Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Those coming out of Foggy Bottoms should not complain about turds

Do Third World countries smell? Think about it. Firstly, let's read Diplomad - an anonymous U.S. diplomat in (I presume) Aceh:

Many years ago, as we prepared our return to a tough posting in the Far Abroad after leave in the States, our son asked, "Do we have to go back to the 'turd' world?" That phrase, "redolent" with the wisdom possessed only by children, has stayed with me over these passing years. My son was right about the 'turd' world. What tips you off that you have arrived in a poor country, a truly, genuinely dirt-poor corner of the Far Abroad, is the smell. As you leave the airport, you notice a special "exotic" odor of rotting vegetation, garbage, and feces combined with a slight whiff of smoke. Once you're there a bit, you no longer notice. When you leave and come back, it slams you all over again. The kid was right: we had been and still do live in the "Turd World."

Maybe I've been in this country too long, but applying it to Việt Nam would be an inaccurate slur. Firstly, the smell you notice stepping out of the airport  - whether it be Sài Gòn, Đà Lạt or Đá Nẵng (the three I've experienced) is jet fuel, plus what ever air pollution is available locally. Fucking obvious. To smell garbage, just stand close to a bin - an axiom true from Melbourne to Manchester. And I don't know what Diplomad has against "rotting vegetation". Rotting vegetation is a perfectly natural thing that you get in rainforests. I've just visited the rainforests of Cát Tiên national park. It smelt nice. I want to visit Cát Tiên again. Nope, I don't know what he meant by "rotting vegetation". Oops, I think he meant "rotting vegetables". Now I've done my share house living. I've cleaned out 3 month old Bok Choi from fridges. It's a bad odor. It's not an odor present in great amounts here, unless you visit the local markets. Then you get a big whiff of it. But markets aren't everywhere, and there are big spaces free of them, and their stench of rotting vegetables.

Yes, sometimes you do get the stench of faeces in your face. I've blogged about the local cloacas that pass for canals. Things are also whiffy at home - due to the government making much needed renovations to the sewers. But in most parts of town you don't smell shit. It's not that the walls are clean. Far from it. But they don't smell. Except maybe of urine. To many Vietnamese men, wall = urinal. But isn't that also true in the first world?

There are worse things in this country. Mũi Né is a small beachtown 200 km east of Sài Gòn. It's a nice vacation spot. The only real drawback is in the air. Every now and then, the air wafts to you the stench - the stench of something dead and rotting. In this case, fish: sealed in thousands of clay pots and fermenting away. The process result in nước mắn - fish sauce, which happens to be Việt Nam's #1 condiment. It's actually not a bad substance in cooking. But the odor of the manufacturing is unforgettable.

Now I can go on and on about the unfairness of describing undeveloped countries as "The Turd World". As if the First doesn't have its share of smells. (Even been behind a roadtrain of cattle? They're common in Australia. The combined stench of stearic acid and bullshit is also unforgettable.) It also reveals a surprisingly condescending attitude for a diplomat. Unfortunately, there's something smellier about Diplomad's site:

A Blog by career US Foreign Service officers. They are Republican (most of the time) in an institution (State Department) in which being a Republican can be bad for your career -- even with a Republican President! Join the State Department Republican Underground.

Yes, but which sort of Republican? Are we talking about "grownup" Republicans - people like Gerald Ford, George Bush (senior) and George Schultz? You might not agree with them, but you could work with them, and they sometimes did good things. For example, Bush was the man who kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. They were people you could deal with. They were (more or less) competent.

I hope that the's sort of Republican Diplomad is. I fear he belongs to a less savory grouping: those PNAC / Neoconservative motherfuckers. Neither benevolent nor competent nor loved by the rest of the world. People like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, and many other asshats who came to prominence post 2001. They're far more ideological and intolerant than the first group. A lot of them love the idea of U.S. Hegemony. Alas, they're not that competent. It's people like them who got George Bush junior into invading Iraq with wildly overoptimistic troop estimates. They were the ones who bought Ahmed Chalabi's bullshit. And anyone who questioned this was sidelined or sacked.

And now look at the mess they made. 1300 American dead and 10,000 American injured (and 100,000 dead Iraqis) later, Iraq is run by 20 or 30 different factions with guns. The insurgency now has a 6-digit population later - twice the figure of U.S. soldiers stationed there. Even the green zone isn't safe. They're now down to using up their reserves. And they've pissed off France and Germany so much that they're not getting any help from them. The only way they're getting out with face is if the Iraqi elections are peaceful. Since electoral workers are being killed, that looks unlikely. Is Iraq Việt Nam on crack? From where I'm sitting, mate, it's looking more like Teotoburg Forest.

So how would Diplomad classify himself? He doesn't say. When he bitches about other countries (which is often), he reminds me of the second group. For example, on other countries' contribution to the tsunami humanitarian effort:

Sitting VERY late for two consecutive nights in interminable meetings with UN reps, hearing them go on about "taking the lead coordination role," pledges, and the impending arrival of this or that UN big shot or assessment/coordination team, for the millionth time I realized that if not for Australia and America almost nobody in the tsunami-affected areas would have survived more than a few days. If we had waited for the UNocrats to get their act coordinated, the already massive death toll would have become astronomical. But, fortunately, thanks to "retrograde racist war-mongers " such as John Howard and George W. Bush, as we sat in air conditioned meeting rooms with these UNocrats, young Australians and Americans were at that moment "coordinating" without the UN and saving the lives of tens-of-thousands of people.

Well according to Wikipedia, Singapore has been doing sterling work in using its armed forces in Aceh, and Malaysia (one of the countries hit in the disaster) is actually shifting resources to help other countries. There's a lot of good stuff coming in from other countries. Look up the link. Singling out two countries for special praise (of which one happens to be his own) is unwarranted here. And I don't think that John Howard and George W. Bush are "retrogade racist war-mongers". I think they're "assholes". The difference is that John Howard is actually competent at his job, was aware of the tsunami when it happened, and occasionally shows signs of genius. For example, his 1 billion AUD aid to Indonesia stunned everyone. (Including me. And for a rare change, in admiration.) While Dubya seemed unaware of the tragedy at first, and then pledged stingily.

I don't want to be too hard on Diplomad, because he's fighting the good fight too. He sounds like he's been running ragged at the Embassy trying to organize the aid effort, and thus grouchy as a result. The crash of a U.S. aid helicopter in Aceh today wouldn't have helped his temper either. I salute him, but I also remember that one can be a hero and a prick as the same time. He seems to love whining about "Scandinavians and leftist Americans, and the occasional pompous Euro-Brazilian". He decries the U.N. as the "High Priest Vulture Elite". He accuses them of being a parasitic elite better at photoshots than actually giving aid. Paranoid hyperbole? I'm not too fussed about the organization myself, and the way it dropped the ball on Rwanda. On the other hand, U.N. peacekeeping troops did better work in East Timor. Irregardless of that, the United Nations organization is definitely in need of reform. If he digs dirt on them, then good on him! If it contributes to the reform of the U.N., so much the better! But does Diplomad want abolishment? I don't know, but if it doesn't sound like a good idea. Better an ineffectual organization where countries can talk than no such organization. Or is he one of those people who believe in American hegemony? No way.

One interesting question is: why is being a republican bad for your career in the State Department? Remember, this comes at a time when the Republicans control the House, the Senate and the Cabinet. Diplomad is sort of hinting that upper-level public servants are political biased. My guess is different: these public servants have observed - in the space of 4 years - how an atavistic and ill-judged Republican administration have trashed the good international reputation of the U.S. built slowly and gradually since World War II. This month, they see the retirement of their boss, and possibly the last grown-up Republican, one Colin Powell, who has been slowly sidelined by Rumsfeld, Cheney and others of their ilk. By their standards, the remaining Republicans are PNAC / Neoconservative sympathizers, and can be fairly judged to be batshit crazy. That's not political bias. That's just self-protection.