Avoiding Sun-Kissed Tuscany, and Other Tips for the Prudent Junketer

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua now merits a respectful honorific from the White House.
Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua now merits a respectful honorific from the White House. (By Edgard Garrido -- Associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It has come to our attention that certain politicians who recently traveled overseas on the taxpayers' dime were unhappy with press coverage of their journey.

This is hardly the first time government officials and staff members have been upset about criticism of their global travels. And, in truth, the line between junket -- a vacation with spouses to exotic places on a military jet -- and actual work-related travel can be hazy.

So for all travelers on congressional delegations (codels) who want to avoid snarky press coverage, we offer the 2007 In the Loop Guide to Codels.

Rule No. 1: Try to travel to places that have a direct relationship to important foreign policy issues. In addition to such places as China and Russia, this would be Darfur anytime, Gaza in August, Chechnya in February, Waziristan, a week in Anbar province.

Exception: Scores of lawmakers have wandered to Iraq in the past four years, many of them multiple times. All had campaign pictures taken with troops from their districts -- rounded up specially for the occasion -- and were given tours of the Green Zone and Camp Victory. Many came back thumping their chests, saying, "I've been to Iraq." They then touted great progress toward "victory" and blasted the media for willfully ignoring all the good news in Fallujah.

Maybe lawmakers could at least follow the example of Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), a much-decorated Vietnam vet who strapped on body armor and went on patrol two years ago with the 82nd Airborne in Ramadi.

Rule No. 2: Ditch the spouse. Spouses raise red flags for reporters. Reporters are no longer buying the dodge about spouses traveling "at no extra cost." Understaffed embassy personnel have to schedule separate events, provide vans, maybe security, guides and so forth for day trips, sightseeing and shopping. Given the recent cutbacks at U.S. embassies, this is hardly what those folks need to be doing.

Corollary: On a generic "meetings with foreign leaders" trip, avoid lingering. Spouses tend to lengthen trips, with evenings devoted to receptions and dinners -- as opposed to meeting with dissidents in hiding, with human rights advocates, with harassed religious leaders, with refugees or even just traveling to the next stop.

Rule No. 3: Avoid going north in the summer, south in the winter. Never go anywhere in Italy, at any time, on the taxpayers' dime. Be very careful about the Paris Air Show. European travel in general, especially in the early fall or in the spring, will raise eyebrows. Winter trips to the Caribbean are inherently suspect.

Rule No. 4: Do not go to various wonders of the world -- Petra, the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Iguazu Falls, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat or African game parks. Ditto handicraft fairs.

Exception: There will be times when obligatory travel to bad places, or to funerals and inaugurations and such, will bring you near a primo tourist destination. The rule of reason governs. An "unavoidable" stop at St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, for example, doesn't pass any laugh test.

Rule No. 5: Do not blow off intelligence briefings at the embassies. You are there, after all, to gather facts. Embassy folks may, or may not, have some.

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