An Ordinary Job in an Extraordinary Place

A couple of years ago my son Espen  came for a take your child to work day.  I still have the letter he wrote about his experience.  He was bored because I didn’t do anything interesting that he could watch.  He concluded correctly that I was in the persuasion business and it is not interesting watching persuasion being made.

Diplomacy is like that.  You meet interesting people and wrestle with interesting ideas, which is why I like the work, but you really do not DO very much interesting stuff.  I guess that is why they do not make television dramas, or even comedies, about diplomats and when we do appear we are usually slick sweet talkers.  That characterization is unfair, but I can well understand if that is the way others see us.  Much of the time we are transmitting messages and if we do succeed in changing minds, they will look no different and it may well be best for all involved if nobody acknowledges that a change occurred or why.

I thought working in Iraq might be different, but it isn’t.  I spent my career in public diplomacy.  Since first post in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I have managed staff, run programs, met people, written reports and been generally in the persuasion business.  In Iraq I do the same things.  Being a PRT leader is not substantially different from working as a public affairs officer in Krakow or Porto Alegre.  Of course, I work with vastly greater resources and in a less settled general atmosphere, but I feel comfortable doing the KIND of job I have been doing for twenty years.

I was about to write that another difference is that working in Iraq is more dangerous, but I do not think that is still true.  The security arrangements make it seem a lot scarier, but those same precautions also make is less dangerous.  Beyond that, the security situation on the ground had improved very much.  On the other hand, in Porto Alegre I shared the road with big trucks and bad drivers when I traveled on narrow roads around my district.  On one particularly narrow and curvy coastal highway, informally called the road of death, I kept count of fatal accidents I passed.  During one seven hour drive, I saw seven – one for every hour.  Similarly, on the narrow poorly maintained road from Krakow to Rzeszow in Poland, traffic fatalities were so frequent that Polish traffic accident terms were among the words I could recite like a native.  I believe that driving developing country highways is statistically more dangerous than working here in Iraq today.

It is harder to work here and much more uncomfortable.  After the initial excitement of traveling in helicopters and convoys dissipates, you have the tedium, noise and discomfort of traveling in helicopters and convoys and travel is unreliable.  It might take days to make a simple trip and you might get stuck for a long time where your only option is to embrace the suck

What I miss is most the spontaneity and serendipity that I enjoyed in my earlier posts, but I am afraid that is lost in much of the world – not only in Iraq – due to security.  Terrorists have forced us to hunker down all over the world.   In Porto Alegre or Krakow, my office was on the street.  Friends and contacts could and did just wander in to talk and I could just walk out the office door and find them. If I had business with the head of the university or the mayor of the city, I could just go over and talk with him.  You get a lot done in those situations and it is a pleasure to do.  Of course, I could speak Polish and Portuguese and I do not speak Arabic, but that is not the key difference.  What I could resolve with a couple of minutes and two cups of tea in Krakow or a small coffee in Porto Alegre now is literally a Federal case requiring days of planning.  More perniciously, the ubiquitous security complicates human interaction, destroys spontaneity and makes it very hard to achieve the kinds of solutions that create synergy by giving everybody more than they thought they would get. 

I do not know if we can ever get that back – anywhere.  We have become a world of guards, gates and barriers, even in our own home towns, even in our own homes.  Terrorism has stolen a part of our humanity.

I am drifting too far into the dark side.  Today is Sunday.  We only work a half day on Sunday.  I am going to take advantage of this sunny and cool morning to run down to the peaceful Al Asad oasis and think harmonious thoughts for a least a couple of hours.