Diplomats in the trenches: From ‘observing and reporting’ to ‘advocacy and lobbying’

Lindwall1Working saved David Lindwall’s life — literally. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti in January 2010, when a catastrophic earthquake flattened his house. He felt very lucky to be in the quake-resistant embassy building when the earth shook.

His colleague Victoria DeLong, however, wasn’t that lucky — she was killed when her house collapsed. Overall, hundreds of thousands of people and a quarter-million buildings perished. DeLong, who was the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, spent 27 of her 57 years in the Foreign Service.

For American diplomats serving abroad, natural disasters, along with terrorist attacks, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies and even murder, are part of their way of life. Yet many, including Lindwall, are drawn to dangerous postings more often than to plush ones. After Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Lindwall went to Iraq. He cut short his next assignment as consul-general in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to serve in Afghanistan, where he is currently the deputy chief of mission.

“Even though not every officer has had such experiences, dealing with disasters is very much a part of the Foreign Service life,” Lindwall said. “After my house in Haiti collapsed, I slept with the Marines that first night. The second night, the Marines brought a cod, a pillow and a blanket into my office. I slept there for about six weeks…”
 
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Is U.S.-India diplomatic strain over?

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, talks about the complex U.S.-India relationship, and about attitudes toward Russia in Central Asia.

Flying with Obama and earning miles

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.

I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.

So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.

Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.

The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.

What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.

Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.

Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.

The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”

I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.

I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.

Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.

But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.

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UAE mixes aviation and foreign policy

As U.S. and other NATO troops continue to die in Afghanistan, one of the main questions being asked in foreign policy circles is this: How committed are Arab governments to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban? The United Arab Emirates showed last week that fighting violent extremism is less important than its commercial airlines’ well-being.

Most governments around the world help their carriers in various ways, not only out of national pride, but because a strong airline has a positive impact on a country’s economy. One of the missions of every U.S. embassy is to promote trade and commerce that benefit American companies. That has become an organic part of modern diplomacy.

Cuts to State Dept. budget ignite interparty row

A dispute over the State Department budget has pitted the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, against a fellow Democrat and head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and the Obama administration.

Mr. Conrad led an effort to slash President Obama’s $58 billion international affairs request for 2011 by $4 billion, a cut his committee approved last week. Despite protests from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and all her living predecessors, the senator stood his ground on Wednesday.

Military lounges are airport oases

If you are in the military, you have probably visited the special lounges at the airports close to your base on your way to or from deployment. But did you know that you can use dozens of such lounges across the country while on a personal trip with your family?

Those so-called airport centers are operated by the United Services Organization (USO), a private, nonprofit group whose mission is “to support the troops by providing morale, welfare and recreation-type services to our men and women in uniform.” I’ve written about airline business lounges before, and like most frequent fliers, I can hardly imagine travel without the oasis they provide in crowded terminals. I had no idea, however, that there were military lounges…

Officials ordered back to coach

Washington is a government town, and most of its travel business is related to the many federal agencies here in one way or another. For those of us living in the nation’s capital, the most visible proof of that are big national events, such as a presidential inauguration, along with the numerous visits of foreign leaders that often result in street closures.

The travelers less visible to Washingtonians are U.S. officials traveling across the country and around the world on official business, which means spending taxpayers’ money. The Bush administration decided about six years ago to allow business class airfare for federal employees whose one-way journey lasts 14 hours or more…