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An invitation to the Ambassador's salon

Why enter the blogosphere? 

Historically, when people wanted to discuss the important issues of the day, they held “salons” to learn what others were thinking and to provide a forum for discussion of important topics.  Often held in someone’s home the salon invited thoughtful people to join in thoughtful discussions on a range of pre-selected topics. 

Today “salons” can occur over the internet.  Although I have strong opinions and will be sharing them , l write to  solicit conversation, ideas, alternatives or rebuttals.  My goal is to create a forum for discussion.   I intend to practice civility in my comments; indeed civility is a topic for our discussion.  I expect civility in return, maintaining a focus on the issues and not the writers.  

Hopefully together we will engage, enlighten, even find consensus on the important issues of our day.

Welcome to the salon.

Trusting Citizens

Seal of Polk County, IowaSeal of Polk County, Iowa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been away from the political process - the campaigning part - for several years.  I stood for election many times - and always found the voters in my constituency to be interested, engaged and fair.  I have great respect for the voter. 

This fall, as a part of a bipartisan leadership team, I once again engaged in a campaign. The goal?  Pass a bond referendum called Public Safety for Polk County (Iowa).  Many people asked me why I agreed to take a leadership role in this campaign to help pass this referendum.  My answer?  It had to be done, the status quo was unacceptable. Our courthouse, built in 1904, is a thing of beauty.  Even with all the wear and tear many years of overuse can bring it is still a beautiful building.  It is woefully inadequate for today's needs.

While serving as a US Ambassador I was given one very clear charge - maintain stable democracies.  The seven small, emerging democracies that I worked with had great respect for the rule of law.  They understood it is the foundation that builds and maintains trust among citizens.

As a fiscally conservative person, I appreciate and support the need for fair taxes and for small, efficient government.  Functional infrastructure that supports our justice system is a service that government - size notwithstanding - is supposed to do, and do well.

Any and all citizens seeking justice and fair resolution of disputes should expect to have access to judicial processes that are timely, fair and efficient and carried out in a safe environment.  According to our Constitution, victims, perpetrators, witnesses, jurors, judges, attorneys - all have the right to a fair trial.  They should also expect that justice will be carried out in a safe place.

As our campaign moved along, the questions were many and varied,mostly regarding cost and efficiency. We answered fully and honestly.  Some believed we were using "scare tactics" to describe current conditions.  To those folks I suggest they visit the court house.  When they do, they will see that conditions are exactly as they were described.

Once again, voters have demonstrated their willingness to support an issue that is central to our freedom. 67% of them voted themselves a tax increase to provide the infrastructure required to assure equal justice for every citizen.

Thank you to the voters of Polk County Iowa.  

The impact of this vote and the improvements that will come as a result will be valued far into the future.  And once again my respect for and confidence in the ability and willingness of citizens in a free society to exercise good judgment in free and fair elections has been affirmed.  

 

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The Art of the "Even Slower Walk"

Logo of the Internal Revenue ServiceLogo of the Internal Revenue Service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The IRS has always been feared and disliked. It is the tax collector and as such is the only agency where American citizens are considered guilty until proven innocent.  Over the years our tax system has become so complex that it has created an entire industry to annually review changes. Not only changes of law, but also of interpretation. And there is an even larger industry that exists because citizens believe they must pay someone who studies tax law to file their tax returns. They are not capable of doing it themselves.

There is now clear evidence this agency has deliberately influenced the political landscape of US politics by targeting groups based on their political world view.  They have done this by singling out  groups for review based on certain words in their names.  One of those words is "liberty".  This so called secondary review demands invasive and inappropriate information, often violating the privacy of the group and the individuals who participate.  To add insult to injury, this information is then leaked to opposition groups; government agencies, (there are numerous EPA examples) or political adversaries, who use the information to threaten both individuals and their enterprises. Even more egregious, individuals who are named as being involved with the group have their personal tax returns or their business practices subjected to aggressive review when there is no evidence of wrongdoing.  These practices force citizens to engage legal representation to defend themselves.  For some groups and individuals, this has gone on for years.

The IRS apparently believes that if enough time passes, if enough egregious demands are made and threats issued, the applications will simply go away.  The epitome of the "slow walk".

Those targeted will just wear out, run out of money, lose interest and accept defeat.  And no one will be the wiser.

Fortunately that is not what is happening.  Groups and individuals are not going away and people have not lost interest. Many lawsuits are working their way through the courts. Meanwhile the "even slower walk"  is taking place in Washington. The IRS, along with other government agencies involved, are stonewalling Congress by refusing to provide information. IRS leaders declare their innocence, ironically by taking refuge in the fifth amendment of the Constitution. And all the while they continue to receive their salaries.

 Tax collectors for the federal government have abused the trust of the American people.  The result?  

We have lost faith in the fairness and competence of our government.  

This powerful agency has demonstrated time and again it is politically biased and corrupt - worse, it is unable or unwillling to reform itself...and there is no impetus from anywhere for it to change.  The slow walk just goes on and on. The targeting still goes on.  And for this a large number of IRS management employees received "performance"  bonuses.

Where is the outrage?  Are we afraid of retribution?

Those in Congress who continue to demand answers are accused of making this a "political" issue; of continuing to pursue the investigation only because they want to make others "look bad". The ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee says regularly there's simply no need for investigation, the story's over, the mystery solved. Really?  One wonders if the targeted groups and individuals agree?

Does constantly delaying answering questions or continually repeating lies make us accept them as truth? Are we so frustrated and cynical about government incompetence we have decided there is no way to make it better? 

Edmund Burke said it best.

 "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) do nothing".

 

 

 

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The Art of the "Slow Walk"

English: A stretch of Nanyang Walk in the Nany...E. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More than a year since the calamity at Benghazi...no closer to truth, no knowledge of change that would improve Embassy security, no negative consequences for anyone who has lied - and surely some have lied because we have had so many versions of "the truth".  "What difference does it make?"  Apparently None.  And we have taken an unprecendented action of closing US Embassies abroad because of "intelligence" alerts, making it clear to the world we are unable or unwilling to protect ourselves abroad.

Meantime, other scandals and other news items have overtaken the media.... the environment suffers,  Paula Deen has confessed to an unpardonable 30 year old offense, an MLB star has been suspended (but is still playing), the royal baby has been born, the IRS problem is solved (if one listens to Congressman Cummings), the government of Syria has used poison gas on it's own citizens, "leaker" Snowden is in Moscow, having given the Russian government many opportunities to show their disrespect for America; and college has become too expensive.  Time marches on.

Through it all, we see one skill that has clearly been mastered by the current administration.....the "slow walk".  Meaning, let the story drag on (we're investigating) until those covering the news lose interest and move on to more recent, more sensational "Breaking News".

The families and colleagues of those who died in Benghazi deserve so much more.

 

 

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Compassion vs. Incompetence


English: Logo of the .English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is much discussion in Congress and the media over the food stamp program.  Should it be part of the agriculture bill - or not? That is one question on the table.  Of interest - those who have concern about separation of the two fear the agriculture constituencies on their own are not strong enough to support farm programs.  Those who worry about the food stamp program worry if it stands alone, the eligibility increases, along with the accompanying cost of the program will stand out in such a way that taxpayers will pay too much attention.  No one asks, what problem will be solved by dividing the two?  My argument here is not whether the bill should be divided.  My focus is on the food stamp program (SNAP). 

Should SNAP be cut - if so how much?  Are the eligibility standards too weak because almost half of America seems to be eligible?  Or is our economy really so bad that half of America cannot afford to buy food for their families?   Reporting of abuse by recipients within the program is rampant.  The amount and the cost of abuse is reaching urban legend status.

There is no doubt in my mind that Americans are compassionate  and want to provide support for those who need "temporary" assistance.   We applaud meeting these needs.  We find it unacceptable for Americans, particularly American children being hungry.  We have concern for children and their families abroad too, but that's a topic for another day.

Is the problem the program and it's ever escalating cost?  Or is the problem an incompetent government unable to effectively administer the program?  Based on my experience in government, I submit it is not the program or it's beneficiaries. It is the inability of government to administer the program - to properly test for eligibility, to provide funds and then to provide oversight to prevent and punish abuse.  Results of this incompetence are twofold -  the bloated bureaucracy that pretends to administer the program protects itself and stays in place with ever increasing costs while the people who need help see the availability and amount of assistance shrink drastically.

The so-called "fight" in Congress is a political argument about how much to cut. Not a word is spoken in debate or written in the law demanding that the program be managed!   So while the self righteous members of Congress shout at one another -  "lack of compassion" versus "stop the abuse"......the clock keeps running making more people eligible and providing fewer funds to support them.  The very people who are in need are sacrificed because the bureaucracy cannibalizes the money intended to help them. 

When will we demand competence in management in our government?

It is not too much to expect that people be held accountable for their performance.  That hiring and firing (a foreign concept in government) be done according to who shows up for work, who is willing and able to make a decision and stand by it, and who looks at the processes and tries to make improvements?

This program is just one of many - perhaps thousands of programs that simply are not managed.  People come to work everyday - even if their program no longer receives any funding - and try to maintain the status quo.  The unstated goal is to keep their jobs.  Let's stop only looking at programs and start looking at administrative costs...does anyone have the courage to lead this effort?   Members of Congress should be asking "What problem are we trying to solve?"  

The first answer to the the problem of too much spending resulting in too high taxes is a review of the bureaucracy and a demand for limiting administrative costs.   To those who provide anecdotal stories about people receiving assistance, pointing fingers at those "lacking compassion", the most compassionate answer is to demand the money in the program be given to the people who are eligible, not used  to increase salaries and provide benefits and bonuses for the ever increasing numbers of people who are paid to administer it. 

 

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Staff at US Embassies

Satellite image of BenghaziSatellite image of Benghazi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my privilege to serve my country as a US Ambassador, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  It gave me the opportunity to serve my country and also to become familiar with many of the challenges involved in that service.  Certainly my own experiences can not compare to those public servants in the foreign service who represent us all over the world in very dangerous places,  often taking their families along - living among the people of the country, educating their children providing great models of American families.

So it was with much sadness I learned of the deaths of those representing us in Benghazi.  In the immediate aftermath, the loss was compounded more information surfaced about the issues. Their repeated requests for additional security and the lack of support they received from Washington was shocking.

Now, even after the tragic loss of life, there has been seemingly no attention given to managing forward to prevent similar situations.  Instead, discussion and attention has been given to who should be blamed, who knew what and when, a question asked "What does it matter?" and never answered.  

The satellite picture above of Benghazi is similar to the scale of concern over such a loss.

The strategy at the Department of State is do nothing and wait until the media spotlight moves on to the next crisis.  People who continue to demand answers are accused of partisanship instead of genuine concern.  Partisanship may be the correct answer to why there is a continuing investigation - but I ask "What difference does it make?" If partisanship keeps a focus on the tragedy and the prevention of another one - so be it.  Motivation in this case is less a problem than those who would prefer ignoring the problem until it goes away.

To date, no one has been held accountable.  The worst punishment the public has heard about is personnel being transferred to different responsibilities - in some cases higher level positions with higher salaries. This feels like a reward not consequence.

There has been no explanation of change in policy of funding available to make our Embassies more secure....how we decide which posts can be protected well by locally employed staff and which cannot; how does Washington respond to calls for additional security?  Meantime people representing us abroad are less secure and seemingly less valued not only for their service but for their very lives. 

The lack of integrity and the impotence of the immediate US response and the ensuing so-called investigation is appalling.  Why would bright young people interested in serving their country through diplomatic service pursue such a career?  It has been made clear the security of our Embassies and the safety of the people who serve in them has no priority.

Those who serve us abroad deserve our respect and our thanks.  They do not deserve the utter lack of attention to their security and safety that is currently the norm.  

In my book "More Than A Walk on the Beach" , I shared some anecdotes along with some ideas about improving the processes and communication between the Embassies and the State Department.  Now more than ever change must come.  We must not continue to devalue our people abroad.



 

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Holidays

Flag of a US AmbassadorFlag of a US Ambassador (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something about holidays - particularly patriotic ones - cause me to write!

Independence Day is a holiday of great memories. Summer in Iowa, great food and lots of family, usually pretty hot, playing in the hose or finding a pool or a lake to visit - even going to the farm and picking some tomatoes...sound idyllic?  It was - and is.

My experience of serving overseas as a US Ambassador added more complex layers of memories and those are the ones that seem important today - and tomorrow.  Yes, we still celebrate with friends and family, eat too much and and enjoy fireworks displays.  

But now there is more.

We also remember the Independence Day celebrations that are held at every US Embassy through the world. A celebration of liberty shared with local citizens.  For me those memories include the Marines presenting the flag with precision and respect. They include the Barbados Royal Police Force Band playing the Star Spangled Banner.  Having the privilege of promoting two young Marines as a part of one of the evening programs. Performing on the steel pan drum the Barbados national anthem followed by "God Bless America" for the 600 plus guests at another.

That evening, before beginning to play, I simply said, "to honor Barbados".  As the music of the steel pan began, silence descended.  Then people began to hum along..it was absolutely quiet except for the humming. When I finished no one coughed or sneezed - it was still.  Then I said "to honor America" and began to play "God Bless America". Once again absolute stillness with only the soft humming.  I was so engaged, tears began to fall...it was a moment of beauty and shared love of country I will never forget.

Now those unforgettable moments return to me every Independence Day reminding me how remarkable it is to live in the United States of America.

In the United States we are free to pursue happiness...

while most of the rest of the world is pursuing survival. 

That surely gives new meaning to our Fourth of July celebrations...God Bless America - I am so thankful to have been born in the "land that I love". 

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Memorial Day

Taken in Madison, Wisconsin during Veteran's D...Taken in Madison, Wisconsin during Veteran's Day parade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We celebrate service in defense of our liberty on Memorial Day.

Remembrance does not glorify war - or conflict. Rather it is a solemn reminder of the cost of maintaining our freedom and a time to respect our heritage.  

My memories of watching young Marines stand before me presenting the flag are vivid.  They practiced until they performed their duty perfectly.  No exceptions.  The flag was respected, and their pride in the presentation was evident.  Looking into the faces of those young people was a reminder - they volunteered to lay down their lives for me. Such a wake up call....no way to sugar coat it. These young men and women in their dress blue uniforms  volunteered to preserve my liberty.  Living outside our country - even in a "safe" place - made one appreciate the blessed experience of being born and living in America.  This is not a cause for pride or arrogance. Rather, it inspires gratitude and humility.

Memorial Day also reminds me of all those who have come before.  I am so thankful to my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Because of them I grew up knowing who I was.  I never had a doubt of where I belonged.   

That sense of belonging today extends to those who serve, to those who work to make my community and my state a better place and yes, to all those who remember that liberty must be defended.  We may wish it wasn't so.  Niavely, at great risk, we can ignore the fact that there are many who wish to seize power for the purpose of dictating religion, lifestyle and law.  

I once saw a sign on the side of a bus that said "Ignore your teeth and they will go away".  The same can be said for our freedom.  "Ignore your freedom and it will go away".  

Today we remember and appreciate our heroes.  We must also respect the vigilance and the price that will be required to protect our liberty on into the future.  I am hopeful our best days are yet to come.

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Firemen First!

First responderFirst responder (Photo credit: patentboy)

The overwhelming discussion of sequestration and its effect is not only annoying it is - to use a diplomatic term - disingenuous.  

All organizations and institutions face times of prosperity and retrenchment. The impact of retrenchment causes leaders to review priorities and make decisions based on those priorities.  The Obama administration has done just that.   The handling of the sequester has made it perfectly clear their highest priority is to maintain spending levels while making any cuts to the federal and state government as visible, damaging and painful as possible..

Only in government is spending less than had been requested - even if more than the year before -  considered a cut. 

So after the standoff was over, the final date arrived when their own idea - the sequester - actually came to pass, a new strategy came into play.  Firemen First is the strategy chosen.  It involves cutting the most visible and valued government services first. 

Cabinet Secretaries toured the country proclaiming the approaching disasters.  The President used his bully pulpit to visit locations he had targeted for the largest cuts using campaign style rhetoric proclaiming the horrors that were to come.

The better interests of the country would have been served if cabinet secretaries and other managers in the federal government had been directed to protect the customer (US citizens) rather than inflict the most pain.  Do many of these high profile "cuts" seem petty and mean spirited?  

There is time to direct managers to manage - to prioritize their most critical and valued programs and manage their budgets accordingly.  Some have tried to do that and have been criticized by their leaders for doing so.  

Allowing managers to manage with the goal of protecting their customers and minimizing the cuts would mean that citizens could still visit the White House, people could still visit the national parks, meat inspectors could perform their duties (even if it meant some would miss the wine tasting in Napa Valley) and members of our military could still have access to education through tuition assistance (a promise made when they enlisted). 

What kind of actions or pressures will be required to take a different approach? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Courage and Negotiation

The Constitution in PerilThe Constitution in Peril (Photo credit: Renegade98)

Negotiating with courage, civility, integrity requires the sincere desire to find common ground.  

Following are a couple of useful strategies as we discuss the controversial issues of the day. 

It is helpful to recognize that the other person's beliefs are valid....for instance many people believe the Second Amendment protects all firearms regardless of size and scope.  If that is your position,acknowledge it, and then acknowledge that after tragedies that kill it is not difficult to understand why some people - especially families of victims - would want to change the current status.

A helpful follow up suggestion would be that the mental health of the shooter might be more of a problem than his weapon - so a discussion of the scope of the problem would be in order.

or,

If you believe the national debt is a much larger threat than global warming, an effective negotiator would acknowledge that climate change is occurring.  A follow up suggestion might be that the pace of global warming pales in comparison to the pace of increase of the national debt - so a discussion of prioritizing problems and issues would better serve the group.

Remember, negotiation does not demand compromise (or being compromised) it is about seeking common ground.

When common ground can be found (no matter how small the territory) celebrate - and then act on it - together.

A helpful tactic is to take some notes of agreements and share them...this prevents going over the same ground during the next discussion - where everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.

Are there training sessions in Congress?  Does anyone listen?  Or are people just waiting their turn to talk?

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Negotiation - A "Dirty" Word?

NewtownNewtown (Photo credit: BeauGiles)

Someone who is interested in negotiating to solve problem does not call a news conference to pronounce his opponent's positions as absurd.  "I will not negotiate" is not the opening salvo of a person who believes he can lead.

Successful negotiations usually begin with each side acknowledging some of the positions held by the opponent...the first step in finding common ground.

For example, what if someone acknowledged there is a Second Amendment to the Constitution and it is valued and respected by many Americans.  They have not been hijacked into their belief or position by a lobbying group.

What if someone said the issues that cause a tragedy like the one that occurred in Newtown are many and complex. Let's review all of those issues - starting with the mental health of the shooter.

Just asking questions would begin discussions that might have a chance of solving some problems. 

As it is, the atmosphere in Washington reminds me of recess at an elementary school when the barometer is falling.

 

 

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