Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Foreign Service Years: More on Washington

Published in The Independent, February 16th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Washington is different as a diplomatic post for a variety of reasons. In other stations, diplomats feel important because the hosts give them certain privileges. In Washington, everything is business where little is given on any other considerations.

Soon after I arrived in Washington in the middle of 1990, our tax exemption cards were taken away because we were told that in Dhaka we did not provide these exemptions to US diplomats. We were surprised that Dhaka in its right mind would deny the US diplomats any privilege they were entitled to under diplomatic privileges and immunities. In any case, the oversight or lapse or whatever on Dhaka’s part was resolved as soon as we flagged the case. The needful was done in Dhaka and we were returned our tax exemption cards.

The exemption cards did not give us much relief but made us feel a bit privileged and we were happy to get the cards back. As a post, Washington brings diplomats to the ground who may otherwise have starry impression about themselves. Diplomats are evaluated and dealt in Washington by the hosts mainly on the weight of the country they represent. I learnt very soon upon arrival in Washington that being a diplomat did not mean much. In fact, sometimes the hosts unilaterally make the point that we are not special even when we do not ourselves seek any extra privilege as a diplomat.

I still remember a few incidents on this issue with amusement now that it means nothing at all. One was when Abul Ahsan took over as Ambassador. He wanted to have a credit card as in the United States, life is worthless unless one has a few of these cards in his/her wallet. He applied for one and was denied as quickly as he had filed it. The reason was simple. He had no credit rating and being an Ambassador really meant nothing. He was however given a credit card through the Bank where he had his account. By the time he was there a few months, his problem was refusing the companies who were issuing him such cards even without asking!

On a serious note, one way to raise the stakes for one’s country for which the United States has little interest except the usual diplomatic one which means little is to use whatever means is available locally. The system of lobbying is one of the means available to raise the stakes. There was then and still now a lot of misconception in Bangladesh about US lobbyists. In Washington, the lobby firms open doors for Ambassadors to places and people of power and influence, like the Congress for instance.

In one of our attempts as diplomats to build contacts for the Embassy in the Congress, a colleague and I had gone to see the Staff Director of Senator Jessie Helms, who was then the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She told us bluntly that her Chairman had little time even for our President and when he was in town, not to call them for appointment for if they wanted one, they would call us! Lobbyists and lobby firms break such arrogant attitude in Congress for these lobbyists and lobby firms are owned and manned by those close to the politicians in power in Washington. A country like Bangladesh not just needs a lobbyist in Washington; it should have one where money should be the last of the considerations. Appointing a good lobby firm could bring benefits for the country that is not coming without one.

For President Ershad, in whose term a lobbyist was appointed but only briefly, the benefits were there for us those who served then in the Washington Embassy to see. Even when his public standing in the country was sinking, at the Embassy we were under constant pressure to see that harm did not come his way! It is not that a lobbyist is necessary because an Ambassador is not worthy. Lobbyist is necessary to make a worthy Ambassador achieve more for his country. During Ershad’s time, Mr. Obaidullah Khan was Ambassador in Washington whose intellect easily put him among the best of his peers when he served there. Yet, his achievements were far less because he was pulled back by the country he represented. In the midst of their busy schedules, people of power had little time for him. He was one who could have achieved far greater than what he did if he was assisted by a lobby firm of repute.

Sometimes luck plays a very important role in the performance of an Ambassador in his post. Such luck blessed Ambassador Ataul Karim soon after the elected BNP Government assumed office in Dhaka. After the devastating cyclones of April, 1991 had visited Bangladesh, the Ambassador received a SOS from Dhaka to request the US Government for assistance, particularly with helicopters. The Ambassador contacted the State Department and the Sub-Committee for South Asia for a hearing on the Bangladesh request. At the hearing chaired by Congressman Stephen Solarz, the Bangladesh request was considered but with not much enthusiasm. The State Department recommended a few helicopters to be sent from some US base located in the seas close to Bangladesh.

The hearing was on a Thursday and we at the Embassy had our fingers crossed about the helicopters. Over the weekend though, President Bush had seen graphic images of the disaster on TV while at Camp David. He ordered the US amphibious task force that was returning home after the first Gulf War to go to Bangladesh. That force, consisting of 2,500 soldiers and 15 ships carried out one of the biggest military disaster relief operation nicknamed Operation Sea Angel, in history. Unfortunately, by then the die was cast for Ambassador Karim and he was unable to translate his good luck to his advantage. He had to make way for Ambassador Ahsan as the next Bangladesh Ambassador to Washington soon afterwards.

Although Ambassador Karim stayed at his post for a few months after the fall of President Ershad, the Permanent Representative in New York Ambassador AHG Mohiuddin was relieved of his responsibilities almost immediately after the change in Dhaka. His connection with the former President as his brother-in-law was the reason why he had to leave. In his place, our High Commissioner in Ottawa Ambassador M. Mohsin who was an ex-PFS officer of the same batch as Ambassador Abul Ahsan given additional charge as the Permanent Representative. The change in New York was not just bad news for Ambassador AHG Mohiuddin; it was also not good news for the diplomats there. With Ambassador Mohiuddin there, the Mission New York was a power unto itself. They could really get anything they wanted those days with the Foreign Ministry powerless. The Mission controlled all transfers to the Mission and out of it.

Thus when Ambassador M. Mohsin was given additional charge of New York, there was restlessness among the officers there. One of them who knew I was close to Ambassador Mohsin at the headquarters called me for a few tips on how to deal with him. I told him that as far as Ambassador Mohsin was concerned, there was no need to be concerned about their days under Ambassador AGH Mohiuddin because he would deal with them without being influenced by what they did when AGH was the Ambassador. Later, the friend confirmed what I told him. He and his other colleagues found Ambassador Mohsin to be a true professional and a gentleman.

Ambassador Mohsin held charge of the New York mission only briefly till Ambassador Humayun Kabir assumed office as the Permanent Representative. For a brief period, Ottawa, New York and Washington had a Head of Mission of the same ex-PFS batch as Ambassador M. Mohsin, Ambassador Humayun Kabir and Ambassador Abul Ahsan all belonged to the 1961 batch. They were the best in their batch and all there were placed among the first 10 on all-Pakistan basis with Ambassador Ahsan as the topper of the batch. Of the three, Ambassador Humayun Kabir who later succeeded Ambassador Abul Ahsan in Washington was given an extension. Sadly, Ambassador Humayun Kabir died soon after his retirement and Ambassador Abul Ahsan a little over two years ago.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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