It snowed today. Basically we had seven weeks of October, three days of November and now we're in December. This is, by Armenian standards, not unusual.
in other big news, I visited a Minister this morning, on business. And therein lies a story! Pull up a chair and light up a smoke, because I have to go back a little ways.
A typical United States Embassy is run by two people, the Ambassador and the "Deputy Chief of Mission", or DCM. The Ambassador's job is to be an Ambassador... to meet with foreign dignitaries, appear at solemn ceremonies, negotiate with the host government, and in general represent America.
The DCM's job is to actually, you know, run the embassy. While the Ambassador is smiling for the cameras or quietly taking a Minister aside for a chat, the DCM is making sure that the Embassy's lights stay on, that payrolls are met, the grass is mowed, and the food in the cafeteria is fresh and hot. Officially the Ambassador is the first authority in the Embassy, while the DCM is the second. But in practice they have totally different responsibilities.
If you are State Department staff working in an embassy? You might meet with the Ambassador sometimes to discuss policy, but odds are you'll spend a lot more time dealing with (and, if you're unlucky, worrying about) the DCM. He's the guy who puts you in housing, assigns you an office, and approves your leave requests.
Here's a thing: DCMs don't generally become Ambassadors. I'm going to elide a lengthy description of how advancement works in the State Department (it involves cones. Yes, really.) and just say that a DCM who gets promoted doesn't usually become an Ambassador. Instead, he (or she; many are female) becomes DCM of a bigger, more important embassy. Being DCM of one of America's big embassies is a serious senior management position; you may have several hundred people under you and a budget of tens of millions of dollars.
Obviously, this is a different skill set from being an Ambassador. Ambassadors should be intelligent, perceptive, and discreet; they should be able to mask their opinions; they should be able to put anyone quickly at their ease. They are diplomats. DCMs, on the other hand, are all about command of detail. They are managers and bureaucrats.
Okay, well, here's the funny thing. When the position of Ambassador stands empty for a while, someone has to step in as "acting ambassador". In the diplomatic world, this person has a special name -- they're the "Charge d'Affaires", or simply "Charge". That's French -- a hangover from the days when the French dominated diplomacy -- and it's pronounced Shar-Jay. A Charge performs the duties of an Ambassador but has, in diplomatic protocol, a lower status. Putting the fascinating details aside, here's the thing: since the DCM is the #2 person at the Embassy, often the DCM becomes Charge.
Now, if the DCM is just warming the chair for a few weeks while a new Ambassador is being confirmed by the Senate, this is no big deal. But once in a great while it will happen that the Ambassadorial position will stay open for much longer. In that case, the State Department may assign a diplomat -- perhaps an Ambassador who's between assignments -- to step in for a while. Or, if things seem to be going okay and the country is not a hot spot, they may just let the DCM keep running things indefinitely. This is rather hard on the DCM, who has to wear two hats and do two jobs, one of which he may not be temperamentally suited for. On the other hand, it's something of a feather in the cap to have been Charge for a long period of time.
You've probably guessed that this isn't a hypothetical situation. Armenia has been without an American ambassador since May 2006. The former Ambassador -- a gentleman with the wonderfully ambassadorial name of John Marshall Evans -- was abruptly recalled by the Bush administration for reasons that were never made clear. It's widely assumed, though, that it was because he was rather too outspoken in his statements on the Armenian Genocide. As one acquaintance put it, "He used the G-Word". Since the US does not formally recognize the Late Ottoman Empire Bad Thing Where Lots Of Armenians Died as a, you know, genocide, this was not very diplomatic of him.
However, firing him ticked off the powerful Armenian lobby in America. Ticked them off so much that they got a couple of Senators to interrogate the guy who was supposed to replace him. That unfortunate fellow was forced to say, under the spotlight, that there wasn't a, you know, genocide. This was formally consistent with the United States' position, but it enraged the Armenian lobby to the point where they threw all their weight against his nomination. A prominent Senator announced that he was putting a "hold" on the nomination -- don't ask -- and after a while it was withdrawn.
The problem, of course, is that this has created a Catch-22 for future ambassadorial nominees. If they use the G-word, they're violating State Department policy. If they don't, they're going to outrage the Armenian lobby and may not make it through the Senate.
It'll be interesting to see if this can be finessed... but meanwhile, Armenia is still without a US Ambassador. Has been for a year and a half now, and likely will be for many months to come. (The Bush administration withdrew the last nominee in August, and hasn't even tried to fill the position since.)
Here's how weird it's gotten: when Ambassador Evans left, his DCM took over as Charge. We've now been without an Ambassador so long that the DCM, after serving as Charge for a year, moved on to another assignment. He was replaced by another DCM, who promptly stepped up to become Charge.
Now there are a couple of stories here. There's the interesting story of the Armenian lobby in America, and how powerful it is (sometimes), and how it's not always on the same wavelength as the Armenians of Armenia -- the government here in Yerevan would probably be willing to close one eye on the genocide issue if it got them a US Ambassador, but the American Armenians are much more hardline. There's also the story of US policy on the genocide issue, which can fairly be described as "squirmy", but which is not completely without justification -- it's a complicated issue, and fascinating in a sausage-making kind of way.
And then there's the story of how not having an Ambassador for a couple of years may affect ordinary people in the country in question... say, a USAID contractor, his family, or his local staff. Maybe not a very dramatic story, but perhaps there's some academic interest.
Okay, this is going long. Part 2 in a day or two. (Wasn't I meeting a Minister, or something? Patience.)