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Government Funding Deja Vu

The sequester episode brings to mind very bad memories of my government service.  I basically quit the Foreign Service because of the government’s refusal to fund things I thought it should have funded in the turmoil around the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996.

In the early years of the Clinton administration, before Newt Gingrich and the Republicans came to power in 1994, two years into the Clinton administration, the US had signed a agreement to provide funding for joint science projects between the US and Poland and other former eastern bloc countries for five years.  When I arrived in Warsaw, the US had already provided $2 million funding for one year, and it provided the same amount for the second year, which was the first year of my assignment in Poland.  But Congress refused to provide funding for what would have been the third year of the program.

A fairly senior Polish diplomat repeated called me into the Foreign Ministry to berate me on behalf of the United States for failing to live up to its obligations.  I told him that if wanted results, he should call in the Ambassador rather than me, but at that time Poland was not yet a member of NATO, much less of the EU, and it did not want to do anything that would damage its efforts to join those organizations.  So, he continued to tell me how upset Poland was at the US default.  Having been raised in the South with a heavy dose of lecturing on the importance of honesty, honor, integrity, etc., the fact that I was the representative of a country that failed to live up to those standards hurt me deeply.

About six months or so after the US decision to abrogate the cooperation agreement, the Ambassador decided that the embassy had no need of a science officer, because there was little scientific activity outside of the cooperation agreement.  He said that I could finish my tour, but I would not be replaced when I left.  A little while after that, the State Department in Washington asked if I would be willing to transfer from Warsaw to Rome to take the science job at the embassy there.  I agreed and was scheduled to leave in a few weeks.

It turned out that the day of my departure from Warsaw to Rome was the day the United States Government shut down, November 14, 1995, according to Wikipedia.   My wife and I had moved everything out of our government housing in Warsaw.  Most of our things had been shipped to Rome, but we had a car full  of clothes and two dogs that we planned to drive to Rome.  At about 4:00 pm, while I was saying farewell to some friends in the embassy, Rome called and said not to come because I had been furloughed and there was no funding for travel.  However, we had nowhere to live in Warsaw and everything we owned was either in transit or in the trunk of the car.

Unfortunately, this reminded me of an experience in the Army during the Vietnam War.  My artillery battery was stationed on a mountaintop at a base called Firebase Barbara, west of Quang Tri, near the Laotian border, where we were shelling the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Vietnamization had started; so, we had no American infantry to defend us.  Instead we had two “dusters,” old anti-aircraft weapons systems that shot 40 mm rounds like a machine gun.  The duster crews were always stationed in isolated, dangerous places and had a reputation of having gone native and not being very professional.  One night we got an intelligence report that enemy troops were massing at the base of our mountain, apparently planning to attack us.  I got a radio call from our headquarters telling us not to give the dusters any gasoline, because they were famous for not having any, and it was too hard to get it out to us.  However, it looked like if the dusters could not shoot, we were all going to die.  We made sure the dusters had gas; they blew away the area at the base of the mountain where the enemy was supposed to be assembling, and the attack never materialized.

But that’s how it struck me — that the US Government would rather that my wife and I freeze to death in Poland than provide us shelter.  A government that sends troops into the field and then fails to provide them with ammunition and other necessities is a pretty worthless government, and that’s what I thought of our government.  We weren’t going to die, but for all the government cared, we could have.  Unfortunately, a similar attitude led to the deaths of the American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, a few months ago.

I tended to be just a soldier in the Foreign Service.  I was not an outstanding diplomat.  The assignment in Rome was a plum, but it had fallen into my lap.  Most people who go to nice places lobby hard for the assignment.  I didn’t know much of anything about the personnel in Rome.  I was so mad that this time, rather than be the good soldier and camp out in some hotel in Warsaw, I called Rome to complain about being left on the street.  It turned out that the DCM, the deputy ambassador, was someone I knew from a previous assignment in Brazil.  He said to go ahead and travel to Rome and they would figure out the paperwork somehow.  I did, but that basically ended my desire to serve the US government.  I would not serve a government that abandons its troops in the field.

A diplomat is many things: a journalist reporting on the country where you are assigned, a mailman carrying messages from our government to theirs, but also a salesman, both for American products and for the American way of life.  When the government I was representing fell to some mean-spirited, dictatorial, third-world standard, I didn’t want to represent it anymore.

I went to Rome.  One reason they wanted me there was that Italy was assuming the presidency of the European Union, which meant that most of the diplomats in the embassy did double duty, they had to deal with the Italian government on the usual bilateral issues, but also on European Union issues.  The presidency lasts for six months.  I stayed for six months to take care of the extra work, but then retired from the Foreign Service and left.

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