Thursday, December 24, 2009

sonnet #8

Unclothed we come into this world, possession-less, alone,
The odyssey to reach each goal acquaints us with new pain,
Each stumbling block, despite the odds, becomes a stepping stone,
And every loss, a predecessor to a greater gain.

Our meeting was revealed to me when I was but a child:
A revelation of a form, a loveliness, pristine,
Yet planted in my heart was that pure vision, undefiled,
Someday to manifest itself just as it was foreseen.

I found you when I lacked the wherewithal to make you mine,
Distressed, perplexed, I felt compelled to spell my love that June.
That summer’s love was but a glimpse into a world divine,
A harbinger of better days, of times more opportune.

We’ll meet again and then we must decide upon the hour
When we’ll allow our destinies to intertwine and flower.

sonnet #6

I’m torn between two sinking ships,
Two jealous mistresses who hate.
To choose one is to choose them both:
The choice is clear; I hesitate
Deciding and the moment slips away.

New ships are landing at my pier
From places strange, from shores untold.
They beckon me to come aboard,
I hesitate. Once more events unfold
Revealing feelings that are blue.

My pilot bids me change my course,
Steer clear of danger, shallow shoals.
I navigate the ship through storms
To reach the resting place of souls.


every decision, it seems,

is a trade-off,

and each choice,

a rejection of all other options.

we oversimplify

to mask our true feelings.

we generalize

to avert the difficult question.

our friendship, our love is a complex being,

a life all its own

with wants and needs

that test our resolve.

is it a mistake,

a crime to feed it,

to allow it

to blossom and grow?


broken pieces

scattered all about,

resisting silently

their reconstruction.

subatomic particles

in random motion

looking for the best nucleus

to revolve around.

mass confusion

and disorder

as the electrons collide,

mix and split,

rejecting organization,

and responding

only to light

from a pure source.

Monday, December 21, 2009

sonnet #14

Dear friend, I listen to your poems of late,
And contemplate the dreaded thought of life
Without the prospect of your fond embrace;
I reminisce about that kiss one June:
Too soon, too late to consummate; too true
To be denied, too pure to not be sure
That God intended for our souls to dwell
As one, exclusive, all-embracing love---
No matter what the future holds in store,
I did, I do I’ll always love you more
And more; though distance separate us far,
I’ll search the constellations for that star
That shines in you. And should I die, too soon,
Apart from you, we’ll meet again one June.

sonnet #17

Dear friend I left our poems ashore to gain
A clear and fresh perspective on romance
So new, unfolding through these notes exchanged
By mail. In some respects I'm at a loss
For words that rhyme: these thoughts, sublime, contain
The elements of hope divine, the chance
That you might share, with me, again, unchanged
Thrills sought and found that star-crossed night in June.
It can't be as it was. It must be less
Or more. Our lust for life has aged, matured,
We've wined and dined on bittersweets, endured
The loss and gain of joy's and pain's excess.

And yet I can't forget that night in June,
When we read Shelley, kissed, and touched the moon.

sonnet #20

Dear friend, take up your pen again, compose

Those works of art that live and breathe and sing

The rhapsody of love and hope. Revive

Anew in you the spirit of the Muse

To guide, to entertain, and to enthuse.

Restore the democratic art, the urge

To write, embraceable, attainable

By all. Take up your pen, today, obey

God’s highest call: express the good, the true,

The beautiful. Articulate in verse

Life’s purest, deepest, noblest sentiments;

Preserve in rhyme and rhythm secrets sent.

Take up your pen again, the times demand

Your words be heard, your dreams rise up and stand.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Return to Mother Africa

I return to Mother Africa an alien,

my African blood thinned through generations of race-mixing

with the Cherokee, and the Blackfoot,

and the Scots and Irish of North Carolina and Virginia . . . .

I go to the discotheques but the rhythms

are far too complex for my sensibilities,

too difficult for me to even imagine trying

to dance to; but I fake it, trying to stay in step,

consoling myself in the knowledge that,

at least, I know . . . .

With the women I find myself at a loss for words,

not necessarily because they’d laugh

at my broken Crioulo (or even at my flawed Portuguese),

nor even because I know they know

I can’t promise them a way out of their misery

when I leave . . . .

No, I’m awed by them because of their courage,

because their mere existence is a triumph,

a remarkable overcoming,

an achievement that stands them alone,

at least from we, who have known neither true poverty nor deprivation,

who have always had access to clean hospitals,

and uninterrupted electricity, and drinking water,

the best of schools with well-stocked libraries,

and, lest we forget, to the latest

in high-tech running shoes . . . .

Yes, I’m awed by their courage, by their resilience,

by their hope, by their optimism . . . .

I return to Mother Africa an alien,

my natural senses dulled, my skin bleached,

my hair relaxed, my butthole tightened

through generations of Americanization.

Natural Forces, or, Notes to a Former Lover

Guine-Bissau is a land of sudden change:
High tide rolls in and out within minutes;

There is no dusk, no reflective moments
between daylight and darkness;

The dry dusty season follows quickly
on the heels of the rains and floods,
as if one can't wait for the other to get out of town;

The calm coolness of winter begins
while the heat and humidity of summer
are still there with us......

When you leave, roll out like high tide,
dramatically, instantaneously,
leaving my beach bare, exposed and muddy;

May your departure be as brief an interlude
as the fleeting dusky twilight between
afternoon and nightfall;

Let the rains of tears you brought me evaporate,
instantly, in the rapidly approaching,
dry sun-scorching drought and
coolness of dawn,

The temperature of my passion dissipating
while the heat of your madness yet remains.

Notes to my father/The Warrior's Prayer

Early, early in the morning
just before the break of day,
I arise, and count my blessings,
and fall to my knees to pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
and I praise His name so sweet,
and I pour out all my troubles,
and I leave them at His feet.

"Prayer is better," said the wise man
"than another hour's snooze,
it will pick you up much higher
than some other stuff you use."

Late at evening after dealing
With the problems of the day,
All bewildered and disheartened
I fall to my knees and pray.

And I thank the Gracious Master
for his grace in helping me
through another day of passage
on life’s cold and stormy sea.

"Prayer is better," said the wise man
"than that wine or weed or dope.
It will soothe away your heartache,
it will fill you up with hope."

Poem for Rhia Walton

(Rhia died way too soon. I miss her, I miss our conversations, the letters we exchanged. I deeply regret not having expressed to her, while she was alive, how much she meant to me. There is an old Portuguese saying which translates "Death has no remediation.")

Each time I pass through Richmond I feel your presence,

More strongly than I ever did when

You were here with us,

Sharing with us our laughter, tears and fears.

Your departure was so sudden, so unexpected,

So tragic. We miss you terribly and

We've exhausted all attempts to fill the vacuum

That your withdrawal has created

In our hearts and in our conversations.

My love for you was a helpless infant

That, orphaned, must now fend for itself.

From time to time I intuitively feel that

Some quality in my life is conspicuously absent.

I know what is missing is you.

Farewell to Luanda

Farewell to Luanda

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place.  Luanda.  No place like it.  No place like it in this world.

Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss.  Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test.  The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery.  But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection. 

I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil.  More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our FSN employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.

The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest.  The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces.  The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads.  Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty.  Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth.  International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow.  And then there are diamonds.  Diamonds are forever.  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.  Diamonds.  Y’all know the rest of that story.  The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa.  Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant.  The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track.  Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely. 

Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer.  Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda.  Angola says enough.  Angola wants peace.  Angola shall win.  An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra.  That makes it so.

The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future.  While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony.  Never mind.  A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).

We are coming up on two years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002).  I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak.  While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!

They got it all wrong on Benghazi

You are taking this all too personally, Raymond.  It is not about you, it is about Hillary Clinton and 2016.  Those words were uttered by the State Department ombudsman in January 2013 in  an apparently well-intentioned attempt to simultaneously admonish and console me.  Her assessments probably were right, but when you are run over by the bus it is difficult to appreciate that it was swerving to avoid somebody else.

The attack on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and the resulting deaths of four U. S. government representatives were horrific.  The American people deserve a complete and accurate account of those events.  However, the investigation conducted by the State Departments Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) into the events was woefully incomplete and consequently misleading.  Perhaps most importantly, the ARB failed to interview a number of key officials who had a direct role in decisions regarding Libya.  Among the officials not interviewed by the ARB were three high-level political appointees:  Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary of State and the official with overall responsibility for management of Department resources in Libya; Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and the Departments point person for ensuring (to the extent possible) appropriate employment of the thousands of US-provided shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles in Libya; and Ben Fishman, the National Security Council (NSC) Director for Libya.

Also limiting the ARBs investigation was the fact that the Board, despite its claims to having unfettered access to documentation, experienced perhaps unknowingly the same problems gaining access to emails, memos and similar materials that Congressional committees later faced.  The Boards difficulty in gaining access to information was not accidental, it was by design.  When the ARB issued its call for documents, the executive directorate of the State Departments Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) was placed in charge of collecting all emails and other relevant documents.  However, once the documents were gathered and boxed, a select group of NEA staffers spent a weekend in a basement operations center pouring through the entire collection.  I was not invited to that after-hours endeavor, but I heard about it and decided to check it out on a Sunday afternoon.  There, one of the staffers from NEAs Office of Maghreb Affairs explained the operation to me.  Ray, she said, we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the NEA Front Office (i.e., Assistant Secretary Beth Jones or Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) Elizabeth Dibble) or the 7th Floor (State Department short-hand for the Secretary of State and her principal advisors) in a bad light.  But isnt that unethical? I asked.  Ray, she responded, those are our orders.  A few minutes later, in walked Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, and Jake Sullivan, another trusted Clinton advisor.  When Cheryl saw me she snapped, Who are you?  Jake explained, Thats Ray Maxwell, an NEA DAS.  She conceded, Well, OK.  A few minutes later I voted with my feet and returned home.

Despite its claims to being independent, the ARB was anything but.  Sworn Congressional testimony revealed that ARB co-chair Admiral Michael Mullen made phone calls to Cheryl Mills to report on the fitness of a potential Congressional witness who had been interviewed by the ARB.  When questioned about that September 2013 testimony, ARB co-chair Ambassador Thomas Pickering said he would not have said that.  His response was carefully parsed diplo-speak.  What he did not say was that he would not have done that.  Because of the casualness of the remark that Admiral Mullen made and the oblique reference Ambassador Pickering made to it, we have every reason to believe that communications between the ARB and the Secretarys staff was on-going during the ARB process.  Even if contact occurred only that one time, that is NOT being independent.

Despite claims to impartiality, several officials involved in the Benghazi ARB, and in the overall damage control process following the events of September 2012, had possible tracks to cover from previous fatal attacks of U. S. diplomatic facilities, specifically the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.  In the 1998 East Africa bombings, 224 lives were lost, including those of twelve Americans.  Susan Rice, currently President Obamas National Security Advisor and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2012, was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1998 and consequently in the direct chain of command that declined then-Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnells request of additional security funding.  ARB co-chair Thomas Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 1998, also in that chain of command.  Dick Shinnick, a member of the Benghazi ARB committee, in 1998 was then-Secretary of State Madeline Albrights Executive Director.  Current Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy was the acting Under Secretary for Management in 1998.  I remember those officials and their positions in 1998 because I was a watch stander in the State Departments Operations Center in 1998 and was on watch the night of the bombings.  No-one was held accountable in 1998, which generated increased pressure to assign responsibility and name names after the Benghazi attack.

Lest we forget, our facility in Benghazi was not a consulate.  That would have required Congressional approval and direct funding.  In fact, the U. S. government presence in Benghazi was not primarily a State Department operation at all.  It was, as has been reported widely in the media, a CIA operation.  Did the ARB question why the CIA did not provide better security?  Was anybody from the CIA held accountable?  Was anybody from the CIA even interviewed by the ARB?  No, no and no.

Finally, the ARB report completely let Congress off the hook, assigning no specific blame to Congress for the security funding decisions it had made.  Almost certainly, this aspect of the ARB report was specifically designed to persuade members of Congress to find the reports findings palatable.  It worked.  The chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time of the reports release focused solely on the status of the four people named in the classified section of the report.  Why cant they be fired? she asked.  What is being done to discipline them? she demanded.  Never did she ask, Did they receive due process?  Or even, Are we sure the findings are correct?  State Department political leadership played Congress like the hard-to-tune viola I played in my youth.

Lets face facts and call the Benghazi ARB by its proper name.  It was a disgrace.  It perpetrated a disservice to the memory of the U.S. officials who lost their lives on September 11, 2012.  The ARB inquiry was, at best, a shoddily executed attempt at damage control, both in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill.  I am confident that history ultimately will judge the ARB report to be a flawed product and will conclude that the entire ARB process, unfortunately, was little more than an exercise in misdirection and political theatrics. 

sonnet #38

You lose some things you cherish as you pass
Through life's transitions. Letters you received
May not survive a flood -- first drafts of poems
You wrote get lost in shipments -- coffee mugs
Disappear, book collections may not stay
Intact when divorce or death parts the waves
Of time. Friendships and associations
You though would be there in your grayer years
May only survive a season, or not --
And reasons for a friendship come and go
Like tides that flood and ebb and flood again.
The things that last a lifetime, then, are rare
And few, and even enjoy
The fleeting now, breathe deeply, smile freely.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sonnet #24 and 365 Days in Iraq

Dear friend, perhaps our paths may cross again:
Perchance, we’ll meet together at the top,
Or down below, beneath the crowds, inside
The underground. Perhaps we’ll be united
By a cause, a hope, a dream, a fantasy . . .
Perhaps we’ll join together out of fear
Or love for something we perceive to be.

It matters not, my love, the force, the source
That consecrates the ground on which we’ll meet;
It matters not the place, my sweet, that destiny
Prescribes . . . . we’ll meet! The Muses tell us so!
Though circumstance as yet precludes the fate
The gods have planned, I wait, I wait, I wait . . .

Oral History - Ruminations on my 365 days in Iraq

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(Editor's note: Raymond Maxwell, a foreign service management officer, served as Embassy Baghdad chief of staff and Exec Sec, Jan 08 - Jan 09)

My service in Iraq, from January 2008 to January 2009, was a complex sentence that had, for me, several significant punctuation marks. A semicolon marked my transfer from the Office of Provincial Affairs to the Front Office; a series of exclamation marks accompanied the March and April bombings in the IZ and on the Palace grounds; tentative commas marked our move from the “hootches” to the NEC apartments starting in May and the intense heat of the June through August summer months; repetitious question marks from September through November caused us all to wonder whether the Iraqis would actually accept the terms of the Strategic Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement; the period, full stop, of December ended our occupation of the Republican Palace; and the exclamation mark of our January move to the new chancery coincided, altogether, with some measure of restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and the establishment a new US-Iraq bilateral relationship. Through it all, the exceptional courage and the tireless sacrifices of my fellow foreign service officers, foreign service nationals, third country nationals, and contractors left me in a state of awe and with a deep sense of humility of the privilege that was mine, to be there in service with them.
Similarly, service in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands great courage and sacrifice, as does service in less heralded but equally demanding hardship postings, such as Luanda, Monrovia, and Khartoum, to name a few (I betray here my AF background and professional lineage). The point, however, is that success in tough places requires personal courage and sacrifices, both of FSO’s and of their families. And the sacrifices are not equal – our families and loved ones pay far more, far more. Much of the human cost of our political success in Iraq, or in any of these places, such as it is, goes unpaid.

Shifting gears quickly, a great American diplomat once confided to me that perhaps we pay too much attention to direct compensation, such as hardship pay, danger pay, special differentials, etc., and not enough attention to the appeal to a sense of duty and the possible achievement of patriotic success so rarely experienced in a long career. It may be that we have lost faith in such intangibles, such outmoded values, and that we place more faith in the details of the Service Recognition Package. That loss of faith in our core values, quite frankly, identifies us less as diplomats and more as mercenaries, soldiers for hire, and we sell ourselves short, and cheaply, at that.

And what is to become of our Foreign Service? That’s a question that came up often in Baghdad conversations where it was evident and obvious that traditionally diplomatic functions, once the province and the domain of the Department of State, were and are slowly being taken over by a far better resourced, better trained, and better equipped Department of Defense. Many studies have been and are being conducted on the militarization of diplomacy (just google the words and see what comes up) and the more euphemistic term, “civilian-military cooperation.” Baghdad is a huge laboratory for such studies, the former term being far more descriptive that the latter. Military units named Strategic Effects and Strategic Communications have leveraged the massive resource imbalance between Defense and State to spring themselves into former State-dominated areas of political and economic reporting and public diplomacy efforts. Regional and combatant commanders have become the equivalent of ambassadors and chiefs of mission, outside the traditional inter-agency setting, but with far more resources and more robust means of budget execution. The Country Team is just another joint interagency task force, among many. Fortunately for us, Defense shows no taste for administrative or consular work, State’s traditional and historic stepchildren, so State’s monopoly is safe there, for the time being.

Where did the Foreign Service lose its soul, its purpose, its identity? We allowed the lines separating foreign service professional service from military professional service to be blurred. But there are important differences between us, more that the false dichotomy espoused in the phrase “State is from Venus and Defense is from Mars.” We are both from Earth, but there are differences in the way we think, the way we approach problem solving, differences in our respective strategic cultures.

Diplomacy, true diplomacy can prevent war and all the attendant physical and human losses and has done so. The tools of diplomacy, falsely, inappropriately or unprofessionally applied, however, have a high probability of failure. Diplomacy has come to be seen in recent times as simply the prerequisite and prelude to war. The noted military historian, Geoffrey Blainey writes, “many historians, in explaining the outbreak of war, argue that ‘the breakdown in diplomacy led to war.’ This explanation is rather like the argument that the end of winter led to spring: it is a description masquerading as an explanation.” Where war, historian Barbara Tuchman writes, "is the unfolding of miscalculations," diplomacy is the precise calculation itself, and the accurate reporting of solutions to correct calculations that eliminates the need for war and all its corresponding horrors. State’s core competency is diplomacy to prevent war. Defense’s core competency is fighting to win the war itself.

Where do we go from here? We start by unequivocally defining ourselves and our core competencies. It is not about funding. It has never been. It is about our professional capacity to bring about the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is about peace making. War has brought us a limited economic development, followed by financial disaster. Peace brings a much broader and more widespread prosperity. History is the judge. Blessed are the peace makers...

For other FSO perspectives dealing with the PRT experience in Iraq, please see Oral Histories, the Iraq Experience on the U.S. Institute for Peace website [[1]]