Monday, April 04, 2005

Beacon No. 28: Time Keeps on Tickin', Tickin', Tickin'


In many cultures, haste is considered a sign of weakness at best, and rudeness at worst.

For example, last December I spoke with a U.S. Army colonel who was a captain during Gulf War I. Tasked by his commander to procure fuel, generators and sundries from behind the lines during the run-up to war, this then-captain drove to a city in the rear and found a store that seemed like it might carry what he needed. It was already filled with other American officers who wanted similar supplies—right now and WHAT EXACTLY IS WRONG HERE, SIR, THAT I CANNOT PROCURE A FEW GENERATORS?

This captain politely checked in with the shop's proprietor, a Lebanese who was not about to act like he was the clerk at a 7-Eleven for all these gringos, and then sat down.

And sat. And sat, sweating through his fatigues.

Eventually, the proprietor put off the increasingly agitated American supply officers and offered the seated captain some coffee. The captain accepted. Then came a cigarette, which the captain obligingly puffed on even though he didn't smoke.

The proprietor sat down and the two communicated haltingly in English and the sprinkling of Arabic the captain knew. Family photos were exchanged, as were stories of one another's countries. No one said anything about supplies or money.

Hours later—many cups of Arabic coffee and 20 cigarettes later—the proprietor sat up a little straighter and said, So, how may I be of assistance to you?

The captain replied that if it wouldn't be any trouble—he certainly didn't want to cause inconvenience—could the proprietor look into finding some of the items on the list he'd written?

Of course, the proprietor said. The list vanished into a pocket, and nothing more was said about it.

More cigarettes, coffee and friendly conversation went by. The captain and the proprietor eventually went to dinner, much to the outrage of the remaining Americans.

The next day, guess which officer's request for supplies was filled, and who returned to the front lines with a truck full of supplies, and whose commander was thrilled, and who had a crucial new link in his personal supply chain?

The time cost of getting these supplies was enormous, but by showing some cultural sensitivity, the captain was ahead of all of his colleagues who needed similar stuff.

In a country without Wal-Marts, the patient man is king.

Which brings us to the lightning overseas tours of most Bush administration officials. Like the late cartoonist Charles Schulz, who practically never spent a night away from home after serving in World War II, the most powerful figures in the Bush White House have a morbid fear of lingering past breakfast anywhere in the world.

That's fine in Europe, which is starting to do business at U.S. speeds for the first time in its history. But in the rest of the world, politeness and patience matter, even when you're leading a war on something as incivil as terror—maybe especially then.

First Lady Laura Bush flew entirely around the world to spend just six hours in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hit six Asian nations in eight days, racking up 21,118 flying miles in the process. Before that she visited London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Vatican City, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg City in another eight-day sprint. (That's nine countries, 11 if you count Vatican City and the Palestinian Territories as separate nations.)

And then there's the president, breezing into Manila for eight hours in September 2003, flitting into Baghdad for a mere 2-1/2 hours to share Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops, blowing through Cartagena, Colombia for four hours in November 2004, glancing at a wildlife park in Botswana for a mere 20 minutes, and so on. His 18-hour stop in Ireland on the way to a 2004 NATO summit is one of the longer of his administration, and some of the Irish press speculated that it was because of a simple need to sleep before the meeting in Turkey.

I understand that administration officials' time is valuable in and of itself. I get that the President isn't fond of extended policy discussions or long meetings, preferring to be a decision-maker rather than a deliberator. And third, I'm sure that staying in one place for too long makes one an easier target for assassins and terrorists.

But what can government officials do in D.C. that they can't do in their technologically advanced aircraft and embassies? What requires their personal presence back home? There could be a lot gained by officials who linger in the host country for a day or two and talk with someone besides the top-level ministers. Give the gossip columnists in Ankara something favorable to write about by taking your party to a restaurant. Make the Bratislava Bugle Corps' day by sitting still for a performance. Be seen at the Prado when you're in Madrid!

I believe the president and his Cabinet should make an effort to at least spend the night in more places and break bread more often, rather than metaphorically gulping coffee while speed-walking past the airport duty-free shop.

Formal state visits to the U.S. are supposed to be a major reward for foreign dignitaries who come to Washington, and the U.S. doles them out sparingly; but it's also a sign of goodwill and friendship when administration officials spend more than 20 minutes looking at someone else's national treasure—like that game park in Botswana—before moving on to whatever else is so crushingly important.

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