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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Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy isn’t about being nice to people’

KimYuri Kim never thought this would happen. It was a cold February day in 2008, and she was sitting in North Korea’s largest concert hall, listening to a performance by the New York Philharmonic — not far from where she was born in South Korea.

A political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kim had no apparent reason to be accompanying the renowned American orchestra to the world’s most isolated country, which would have been more suitable for a public diplomacy officer. But it was precisely her task on that unprecedented trip.

She was an aide to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, who was leading high-stakes talks with Pyongyang aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The concert tour was a “carrot,” which Washington hoped — though it didn’t admit publicly — would improve the North’s cooperation in the tough talks. Kim had actually negotiated the visit with the communist government, traveling to Pyongyang on two previous occasions with the philharmonic’s leadership.

“They didn’t want to send Chris, because that would have been too high level, so they sent me,” she said. “I helped develop the program and negotiate the terms of the visit…”

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Mapping out path in Foreign Service

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, Philip Reeker, former ambassador to Macedonia and incoming consul-general in Milan, talks about the wide variety of tasks professional diplomats perform, and creating a successful Foreign Service career.

U.S. diplomats’ influence at home

On this week’s episode of Conversations with Nicholas Kralev, we discuss the role career diplomats play in making U.S. foreign policy, and why presidents tend to distrust the Foreign Service, with James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Avis Bohlen, former assistant secretary of state for arms control.

Running the world’s largest embassy

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Stephen Beecroft, talks about the challenges for U.S. diplomacy in the country amid continuing violence and political dysfunction.

Where are my ex-secretaries of state?

I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.

I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.

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.

Western carriers return to Iraq

Iraq may not be among Western travelers’ most desired destinations quite yet, but some of the world’s leading airlines have decided that flying to the war-ravaged country can be profitable, so they are returning there after a 20-year absence.

Although two of Europe’s major carriers — Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines — have been serving Iraq since 2008, their re-entry in that market was viewed as only moderately significant at the time, and none of their peers followed suit. Austrian chose Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, which was never nearly as violent as the rest of the country…

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…

Powell: ‘I am on the president’s agenda’

Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there is no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even in the administration he serves.

They accuse him of leading a government agency that not only opposes President Bush’s foreign policy, but also tries to undermine it. His response came out in a single well-known barnyard expletive. Then, to emphasize the point, he added: “That’s quotable.”

“I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, [but] who are not,” Mr. Powell continued, sitting in his small inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department…