Bad Memories of a Government Shutdown
It looks like we will avoid a government shutdown tomorrow, but one still hangs over us before the end of the year.
The 1990s government shutdown broke faith with the American people, and particularly with me as a government employee, and I have not forgiven the Republicans for bringing it on, although the Democrats were not guiltless. Nevertheless, as a result of the shutdown, I am disposed never again to vote for a Republican, unless he is clearly the best qualified of the candidates in any election, local or nation.
As a Foreign Service officer, I was sent to the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, to administer a science cooperation agreement, the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, that was signed before I arrived, but that was to run for a total of five years, which would have been for four years after I arrived for my three year assignment in Warsaw. It should have spanned my whole tour of duty. When I arrived the fund for the agreement, which was financed by matching grants from the US and Poland, had about $4 million in the bank. My predecessor had spent very little of it on cooperative projects. Most of the money that had been spent had gone for meetings of administrators in the US and Warsaw. I undertook to spend almost all of the money we had in the bank by funding projects, which we did.
After we had funded our first round of projects, the Republicans cut off the next year’s funding. Although there was an international agreement obligating both sides to contribute for five years, the US invoked an escape clause that had been inserted for the Poles, in case they ran into a financial crisis following the fall of the Communist government there. It said that either side could fail to fund the agreement if it was impossible. The US declared that it did not have the money to fund the agreement, which had been about $2 million in previous years. Clearly the US government had $2 million that it could have contributed, but the Republicans would not.
The Polish equivalent of an assistant secretary of State who was in charge of all Western Hemisphere affairs called me in periodically to berate me, on behalf of the US government for not honestly fulfilling the terms of a promise we had made in writing to the Polish government. As someone who was brought up to be honest and pay his bills, I was embarrassed and humiliated to be the recipient of these demarches. I told him that if he really wanted to change things, he should raise the matter with the Ambassador, or have his Ambassador in Washington raise it with the Secretary of State, but at that time, Poland main foreign policy objective was membership in NATO. Poland was not yet a member, and was unwilling to do anything that might jeopardize its chances of becoming a member. So, he complained to me, but would not raise the issue with higher officials, whom he needed to support his NATO application. While I understood that I was not personally responsible, I was ashamed of my country, and I can still remember squirming in his office while he accused the US of dishonesty. I inwardly agreed with him, but never admitted it to him or to anyone else in Poland. I adhered to the instructions I received from Washington.
Meanwhile, I was working on another project funding environmental projects in Poland. An agreement on Polish debt said that instead of paying part of the debt it owed to the US, the Poland could pay a small part to fund environmental projects in Poland. I was the US representative and sponsor of a Polish environmental NGO called the Ekofundusz, or Ecofund. This was a small group of about 20 people who identified, funded and administered environmental projects around Poland. The leaders were former senior Polish environmental officials, including a former Minister of Environment, who were on the outs because they had supported Solidarity’s overthrow of the Communist government. After the initial change, many of the old Communists were back in government while I was there, including the current Minister of Environment. The Ecofund served as sort of a Brookings Institution or American Enterprise Institute, giving a job and an opportunity to keep working on their issues to these anti-Communist leaders while they were out of power.
It had taken me much of my first two years in Poland to get the legal and financial provisions in place for the Ecofund to stand on its own. About the time that the Congress was refusing to fund the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, I got the pieces in place to authorize the Polish treasury to pay part of its US debt to the Ecofund, setting up the Ecofund for ten or more years of funding.
Because there was no more money for the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, and the Ecofund was set up to get its future funding from the Polish government, the Ambassador said that he was going to recommend abolishing my position. I was disappointed, because in addition to working on science and environment funding, I also worked on nuclear non-proliferation issues, but because of the division of labor in the embassy, and because my predecessor had not been interested in these issues, non-proliferation issues usually went automatically to the political section. Sometimes I did not even get the cables from Washington about those issues. For some reason, the one issue that automatically came to me was the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Because of this, I formed a relationship with the Polish special ambassador for non-proliferation issues, Ambassador Strulak. He became the rapporteur for the five year review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty while I was in Poland.
Another embarrassing moment involved Ambassador Strulak. He often visited the US and met with many American non-proliferation officials. Although I had spent many of my Washington assignments dealing with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it was an issue that seldom came to my attention at the embassy in Warsaw, because the cables and the action automatically went to the political section. On one of my visits to Amb. Strulak to talk about Nuclear Supplier Group issues, he told me that during his last visit to Washington, he had been inquiring about the MTCR. He told me that Poland wanted to join, but that the US had blocked their membership. He said he had asked the experts in Washington who understood the issue, and my name frequently came up. It was the first I had heard about the matter. When I inquired about it after Amb. Strulak had told me about it, it turned out that President Clinton had personally decided to blackball Poland. I understood the reason. The MTCR had initially been set up as a somewhat informal arrangement among friendly nations, thus the administrative structure was relatively relaxed. But it had begun to grow by leaps and bounds, making the informal structure difficult to work with. Thus, the US wanted to put a more structured leadership in place before expanding the MTCR even further. Although I understood, I was deeply disappointed that what was to some extent my baby had offended Poland while I was in Poland, and I had been completely cut out of the discussion.
While I was stewing because my job would be eliminated with the end of the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund, and I was being cut out of non-proliferation policy issues, I got a call from Washington asking if I would be willing to go to Rome to take on the Science Office there in a few weeks. Rome was about to take on the rotating presidency of the European Union, and the current science officer in Rome was leaving or had already left. I agreed to go, rather than just sort of hang around in Warsaw, but in retrospect, I should have looked further into the offer, which at the time seemed too good to be true. I later found out that the man I was replacing was a political appointee, a “schedule-C” who had been with the Ambassador to Italy Bartholomew for the maximum allowed eight years, and the State Department had not allowed him to convert over to become a career Foreign Service officer. Thus, he had been forced to leave, and when I arrived in Rome, I discovered that various people in the embassy, probably notably including the Ambassador, were not happy about it. But I didn’t know that while I was in Warsaw.
Rome wanted me to come right away, but the first annual meeting of the Ecofund under their arrangement with the Polish treasury was about to take place in a few weeks. I said that I could not leave until after the meeting, because I wanted to make sure that everything was in place for the Ecofund’s future existence. It turned out that the date I was to leave was exactly the date of the government shutdown. Preparing to move to Rome, my wife and I had packed everything. Big things had been shipped to Rome, and our car was packed with clothes and two dogs, planning to drive to Rome as soon as the embassy closed for the day. In the afternoon I was saying my farewells, and I was in the Defense Attaché’s office, when I got a call from my assistant who said I had an urgent call from Rome. When I came down to take it, the caller said that I should not leave Rome because the government had been shut down. After all the disappointments I had been through, it was the last straw. I usually tend to follow orders, but this seemed too much. My wife and I had no place to live in Warsaw; we had already moved out of our house. We had already shipped our belongings to Rome. It seemed to me that the US government had abandoned its troops in the field. Its word was no good, either in promises to foreign governments or to its own Foreign Service officers.
The only comparison I can come up with goes back to my days in the Army in Vietnam. My artillery battery was stationed at Fire Base Barbara on a mountaintop near the Laotian border just a few miles south of the DMZ with North Korea. We received an intelligence report that enemy troops were massing at the bottom of our mountain and were about to attack. Our main defense was a group of old air defense artillery duster guns, twin 40-mm cannons that had been used against planes, but now were used against troops on the ground. Because the duster crews were often stationed in dangerous places, they had a reputation for not being too disciplined and not playing by the Army rules. We got a call from out battalion headquarters saying they heard that our dusters were low on gas, and we should not lend them any because it was too hard for our battalion to supply us out on the Laotian border. We were not going to keep the dusters from firing at the enemy just because our battalion did not want to resupply us. But I was not happy that headquarters apparently thought it was better for us to die to save gas than for them to have to resupply us a week or two early. There is a history of expendable troops in war, and if you have to sacrifice your life, so be it, but it you don’t HAVE to sacrifice your life, you shouldn’t do it just to save the US government a few bucks. The fact that my life was not worth a 55 gallon drum of gasoline, or a continuing resolution to keep the government open until a long-term agreement could be reached, was too much.
It turned out that the deputy chief of mission, the embassy number two, was an old friend from my assignment in Brazil. He said to go ahead and leave Warsaw and come to Rome, and he would work out the bureaucratic details. So we went, but I had pretty much lost faith in the US government for not keeping its word, and in the Republican Party in particular for abandoning me in the field. I was mad with the government when I left Rome for trying to strand me in Warsaw, and apparently Rome was mad with the government for firing my predecessor in Rome and sending me instead. It did not make for a happy assignment. I decided after a while that I would stay for as long as Rome held the presidency of the EU, but then I would retire from the Foreign Service. I did not feel welcome in Rome, and I had lost respect for the American Government. It was sad for me as a Vietnam veteran and a Foreign Service officer with more than twenty years of experience.
In any case, as the US faces the potential of another government shutdown, whether now or in December, it brings back a lot of bad memories, and a huge contempt for the Republican Party. It claims to be the party for a strong American defense, but I see it as the party that abandoned me in the field. I keep trying to remind myself that as much as I dislike the party, there may be some good individuals in it, but I have a hard time finding any.