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

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.

Rule No. 6: Do not overload your military aircraft with the bargain booty -- rugs, golf clubs, artifacts and such -- you hope to sneak in without regular customs inspection.

Once Our Enemy, Now Your Excellency

Speaking of travel, here are some words you never thought you'd see coming out of the White House: " President Bush today announced the designation of a Presidential Delegation to attend the inauguration of His Excellency José Daniel Ortega Saavedra, President of the Republic of Nicaragua on January 10, 2007."

"His Excellency"? Wasn't this guy some random commie thug, pal of Fidel Castro, just a few years back? The late Jeane Kirkpatrick must be spinning. And who drew the short straw to lead this august delegation? That would be Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services.

Unclear how they traveled to the ceremony. Maybe they flew to Harlingen, Tex., and then drove? As they used to say in the '80s, Managua's communists were only a two-day drive from there.

Changing Times

Good jobs opening up at the State Department. Buzz is Robert Joseph, undersecretary for arms control and international security, is going to be moving on, possibly at the end of this month.

The date is uncertain, we're told, because it has changed a few times. Apparently Secretary Condoleezza Rice wanted Joseph, who we're told has been frozen out of some important issues, to stay on for a bit given all the openings.

There have been a lot of them. Rice finally tapped national intelligence chief John Negroponte for the long-vacant deputy secretaryship and announced Iraq ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for the U.N. posting. There are still excellent openings for an undersecretary for economic, business and agricultural affairs; for counselor; for coordinator for counterterrorism; and, with last week's departure of John Hillen, for assistant secretary for political-military affairs.

Looking Out for the Bad Guys

Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he established and directs a program called "America's Enemies," which the center says will "focus on identifying, studying, and heightening awareness of the threats posed to America and the West."

No, the program doesn't appear to focus exclusively on Pennsylvania's Democrats. Seems to be looking more to "a growing array of anti-Western forces" overseas.

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