Susan Page gave up the practice of law to join the U.S. State Department and see the world.
In 22 years, she saw plenty.
Susan is a retired Foreign Service officer of lofty rank. She is living at 70 in a pleasant condo in Bankers Hill that looks across the skyscrapers of downtown and beyond to the waters of San Diego Bay. It’s the good life (which is what most people would say who don’t have that view).
Her condo has the far-flung memorabilia of the world traveler. The items and art are attractive and appear to be chosen with an eye. No Niagara Falls taselled cushions on the couch.
She has a lawyer’s cross-examining mind, capable of undressing a weak argument with withering logic that I’m sure has had opponents wondering, “How did I get into this?”
When people join the Foreign Service, they envision the sidewalk cafes of Paris, the theaters of London or the snow of Moscow crunching underfoot. You know, like the movies. But during her time in the service, she was stationed mainly in such unsought postings as China (Shanghai), Lithuania and Colombia. She finished her career in Iraq.
She was based in Baghdad for three years, beginning in 2008 during the surge of rebuilding. How much money have we spent trying to rebuild that broken place? Who knows? Just make sure your estimate has 13 numbers. Susan was a management specialist who watched those dollars flow like oatmeal through a feeding tube to grinning Iraqi “officials.”
Susan describes the spending frenzy that seemed to grip Americans in charge of spending money: “They had this money, so they would (figuratively) go out on the street and ask organizations, ‘Come up with some way we can spend this money.’
“To me, it was kind of backasswards, you know? It seemed to me like you should look at the country, see what the problems are and then develop a program to solve those problems. Instead it was just the opposite. They would say, ‘We have these many, many millions; give us an idea of how to spend it.’
“When I first saw that (behavior), I said, ‘Why don't we just give the money back?’ (to Washington). Their reaction was, ‘Oh no, no, no. We would never do that.’
“The feeling was, if we don't spend it, we won't be doing our job.”
In her last two years there, Susan was assigned to the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau. Her position was a management officer, not chasing drug dealers down rabbit-warren alleys.
One of her jobs was as a management overseer of a project to build a large police academy in Baghdad. She says the American contractors were well into the construction when the government of Iraq told them to stop because they had never agreed to the project.
Susan is a very smart woman whom you can tell tolerates fools poorly. She signals her disgust with a biting little smile. “So, they just stopped right in the middle of it, and all that money was down the drain.”
Were they embarrassed?
“It's not their money, so it doesn't really matter.”
I bet you weren't very popular at times.
“It was my last tour, so I really didn't give a ----. Quote me on that. I was told by this colleague that I spoke truth to power because I said, ‘This doesn't make any sense.’”
Susan adds, “The problem is, and this is sort of my thinking on the whole Middle East: We want to impose a democratic system on the population when many of them can't even read — can’t read Arabic, much less anything else. Very unsophisticated, low level of education and yet, George W. Bush, bless his heart, wanted to set up a democracy.
“A book written by a Foreign Service officer is called ‘We Meant Well.’ Yeah, but it was an unrealistic goal because the people are used to a strong central government telling them what to do.”
Susan says the U.S. sent military and civilian teams into the interior to set up provincial councils to promote autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. The problem was, Baghdad had no intention of releasing control and refused to fund the councils.
And when the councils did scrape together enough money to launch a project, it might have been better left on the pad. As an example, Susan tells of a chicken processing plant constructed by Americans. Great idea, except they couldn’t find enough chickens. When they did find some, consumers wouldn’t buy them because frozen chickens from Brazil were cheaper.
And the U.S. paid for it?
“Absolutely,” she says with a head shake. “It was like that all over the place.
“It was really funny. When I first went to work in Baghdad, they kept talking about capacity building, capacity building. I said, ‘Capacity for what?’ The answer was, ‘Well, just capacity.’ It was like nobody could ever tell me — capacity for what?”
She says American advisers, many of them top-flight corporate executives, worked hard to build Western-style models for new industries and installations. The problem was, Iraq was not the West.
Contractors and bureaucrats were all over the place, and a lot of money was made, both from contracts and government salaries.
Susan included. She waves toward the airy view out of a west window. “I made a lot of money, I mean, this condo. Thank you, Baghdad.”
She says undeveloped countries seem to have a problem maintaining things. Once facilities get built, they tend to go to pot. She mentions the construction in Baghdad of an academy to train judges. It was built by an American contractor and looked pretty good. Then, management and maintenance was turned over to the Iraqis.
“When the big head of [the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau] came out from Washington for the ribbon-cutting, she said in astonishment, ‘The toilets don’t work.’
“It's like, well yeah, hello. We can't fix it. We can't go back and fix their toilets. It’s theirs. If a toilet blocked, they just let it be blocked. Nobody did anything. The place was already falling apart before the ribbon was cut.”
I ask if Susan can shed any insider’s light on the massacre at the outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. She was not there, but staffers talk and senior staffers talk knowledgeably, especially those with inside knowledge that she says she talked to.
Susan says, “Every installation I've ever been in has what they call these tabletop exercises where you simulate emergencies. The main player is the American military. The protocol is if anything looks like it's starting to happen, the first thing you do is you call in the military and you say, ‘Help. We need assets.’
“I know from firsthand experience that the military is not going to do anything unless the State Department asks them. State Department never asked the military to come into Benghazi. The military was ready, willing, and able to come in.”
They were eager to go in, you say?
“Absolutely, but protocol says — and I know this from firsthand knowledge of these tabletop exercises — somebody from the State Department has to say, ‘Come help us.’ And I’m certain the call never came. Even if they arrived too late, they would have to go.”
Who would have to generate the order?
Her assertion: “It has to come from the secretary, of course.”
Susan says her first job in the Foreign Service as a management officer was with visa applications. She learned very quickly that being realistic was to be jaded.
“Everybody lied, it seemed. Almost all the documents were fraudulent; you'll be pulling your hair out by the end ...”
She stops and looks over at my head and is reminded I have as much hair as the Mojave Desert has Kentucky bluegrass.
“No offense,” she says.
“None taken. I have a mirror.”
That settled, she returns to the narrative. “There are document packagers who will build a package with phony visas, phony this and phony that. They can buy them on the street.
“In Colombia, where I worked, half the documents were fake, and Colombia is a developed country.”
She smiles a little lip twist and shakes her head at her notion of immigrants and refugees from countries or areas that have no reliable government agencies or databases from which authenticity can be checked.
“Been there, done that” is a throwaway line, but maybe it shouldn’t be. There are many intelligent people like Susan Page who have experiences and knowledge to whom we could wisely pay heed. Even if we disagree with what they say, just listening makes us smarter.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com.