a guerrilla army of more than 22,000 men that fought the Japanese for the next three years.  When the Japanese commander finally decided to surrender, he made the initial overtures not to General MacArthur, but to Volckmann, who went on after the war to help create the Green Berets.  My point: if you chart a different path, there’s no telling the impact you could have – on the Army, and on history.

Indeed, the Army has always needed entrepreneurial leaders with a broad perspective and a diverse range of skills.  As President Kennedy put it, speaking on these grounds half a century ago, “your military responsibilities will require a versatility and an adaptability never before required in war or in peace.”  And for an era of full spectrum conflict, when we confront security dilemmas that Kennedy called “new in intensity, ancient in origin,” America can succeed only with leaders who are themselves full-spectrum in their thinking.  The military will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as you might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.
Which brings me to the third and greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry.  How can the Army can break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future?  After the major Afghan troop deployments end in 2014, how do we keep you and those 5 or 10 years older than you in our Army?
Consider that, in theater, junior leaders are given extraordinary opportunities to be innovative, take risks, and be responsible and recognized for the consequences.  The opposite is too often true in the rear-echelon headquarters and stateside bureaucracies in which so many of our mid-level officers are warehoused.  Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging in reconciling warring tribes, they may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting power point slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever expanding array of clerical duties.  The consequences of this terrify me.
One thing I have learned from decades of leading large public organizations is that it is important to really focus on the top 20 percent of your people and, though it may be politically incorrect to say so, the bottom 20 percent as well.  The former to elevate and give more responsibility and opportunity, the latter to transition out, albeit with consideration and respect for the service they have rendered.  Failure to do this risks frustrating, demoralizing and ultimately losing the leaders we will most need for the future.

Read his entire speech here.

Global Witness: Son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator plans $380M superyacht

Via Global Witness | 28th February 2011

Global Witness has learned that Teodorin Obiang, the notorious son of Equatorial Guinea‘s long-ruling dictator, commissioned plans to build a superyacht worth $380 million – almost three times more than his energy-rich country spends annually on health and education programs combined [1]. This news comes amid an increasingly heated debate about how Middle Eastern dictators and their family members have enjoyed luxury lifestyles, as well as stashing their assets in foreign countries.

The yacht Pelorus at inlet to StockholmImage via Wikipedia
Roman Abramovich’s Pelorus, understood to be
the blueprint for the planned Obiang yacht

Teodorin (full name Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue) asked Germany’s Kusch Yachts to draw up a basic design for the secret project, which is codenamed “Zen.” Last year, Global Witness revealed details from a U.S. Justice Department investigation into Teodorin which mentioned plans to build a yacht. After discovering that it was to be built at Kusch’s shipyard in northern Germany, a Global Witness investigator visited the company and obtained key details about the project, confirming the identity of the client, and the yacht’s price tag. The vessel’s basic design was completed by Kusch in December 2009 for 250,000 Euros ($342,000) with an original delivery date set for late 2012. However, construction has not yet started.

The Obiang regime has a long track record of looting money that belongs in Equatorial Guinea’s treasury. Global Witness has previously revealed Teodorin’s profligate lifestyle in the US and elsewhere with a $35 million dollar Malibu mansion, a fleet of luxury cars and a private jet, while earning a ministerial salary of $6,799 per month [2]. It would take him some 4,600 years to pay for Project Zen on his reported official salary.

“Evidence points to corruption by Teodorin on a scale that would not be possible or attractive if countries like Germany and the U.S. were not safe havens, in terms of free passage for him and for his questionable private wealth,” said Gavin Hayman, Director of Campaigns at Global Witness. “$380m is a staggering sum – that a President’s son from such a poor country has ordered this yacht is outrageous extravagance on his part.”

Teodorin’s father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, took power in 1979 following a bloody coup and presides over a repressive government almost entirely dependent on energy revenues generated by ExxonMobil, Marathon and other multinational giants and has one of the worst human rights reputations in the world [3]. Obiang came eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world’s richest leaders with a fortune estimated at $600 million, whilst the majority of Equatorial Guinea’s people live in poverty [4]. Incredibly, since oil was discovered in the mid-1990s, poverty levels have actually worsened. Equatorial Guinea enjoys a per capita income of about $37,900, one of the highest in the world. Yet 77 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, 35 percent die before the age of 40, and 58 percent lack access to safe water [5].
Kusch employees who spoke with Global Witness’ undercover investigator said that Teodorin’s yacht will be 118.5 meters (387 feet), housing a cinema, restaurant, bar, swimming pool and a $1.3 million security system complete with floor motion sensors, photoelectric barriers and fingerprint door openers. Teodorin reportedly met a representative of Kusch at a hotel in Switzerland to discuss the design.

Its total contract price is approximately 288 million Euros, or $380 million at current exchange rates. This would make it the world’s second most expensive yacht, behind Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich‘s $1.2billion Eclipse [9].

Active links added above.  Read the whole thing here.

And the African Union just elected big daddy to be its president? Wow! Just big wow! And you’re wondering why AU has nothing but toothless condemnation for one of its former presidents?

Anyway, know what I’m thinking?  Perhaps the company contracted to build the superyacht might demand a larger down payment, security or whatever insurance you get for cases like this–just in case. Given the track record of dictators getting kicked out in a matter of days … weeks … 2012 sounds like a lifetime.