Monday, January 30, 2006

Is Secretary Rice Out to Get Me?

My View on “Transformational Diplomacy”

It’s an understatement to say that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speech on transformational diplomacy has shaken up the Foreign Service bubble. Her Georgetown University speech declared war on bloated European posts, old-school diplomacy, and those slackers who spend their entire careers in Paris and London. However, has she declared war against me?

For those who haven’t been following this story, Rice seeks to shift jobs from Europe and D.C. to areas of increasing importance to the US, namely Asia and the Middle East. She also seeks to create one-person mini-posts in cities of more than one million people. These mini-posts will expand America’s contact with the world. On the surface, it all makes sense. Why do we have more staff monitoring Oslo’s political situation than we do Addis Ababa’s? Ethiopia has an ongoing border war and human rights issues, Norway has…reindeer. It’s not that Oslo doesn’t matter, but that Addis matters more.

Some of Rice’s new initiatives are in fact old news – for as long as I’ve been around, serving at a dangerous post and proficiency in two languages were requirements for attaining the Senior Foreign Service. Advertising that as part of her transformational diplomacy initiative is like an ad saying, "Pencils! Now with ERASERS!"

However, I think Rice has made these changes as painful as possible. Foreign Service Officers and their families have had their European tours yanked out from beneath them, often with no notice. Many had already slogged through months of language training, lined up schools for their children, and prepared to move this summer. Months of training at government expense have gone down the tubes - your tax dollars at work! Also, with all these job shifts, no one bothered to add any logistics staff to any of these new “high priority” posts. So places like Beijing will get an influx of new diplomats…but no one to help find them housing or get their belongings shipped to them.

The security implications are also considerable. How do you protect one lonely diplomat in Upper Sweathog? The Post describes State employees as “now often barricaded in fortified embassies.” I’m at my second “danger post” in a row, so I’m certainly not a coward. But, pardon me for wanting a bit of concrete between me and mine, and those in the world who want us dead. As diplomats shift to scarier and scarier places, we should be increasing security, not guilt-tripping civilians into throwing themselves in the line of fire.

Overall, though, transformational diplomacy is probably a good thing for the Foreign Service. The Cold War is over, and frankly Western Europe doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. With the Russia’s rapid collapse from Communist evil empire into large-scale slapstick comedy, we don’t need a Continental buffer. And, truthfully, the Foreign Service is full of dedicated professionals who would go to Upper Sweathog in a heartbeat. The dinosaurs who view diplomacy as a Paris tea party have had their day, and it's time for a new generation.

But many of these dedicated professionals have spouses and children. Despite the noise the State Department makes about being “family-friendly”, I just don’t see how this can be good for the Foreign Service family.

Say Matt is assigned to one of these new one-person posts in Carjackistan. If this is considered a highly dangerous post, he will have to go by himself while I cool my heels in Washington for a year. (The number of unaccompanied tours has skyrocketed since 9/11, and there are now more than 700 officers serving one-year tours without their families. Take a field with an already inflated divorce rate, and the implications are obvious.)

Receiving permission to go to Carjackistan is possibly even worse. I wouldn’t be able to work at the Embassy, as Matt would be the highest-ranking person there (you can’t report to your spouse). And the Carjackistans of the world don't have plentiful jobs. Like many diplomatic spouses, I need at least part-time work to keep me sane. Even a slice of independence is better than nothing in a “trailing spouse” sort of world.

And who would our friends be? An Embassy comes with a built-in group of Americans to spend time with. The Carjackistans of the world have difficult languages, making it almost impossible to befriend the locals. I suppose we would scrounge for missionaries or aid workers to barbecue with.

Say we have a child with health problems or special educational needs. Today, families are able to take these children to Western European posts, and so the family is able to stick together. As these jobs dry up, the number of early retirements, unaccompanied tours, and strained families can only increase. This is a lifestyle that requires a great deal of sacrifice and ingenuity, but asking officers to choose between their careers and their families is going too far.

I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll throw this out for comments. Does Secretary Rice envision an overall shift where diplomats are now soldiers? Like the military, diplomats are committed to “worldwide availability.” However, unlike soldiers, diplomats have the option of saying, “Carjackistan? Whatever, I quit.” How many diplomats will express that option?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hey Baby, Wanna Park?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a magical fairyland where the laws of physics do not apply.

Right now, all of my expat readers are groaning and muttering to themselves. "Dammit, she's going to do that stupid 'Foreigners Drive Like Maniacs' article that everyone writes when they're completely out of ideas." Perhaps they're already switching over to Wil Wheaton's blog (yes, he has one).

So let me clarify. Bosnian driving is fairly straightforward. So far, the only quirk I have found is that Bosnian drivers don't signal until after they've already begun to turn, at which point, well, the secret's out. Bosnians are courteous and sane drivers. However, once Bosnians exit their cars, they go completely and absolutely random.

Bosnian parking, for example, is pretty weird. Very few parking lots have painted lines, so people just sort of squeeze in where they can. Right now, my Subaru is at a 45-degree angle, straddling a Dumpster on one side and the curb on the other. This is normal. Vehicle size is not a consideration: sometimes you will find a VW Golf taking up the equivalent of four parking spaces, while an SUV will angle itself tail-first, rear up on its hind legs, and squeeze into a three-foot-square patch of grass. Forty-five degree angles are preferred. The average Sarajevo parking lot looks like the aftermath of an apocalyptic battle between Godzilla and Mothra.

(History disclaimer: car ownership rose after the war, but many parking facilities were destroyed and building new ones has proved expensive. However, it's more fun to think of Bosnia as a place that ignores the laws of physics.)

Bosnians also save a little bit of random for their walking. Crosswalks are ignored, and they still zigzag as they go down the sidewalk. As you drive, you must wait for the pedestrian light to change to "Don't Walk", as that is the exact moment when pedestrians will flood the street. (History disclaimer: during the war, Sarajevans learned to walk in zigzags and avoid crosswalks to dodge snipers.)

But far and away the weirdest thing about Bosnia is its dumpsters. A Bosnian dumpster is lightweight, has wheels, and is in no way anchored to the ground. When the wind is high, they will occasionally make a jailbreak and skitter across the roadway. I've seen this happen, and it's really funny when it's from a distance. However, when the Dumpster of Death headed my way one time, I just about died of shock. (Coming soon on Fox: When Dumpsters Attack!)

I must say that Bosnia's randomness is sort of endearing. The potential of Death by Dumpster makes me feel like I'm roaming the African plains every time I get in my car, rather than going to the store for a liter of milk. And it's liberating to park anywhere and any way you want, even without diplomatic license plates. Bosnia is egalitarian in that way - illegal parking has been brought to the masses!

My Fame Spreads: This here blog was mentioned in the January 2006 issue of Foreign Service Journal. Now all I need is a fan club, a box of Girl Scout Cookies, and a table saw, and my plans for world domination are complete!