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POTUS Visits and Public Diplomacy: Doing Nothing While Waiting for Nothing to Do

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"Much grousing about the expense of President Obama's India trip. This is silly and vindictive."

--Charles Krauthammer


--Image from

An amusing episode from my first Foreign Service posting -- in London, where, doubtless by computer error, given the ordinariness of my name, I was assigned in the early 1980s as a USIA officer -- took place in the US Embassy cafeteria, where Secret Service agents assigned to cover a high-ranking official visit were having their midday meal.

For lunch at a nearby table, I joined a local employee, a lady of a certain age and considerable cultivation. Politely not pointing to the agents themselves, she confided to me sotto voce: "These poor young American boys -- They all have hearing problems!" She was of course referring to the agents' earphones.

This remark sprung to my mind as I read an article in the Daily Mail regarding the presidential visit to Southeast Asia:

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle arrived in India's commercial hub of Mumbai on Saturday . ... Probably not since the days of the Pharaohs or the more ludicrous Roman Emperors has a head of state travelled in such pomp and expensive grandeur as the President of the United States of America. [Emphasis mine] While lesser mortals - the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and so on - are usually happy to let their hosts handle most of the security and transport arrangements when they venture beyond their home shores, the United States creates a mini-America on the move to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

Leave it to the snarky Brit press to ridicule what it considers the overkill of preparations for POTUS visits overseas (POTUS -- a term which vaguely reminds me of yet another Roman official, Pontius Pilate -- is an acronym used to describe our Chief Executive, often by the staffers that organize his schedule). But, given the imperial nature of overseas visits by the leader of the democratic world, it is not surprising that there were rumors in India that his presence there was costing the U.S. $200 million a day.

I. The Visit

Let me now get it off my chest: during my twenty-plus-years Foreign Service career, perhaps the most wasteful use of taxpayer's money I witnessed was the "facilitation" of high-level White House visits.

--Pre-advance and advance. Advance and pre-advance "teams" from Washington descend upon the "post" weeks in advance to "prepare" for the visit -- all kinds of people from the White House, the Secret Service, from civil-service entities at the State Department, you name the agency/entity. Accommodations -- at great cost to the USG -- must be found for these multitudes by the administrative section of the embassy. Most of these well-intentioned individuals, political appointees and government employees, could have landed on planet Mars: they don't speak the local language, know little of the local culture, and seldom know how to deal tactfully with local officials. Their "my way or the highway" attitude toward the "natives" (they know they won't have to deal with them for long) is often offensive to their hosts. In their off-duty hours, the loud behavior and lack of discretion of these TDYers (Temporary Service) in local venues do not contribute to improving America's overseas image.

--Countdown. For a presidential visit, an embassy is mobilized -- literally mobilized, God knows at what enormous expense -- for weeks in advance before the actual visit of the president, which lasts no more than a few days at most. Embassy staff basically have to drop what they are doing -- supposedly advancing American interests abroad carefully and methodically -- to prepare for the visit, following the orders, often contradictory, of the invading DC hordes. At a daily (and time-devouring) "countdown meeting," which just about everybody at the mission is required to attend, instructions are given and repeated over and over, and over again. Every logistical aspect of the visit is gone through in mind-numbing detail to assure that all will run like clockwork. But this exhaustive preparation is so excessive that it often is counterproductive and in fact results in considerable confusion and disorganization (See, as an example, the recent White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confrontation with Indian functionaries.)

--Site Officer. A frequent assignment given to FSOs (Foreign Service officers), no matter their seniority, is to be a "site officer," which basically means being (under the watchful eyes of the visiting "specialists") at a site, i.e., where the president will appear: a school; a parliament; a grave. The "site officer" is expected to go to the site, over, over, and over again, days and days before the actual event, even if it (the site) is already "covered" by (a) the local police (b) the Secret Service itself. The only site I was never obliged to cover was a toilet. But of course I was ready to do it, in the service of my country. Having said this, some FSOs actually do enjoy being site officers during an official visit, in the hope that their impeccable performance in front of a grave Will Be Noticed By Washington (WBNBW; my acronym).

--Press Center. Public Diplomacy (PD) FSOs are assigned to "man" the Press Center especially set up for the visit, usually at a major hotel (an operation of enormous cost to the taxpayer). PD officers -- supposedly paid to represent their country abroad, not to oblige stateside media reps -- are essentially placed there to keep the accompanying American press "happy" (Example: Major US media reporter to diplomat: I need a press release right now. Answer from diplomat: Here it is, Sir (never forget the sir), right away). Last on the minds of the Washington White House team that oversees the Press Center is what the local media think (true, there is also a low-profile Press Center for local media). It's mostly about how the major US networks will be accommodated to report on the visit -- so that the White House will get favorable USA media coverage.

--Control Room. Oh, I shouldn't forget about the "control" room, again set up at an expensive hotel, where FSOs are assigned to help manage the visit by engaging in crucial diplomatic activities such as photocopying, answering the phone, smiling at White House aides, and looking at CNN for lack of anything better to do.

--Dead time. Dead time, doing nothing while waiting for nothing to do, is an essential element for Embassy staff engaged in a presidential visit. You learn to live with it, but it does not contribute to your intellectual development. Note: To eager young persons intent on a Foreign Service career, please remember that much of your work as a diplomat will consist of waiting at an airport for a high-level visitor to make sure he/she gets treated properly by customs officials and gets to his/her hotel without difficulty. On dead time, see my piece in the Washington Post regarding the Baghdad embassy.

--Finally, Picking up the Damage. I suppose when the circus atmosphere of a POTUS visit is finally over, the best an FSO concerned about in-country public opinion can do is to take out local officials involved in the visit to lunch, and thank them for all their patience and cooperation, explaining, as best he can, the American character, which, to cite the Daily Mail article mentioned above, is (arguably) "to ensure that nothing is left to chance," including, of course, errors on the part of the US government.


Image from

II. Modest Suggestions

Most important, at a time when the government is supposedly trying to save money, presidential overseas visits are definitely a place to start. Do we really need so many Secret Service agents/White House operatives on per diem "handling" a presidential visit in countries they generally know little/anything about?.

I don't want to get too "negative," so here are a few more modest suggestions:

1. Before a presidential/high-level Washington visit, send an experienced senior person(s) representing USG entities to work with officials of the host government, advised by Embassy senior management (sure, it's already being done, but with insufficient embassy input).

2. Reduce the number of WH/Secret Service/other agencies personnel sent overseas at enormous expense for a high-level visit, thereby stopping the high expense of taxpayers' money on their per diem/overtime. True, additional staff may be needed, especially in sensitive technical matters, for a presidential visit, but right now there is an overload of Washington support staff telling everybody what to do (when they don't quite know what it is they should do).

3. Make it possible for an Embassy to operate normally even during official high-level visits. It can be done, if intelligently planned.

4. Cooperate more fruitfully -- and tactfully -- with local officials in security/logistical matters by treating them with attention and respect. At all times, keep the local media/public opinion in mind. Give them access to the events of the visit, not only limiting them to the American press. After all, a high-level visit is meant to have an impact on foreign public opinion, not just on US news.

Of course, this "advice" has been given for years by persons far wiser than your blogger. Little is new under the sun, but I guess there's nothing wrong with a little repetition.

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Thanks JF for the title