Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Three Cheers for the Department!

I have written my share of criticism of the Department of State on various issues, both policy and personal.  State was a second career for me that I began in 2004 after 25+ years in private industry working on NASA mission support.  Throughout my fifteen years at State, I often felt like Alice in Wonderland, marvelling at life in a government bureaucracy, alternately in awe at the good being achieved and aghast at the inefficiency and waste and at policies I disagreed with.  My companion web journal Alice in State has that name for a reason.

The past two weeks, however, give me cause to raise my head in pride.  It began with the appearance of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch before members of the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees.  I raised my head higher still following the appearance of Deputy Assistant Secretary George P. Kent, but it was yesterday's appearance and opening statement by Embassy Kyiv ChargĂ© d'affaires Bill Taylor that has me yelling "Yes!" and glowing with pride.

Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank described Ambassador Taylor as "straight out of Foggy Bottom central casting."  He's right.  Ambassador Taylor even looks like many of the senior diplomats I have supported as a mid-level Foreign Service Officer (FSO).  The haircut, the suit, the facial expressions, and the gait remind me of ambassadors, consul generals, and any number of Washington-based secretaries.  Perhaps this, much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent collar, will become a style statement affirming conscientious professionalism and dedication to service and truth*.

As in any organization, colleagues and supervisors at State run the gamut from the bad to adequate to stellar.  I was lucky during my fifteen years to work largely with the best.  That goes back to the beginning with my year on the Russia Desk (EUR/RUS) as the officer responsible for Russian Federation external relations.  Senior political officer Allen Greenberg kept me sane during that year with his combination of cool professionalism and humor.  I would not have made it through that career transition without his mentoring and support.  He has deservedly made it into the Senior Foreign Service and is now the Acting Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Curacao.

My lucky star placed me under Ambassador Bill Burns at Embassy Moscow in 2005-07.  I was only a 51-year-old, career-changing "Hey you!" junior officer at a large embassy, but Ambassador Burns knew me by name.  I served as his notetaker at a number of meetings, in particualar at Rosatom, and marveled both at his command of Russian and his positive management of a relationship that was entering a time of change.  He went on to become Deputy Secretary of State and, since his departure from State, has gone on to speak truth to power as a critic of the hollowing out of U.S. diplomacy during the Trump administration.

Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) John Beyrle did not lag behind Ambassador Burns by a single step and was just the right choice to become Ambassador in his own right when Ambassador Burns finished his Moscow tour in 2008.  A career FSO with a long history in Russian/Soviet affairs, he was something of a folk hero because of his father Joseph Beyrle.  Interned in a German POW camp that was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, Beyrle's father went on to fight in the Red Army through to the war's end.   That wartime connection meant Ambassador Beyrle could open doors that others couldn't in a Moscow that was increasingly turning away from the US.  President Obama's decision to replace him with Michael McFaul in 2012 ranks up there as one of the most questionable foreign affairs decisions made by a President I generally admire. 

I have a soft spot for Ambassador Dick Norland who had the unenviable task of saving something out of the ruins of the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan following the cold war that followed the shooting of unarmed civilians by security forces in the Ferghana Valley in 2005.  Embassy Tashkent felt like a ghost ship when I was there in 2008-10.  The Uzbek government forced the Embassy to close all regional offices and refused to grant visas to most senior diplomats.  With only four years in the Foreign Service, I served as acting head of the Political/Economic Office for several months when I arrived in 2008.  I often accompanied Ambassador Norland and his DCM Duane Butcher to high level meetings and on regional travel.  I don't begrudge Ambassador Norland that he sometimes used me as a secretary in the old fashioned sense.  When he learned that I am proficient at touch typing in Russian, he would come to my cubicle and dictate diplomatic correspondence as he thought it through in real time.

Duane Butcher.  I have a special place in my memory and in my heart for Mr. Butcher.  He was my DCM in Tashkent and then again during my 2010-13 tour in Romania.  Ambassador Mark Gitenstein was a political appointee and a good choice to manage the relationship with Romania, but it was Duane Butcher who actually ran Embassy Bucharest.  Moreover, he oversaw my gender transition during my time there, setting just the right leadership tone to ensure that the changes in my life were accepted by both American and local staff.  With less sure leadership, I doubt this first-ever transition-while-serving would have succeeded.

Duane is a Management Cone FSO and is in the Senior Foreign Service, but if ever there was an example of someone who rose through the ranks almost too quickly, it is Duane.  I mean that in the sense that ours is an up-or-out system, and promotion opportunities and choice assignments that lead to them become ever scarcer the higher one rises.  At my FS-02 level, I could go on for a decade without worrying about my next up-or-out promotion, but at Duane's level, that window is much shorter.  Moreover, it is rare for a Management Cone FSO to serve as Ambassador.  DCM is normally about as high as a Management Cone FSO gets.  Thus it was a great joy for those of us who worked with him that Duane got to serve as ChargĂ© d'affaires in Bucharest for over two years after Ambassador Gitenstein's departure.  It is my sincere hope that Duane Butcher will get to serve as a full-fledged Chief of Mission, as Ambassador, before his next promotion window closes.

These were my senior colleagues, and there are others I am equally proud to have served under.  Steeped in the tradition of the Foreign Service as modeled by George Kennan, the leading U.S. diplomat of the 20th century, they faithfully managed diplomatic relationships with foreign states under all Washington administrations that came and went, Democratic as well as Republican.  It was an honor to serve with them, and I know any one of them would follow the courageous examples of the past week and speak up for diplomacy and truth when their country calls.

The mists that shrouded what I sometimes called the Foggiest of Bottoms are lifting.  State has found its voice and is standing up for sane, consistent foreign policy, for diplomacy, and for the truth.

*I must wonder, however, if Ambassador Taylor does not sometimes dress down like some other senior colleagues, substituting a colorful bow tie for the traditional, conservative necktie.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Be Safe Out There?

During my month on two wheels from Washington, DC, to Maine, people I met would again and again wish me, "Be safe!" 

I have written before about the disconnect between living overseas for most of the past fifteen years and the reality of life in the US today.  Things change.  I remember coming home on R&R in 2010 and looking for a Blockbuster store where I could rent a DVD.  My favorite independent DVD store in Takoma Park, MD, had closed its doors.  During my posting in Uzbekistan for more than two years, I had missed the collapse of DVD rentals in the US in favor of on-line streaming.

After coming back from Kazakhstan in 2017, I was telling my sisters a graphic story about an unfortunate incident that had happened to me.  One of them interrupted by saying, "That's TMI."  I asked her to explain what TMI means.  I had never heard the expression used in Central Asia.

Those are trivial examples.  More substantive were the changes in political landscape in the US.  I was at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen for a conference on the day of the presidential election in 2016.  The results were apparent as our conference got underway.  Stunned silence reigned in the halls of the Embassy.  Several of us went out that evening to drink our sorrows away in a jazz club.  When the Marine Ball took place at Embassy Astana two weeks later, more alcohol was consumed than I had ever seen consumed at an Embassy function.  We all wanted to forget even if only for a moment that our own country had changed in ways we never saw coming.

A month on two wheels as I worked my way through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was the perfect way to let go.  I had no time to follow the news.  Even if I had, for much of the trip I was in areas without cell phone coverage.  Life consisted of me and the road together with the morning and evening routine of breaking and setting up camp.  News was to be heard only faintly from a radio or TV in the cafes and diners where I stopped to eat.

"Be safe out there."  I thought that a strange greeting when I first heard it.  Then it was repeated again and again.  At first I would reply, "Thank you," but later I changed that to "You, too, be safe out there."  On continued thought I changed my reply again to "Be audacious and live fully!"

Have we become a country in which safety is now Concern No. 1?  Given the gun violence of the past several years, perhaps we have.

Still, in my estimate the chance that I will fall victim to a gunman are about the same as being hit by a meteorite or lightning.  Of course it could happen, but am I going to live my life accordingly in a state of fear?

Or perhaps those who saw me, a single grandmother on a bicycle, thought I was doing something inherently dangerous?  As someone who was certified as an instructor by the League of American Bicyclists some 20 years ago, I know the statistics are in my favor.  Hour for hour, the chance of my being seriously injured on a bicycle are about the same as they are if I am behind the wheel of a car.  The point is that one must know how to operate a bicycle as a vehicle with proper lane positioning and communication with other vehicle operators.  Just like skydiving, operating a bicycle requires training.  It is not what most think they remember from riding a bicycle in childhood.

The least of my fears was my safety as a bicycle driver.  Perhaps the "Be safe" wishes were for my physical safety as a single older woman?  That, too, leaves me scratching my head.  Assault and rape do happen in this world.  It has happened to me . . . at the hands of a policeman on a ferry from Georgia to Ukraine.  The risks in my own country seem much lower than in many of the places I have served overseas . . . and I challenge any would-be assailant to keep up with me on two wheels.

Then there is gender transition.  For anyone who has navigated this path successfully, is there anything left in life that rises to the level of danger and fear of what we passed through?  I find there to be a good parallel between successful gender transition and effective, safe bicycle operation.  Be visible, take your lane politely but assertively, and move forward.  It's hugging the shadows during transition, hugging the curb when on a bicycle, that leads to danger and injury.  

Can one be hurt while out and visible?  Can one be killed?  Of course one can.  Just look at the homicide rate for transgender women of color.  Still, I assert that the danger of being hurt while out and visible is far less than when one is hugging the shadows.  

The same applies when operating a bicycle on roads.  I have had no indicdent of any kind as a bicycle driver in Russia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.  After those countries, I find conditions in the US to be refreshingly comfortable.

Forward I now go into retirement.  It's too early to know where this new phase will take me.  Whereever I go, I will remember my own greeting to others during my month on the road:

Be audacious and live fully!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Two Wheels Out of State

This web journal has Foreign Service Bicyclist prominently in its title, and thus it should surprise no one that I chose to celebrate my official retirement on August 31 by setting out on my longest bicycle tour to date.  I left Washington, DC, on August 31 and arrived at my retirement home north of Bangor, Maine, on October 2.  It was a journey of just over a month and 2495 km (1560 miles).  

Since it is somewhat off-topic for Transgender in State -- as of today renamed Transgender Out of State -- I have posted the day-by-day journal I kept along the way in my companion journal, Alice Out of State.  It is a chronological account focused on the technical, physical aspects of the journey and may prove useful to others who set out on such a long tour:

If any of my readers are interested in bicycle touring, I look forward to hearing from you!