My Foreign Service career was not going well in Rome. The embassy did not want me there. There was a civil service employee in the State Department in Washington whom they wanted for the job. I’m not sure why, but I think maybe the Ambassador or my predecessor who was forced to leave by the State Department, had picked him out. The Ambassador wanted him and my boss the Economic Minister wanted to please the Ambassador by getting him. Or maybe the Economic Minister was the one who wanted him.
When the State Department told my predecessor in Rome that he had to leave because he had served the maximum eight years as a Schedule C political appointee, I think the Embassy tried to get the civil service employee to replace him, but the Foreign Service balked, because it was a Foreign Service job which should be filled by a Foreign Service officer. Thus, I got a call in Warsaw from the State Department personnel office, asking if I would be willing to move to Rome and take the job.
My job was not going well in Warsaw. I had been assigned there primarily to oversee a joint science cooperation program, named after Madam Curie, the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund. The US and Poland had signed an agreement to fund the program for five years, starting the year before I arrived. The first year it was funded with $2 million from each side, and received the same amount the second year, the first year I was in Poland. Bill Clinton was President, but after the second year, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took over Congress and refused to fund future years, despite the agreement between the US and Polish governments. I still remember my last meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the Polish Foreign Ministry who was responsible for the entire Western Hemisphere, and who upbraided me as the representative of the United States for dishonestly failing to fulfill formal promises that we had made. I was ashamed of my country and myself.
In addition, one of my policy responsibilities in the Embassy was the environment. As part of the USAID program to assist Poland after the fall of Communism, the US undertook a number of environmental projects to help clean up Poland. One was to build a scrubber on an old coal-fired plant generating electricity for the Krakow area. The pollution had been so bad under the Communists that rain was turning into sulfuric acid and eating away some of the old statues and buildings in Krakow. USAID had a big dedication for the scrubber when it was completed; it was supposed to remove most of the sulfur from the smokestack emissions. After a while, one of my Polish contacts came to me and said the scrubber was not working. I didn’t really want to know that, because I did not want to interfere with the AID mission’s programs, but I felt like I had to look into it. When I did, it turned out that he was right. The scrubber design worked fine in the United States with the limestone found in the US, but it did not work with Polish limestone, which was a poorer quality. It would only work if limestone were imported from another country, which was logistically and financially impossible. To make matters worse, my contact had me visit another power plant with a scrubber build by the Netherlands, but using General Electric technology. It worked well.
I was reaching the end of the second year of my three-year tour in Poland. The Ambassador had said that since the cooperation program had been cancelled by Congress, the embassy did not need a science counselor; so, I would not be replaced, but I could stay on for the third year. About that time, the personnel office in Washington called and asked if I would be willing to go to Rome. That sounded like a great job, while the one in Poland was self-destructing; so, I said yes.
Rome wanted me to come right away, but I had one good thing going in Warsaw. As part of the US assistance program for Poland after the fall of Communism, we (my backstop in Washington and I) got the US Treasury to agree to forgive $10 million of US debt, if the Poles would agree to use it for environmental purposes. I worked with a Polish NGO, the Ekofundusz (Ecofund), to get this money for them to use. I wanted to attend the first meeting of the Ecofund after they got the money to make sure that everything was in order. The reason they wanted me in Rome so quickly was that Italy was about the assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, with meant an increase in work for the embassy in Rome, because it had to deal with Italians on all EU matters as well as on all bilateral Italian matters, more or less doubling the workload. It worked out that the annual meeting of the Ecofund was a week or two before Italy assumed the EU presidency, which gave me the opportunity to do both things.
The Ecofund meeting went smoothly, but it turned out that day I was planning to leave for Rome was the day Newt Gingrich shut the government down. All of our household effects had been packed; the car was packed with two dogs and suitcases for the drive to Rome ready to leave at 5:00, when Rome called and said, “Don’t come.” It meant I had no job, no place to live, no idea what to do next. It turned out that in Rome the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM, deputy to the Ambassador) was someone I knew from a previous assignment. He said to go ahead an leave for Rome; he would work something out.
When we arrived in Rome, everything was pretty much a mess, because the embassy was closed except for a skeleton staff. I turned out that I was part of that skeleton staff, because that was the only way my travel had been approved. Of course I knew nothing about the embassy or my new job. To make matters worse, the Administrative Minister, the person responsible for running the day-to-day activities of the embassy, was a woman literally dying of cancer. As she was a long time Foreign service officer, the State Department had agreed to let her stay in Rome as long as she could. This meant, however, that she was hardly working and was very seldom in the embassy. During the government shutdown, all of her assistants were working their little fiefdoms — housing, personnel, finance, etc. — but without supervision.
The first sign, other than the government shutdown, that something was wrong, was that the embassy had no housing for my wife and me. My predecessor had obviously lived somewhere, but the embassy would not tell me anything about it. My impression was that because he had been a political appointee and a confidant of the Ambassador, he had had a much nicer apartment than he would have ordinarily received for his position, and they were not willing to let me have it. There as a rumor that there was one empty apartment the day we arrived, but that it had been given to a DEA agent who had arrived a few hours earlier than we did. I thought this was strange because the State Department runs the administration of the embassy, even for other agencies like DEA. Thus, I thought normally State Department officers would have assigned the empty apartment to a fellow FSO and let the DEA wait for an apartment. I was surprised to see the State Department give precedence to a DEA officer over a fellow State Department officer. We ended up in a temporary apartment for months as the embassy said it could find nothing available for us on the Roman rental market.
In addition, after my predecessor left, the office had been remodeled. The embassy is an old palace where every room opens on to a central hall, but because of embassy security, some of the doors had to be locked. As a result, there was no way to get to my assistant’s office except by going through my office. I suppose I could have switched offices with her, but it seemed silly and petty to do so. Nevertheless, it bothered me that it looked like I was her receptionist when she had visitors.
Just about the day I arrived, my office was being sued in New York by four environmental organizations for failing to force Italy to comply with UN resolutions regarding fishing for swordfish in the Mediterranean. The Italians often used long driftnets which had been outlawed. The environmental organizations won the case, with the result that a Federal District Judge in New York had ultimate responsibility for approving any actions taken by my office with regard to fisheries to assure that they complied with UN regulations. In theory he would run every action by my office by the environmental organizations for their approval. In practice this usually meant that they would ask the Greenpeace office in Rome for its approval.
Despite the fact that I had worked on scientific and environmental issues for years at the State Department, I had never worked on fisheries issues before. Fisheries had its own bureaucracy, laws and regulations which were unfamiliar to me. My assistant had worked on fisheries issues in previous jobs, and had been working on the issue since she had arrived in Rome. I was happy to leave the issue to her, although it was a big part of the office’s responsibilities.
We had a big bilateral meeting in Rome with a delegation of 10 or 20 officers from Washington meeting in Rome with their Italian counterparts. My assistant and her Italian counterpart worked out a plan, which was ratified by the meeting. In a few months, however, the issue blew up again. Most of the fishermen lived in Sicily and resented the new restrictions under which they were supposed to work. They hired Mafia assassins who threatened to kill the Italian officials who were supposed to enforce the agreement, and they organized big protests in downtown Rome that tied up traffic for miles. When this blew up, my assistant became very sick. The Agriculture Minister called in the Ambassador because he was afraid some of his officials were going to be killed by the Mafia, and said we had to relax the restrictions. My assistant could not brief the Ambassador or work on a solution, which fell to me. The Ambassador was very unhappy about being called in by the Minister. My main job was to tell the Ambassador that he could not agree to anything without first getting the approval of the judge in New York, which further angered him, since he felt that as the Ambassador he should have been able to speak for the US, which would have been true except for the lawsuit. One of my last acts in Rome was to work out a compromise that was accepted, although I don’t know long it lasted after I left. I left with the Ambassador mad at me, although the fisheries problem had been going on for years before I arrived in Rome, and I had had no role in the lawsuit. However, I had agreed to the original solution worked out at the big bilateral meeting after I arrived, which had led to the Mafia threats.
While I was in Rome, the Italians flew a joint mission on the Space Shuttle to test a tethered satellite which was released on a wire from the Shuttle while it was in orbit and then was supposed to be reeled back in so that it could be used again. While the satellite was deployed, the wire broke, and the satellite drifted off into space. I had worked with NASA on space issues in other jobs before, and was much more familiar with these issues than fisheries. In general NASA was a great selling point for the US. Everybody loved NASA and the Shuttle and wanted to work with us. Thus, this mission was unusual because it appeared to have failed, although part of the reason for it was to experiment with the method. The Shuttle crew came to Rome to brief Italians scientists on the mission, but unlike most NASA visits, this one was sort of an apology tour. It was awkward for me, the Shuttle crew, and my Italian contacts.
In a different space matter, the US had agreed to launch a communications satellite for the Italians. They had a big cocktail party timed to coincide with the launch. At the party, one of the Italian telecommunications officials came up to me and said something like, “Your government must really hate me.” I was taken aback and asked him why he thought that. He said that he had wanted to give his daughter a trip to Disney World, but that the US had denied her a visa to travel to the US. I said I would look into it. When I did, I found that the Italian communications ministry has some connection with the Cuban telecommunications ministry and because of that the Helms-Burton Act prohibited that official or any members of his family from traveling to the US.
Sometime in the past, I had read Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” In that story, the Jewish heroine who was living in Rome during World War II wanted to travel to Israel, but the Nazis in Rome would not give her child an exit visa, which effectively prevented her from leaving. I found the parallels uncomfortable and disturbing, but it was illegal to give the daughter a visa.
As the science officer in Rome, I handled nuclear non-proliferation matters. Thus, I was the responsible officer when the US was unable to meet its obligations to North Korea under the 1995 Agreed Framework that set up the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to oversee North Korea’s agreement to end its nuclear weapons program in return for two light water nuclear power reactors that would not produce bomb grade nuclear materials. While I was in Rome, the Republican Congress refused to fund the US payments for its part of the agreement. As a result, I had to go hat in hand to ask Italy, as the Presidency of the European Union, if it would fund the money the the US Congress refused to provide. This was too much like my experience in Poland when the US Congress refused to fund the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund despite a formal agreement to do so. In addition , the failure to fund KEDO would give North Korea an excuse not to abide by the agreement and to revert to its production of nuclear weapons. I was unhappy to once again be part of an American failure to meet its international commitments.
I had joined the Foreign Service to see how the government worked. After college, I had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where I served in an artillery battery in the A Sau Valley, on the Laotian border, and on the DMZ. I came home to be classified as a baby-killing war criminal, simply because I had not tried to get out of the draft. I wanted to see what had plucked me out of my comfortable life and sent me into combat in Vietnam. Once in the Foreign Service I wanted to do good — be part of the solution and not part of the problem. My last two assignments, in Warsaw and Rome, had not made me feel part of the solution. So, I decided to retire, since I was eligible to do so.
When I decided to retire and the embassy had to replace me, it became obvious that they did not want me to be replaced by a Foreign Service officer. The embassy had identified a Civil Service officer at the State Department whom it wanted in my job. Apparently, the embassy had tried to get him to replace my predecessor, but the State Department had tried to keep the Foreign Service position filled by a Foreign Service officer. That was why I had gotten that unexpected call in Warsaw asking if I would be willing to go to Rome. The State Department was trying to force Rome to fill the position with a Foreign Service officer. Apparently that was why Rome did not welcome me and resisted providing me with an apartment and in general making my assignment there difficult.
The odd thing was that the person they wanted in my position worked in the State Department office that was supposed to support and backstop science officers in the field. In my Washington assignment before Warsaw, I had worked on environmental issues in an office across the hall from his office. It appeared that the office that was supposed to have my back had actually stabbed me in the back. Because I was retiring outside of the normal summer assignment cycle the embassy was able to manipulate the system to get the man they wanted. I was so disgusted with the whole system that I did not protest. On the day before I was actually set to leave Rome and return home, the State Department retirement office informed me that they had miscalculated my retirement pension and that I would receive less than they had promised when I was negotiating my retirement. That was like a last insult from an organization that for some reason seemed to have turned against me.
Unfortunately, my service in the Army in Vietnam and my twenty-five years in the Foreign Service left a bad taste in my mouth about the integrity and decency of the United States government. I felt that I had served my country patriotically but had been abused because of it. I guess I think (to paraphrase Churchill) that the US is the worst of countries, except for all other countries. I try to love it, but I look at it with a jaundiced eye.