Why I Left the Foreign Service I
As I complain about how things are going in the US, I think that I could have stayed in the State Department Foreign Service, but instead I retired almost 15 years ago. Could I have made a positive difference if I had stayed in? Or would I have continually been implementing policies that I disagreed with? I came down on the latter side. I thought I would write down why I did so, and consider whether, about 15 years later, it was the right or wrong thing.
Brazil Space Program. One of the first serious things that went wrong was years before I retired, while I was serving as the science officer in Brasilia in the 1980s. NASA was a great asset for the US in relations with other courntries. Because I was the embassy’s representative for NASA, I had good relations with the Brazilian space agency, INPE. INPE wanted to build some satellites and ground stations to monitor them with, to survey the Amazon. The US bidder on the ground stations, Scientific Atlanta, for some reason failed to get its bid in on time and lost to a Japanese company. I persuaded INPE to reopen the bidding, and as a result, Scientific Atlanta won. Then the Defense Department, I think the office of Steve Hadley (who went on to be NSC chief), denied the export license for the ground stations. My friends at INPE were livid and my good relationship ended. I think Hadley was a Richard Perle acolyte in the Pentagon, and Perle hated Brazil.
Polish Science Fund. In the 1990s I went to Poland as embassy Science Counselor, where my main job was to oversee science cooperation beteen the US and Poland under a joint fund called the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund which was to continue for five years. After about two years, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich were elected, and cut off funding for the cooperation under a clause in the agreement allowing either side not to fund it if funding was impossible. This was clearly inserted into the agreement for Poland, which faced many financial challenges as it emerged from Communism, but the US used the clause instead. For the rest of my tour, I was periodically called into the Polish Foreign Minsitry by a senior official and berated for the US not fulfilling its commitment. Meanwhile, Polish scientsts who had lost most of the government funding also lost what would have been an American lifeline, a sort of anti-Marshall Plan. As an added insult, the Ambassador eliminated my science office in the embassy, because there was no more joint program to oversee.
Government Shutdown. Meanwhile, the State Department asked me if I would like to go to Rome, because the Science Counselor there had been fired for some other budgetary reason. I agreed, but on the day I was leaving Warsaw with the car packed, Embassy Rome called and said don’t leave because the government shutdown meant there was no money for travel. However, my wife and I then had no place to live. The house the embassy had rented for us was empty and was being returned to the owner. The idea that the US government would put us out on the streets of Warsaw was so abhorrent to me that it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as continuing to work for the US. I was usually the good soldier, doing as I was ordered, but this time I was so mad that I called Rome to see if I could get their order reversed. I did, and we started driving to Rome, but for me the damage was done. The US government had said, “Hey, you’re expendible. You and your wife can die freezing on the streets of Warsaw. We don’t care.”
Vietnam War. It reminded me of the day I arrived in Vietnam, and the Army assigned me to Dong Ha on the DMZ, so close to North Vietnam that the dot on the map for Dong Ha projected into North Vietnam. I went where the Army told me to go, but for the State Department to do that to me and my wife was, I thought, beyond the pale. There have been a lot of Foreign Service officers assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan (without spouses), but hopefully, the State Department didn’t drop them off in some God forsaken village and say, “Hey, we can’t afford to come back for you. You will have to walk back. Try to avoid the Taliban.” When I was at an artillery firebase near the Laotian border, Firebase Barbara, we had no American infantry support because we were turning over the war to the Vietnamese. We had two American “dusters” assigned to protect us, old anti-aircraft guns that fired 40 mm rounds with every round a tracer, firepower that tended to inspire some awe in the North Vietnamese. One night when there was a alert that we might be attacked because of activity spotted by an intelligence fly-over, our battalion headquarters said, “Don’t give any gasoline to the dusters. Their supply people are lazy and incompetent. We don’t want to help them out.” Of course the alternative was to have the dusters not shoot to protect us. We gave the dusters the gas they needed. They blew away several square kilometers at the base of the mountain, and we were not attacked. Did the penny pinchers in Washington really want us to die? Probably not, but did they really care? Probably not. Did they really care about us in Warsaw? Probably not.
When we got to Rome, things did not get any better for me from a policy perspective. More on this later, Some topics:
Rome: Fisheries. Constitutional responsibilities and Ambassador’s letter.
Rome: Tethered Satellite. Firing of space agency chief.
Rome: Help on North Korean Nuclear Proliferation.
Rome: Denial of Visas to Children. Helms-Burton and “Winds of War.”