Sometimes things go wrong on the road. For the international traveler, trouble with the local political authorities is about as wrong as things can go; and the worst political trouble is war. I know of one lawyer now in an Iraqi hotel, a guest of Saddam Hussein. He had been living and working in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates; but he accompanied a client to Kuwait on business and arrived just in time to be greeted by the invading Iraqi army, which subsequently invited him to Iraq as a "guest."
War isn't the only bad political trouble, of course. A woman I know was imprisoned for several months in a Mexican jail as a result of a business dispute with a Mexican partner. Although she had lived off and on in Mexico for years, the authorities decided that she should be a guest of the state until the matter was resolved.
What do we do about political trouble? The tourist can always stay home, but for the business traveler it isn't always that easy. The decision demands a calculation of how real the danger is -- a calculation that usually must be made from insufficient facts. Americans -- my partners included -- are still flying into countries bordering Iraq. Should they? In situations like this, most people end up going, because at the start of the trip the risks are imponderable and distant but the business needs are concrete and immediate. The natural tendency is to understate distant risks. No one wants to look like a quitter. Careers are made by taking risks, not by avoiding them.
I was in the Soviet Republic of Moldavia a year ago on Revolution Day, 1989, the anniversary of the revolution that brought the Communists to power. Moldavia was a part of Romania until early in World War II, when Stalin decided it would make a nice addition to the empire. The unrest that swept all of Eastern Europe in the 1980s led, in Moldavia, to the budding of a movement for reunion with Romania; and Revolution Day was the natural focus of expression for the movement.
In 1988, members of the National Front had lain down in front of the tanks that were ready to roll in the Revolution Day parade in Kishinev, the Moldavian capital. For 1989, the authorities, hoping to avoid political trouble, abandoned the tanks and opted for a peaceful workers' parade; but the National Front upped the ante by attacking a police station to free compatriots who had been arrested. The authorities called in the army, which let its tanks roll.
I was at the time staying at the Intourist Hotel on one end of Lenin Avenue, with my wife, Olga, a native of Moldavia. I was eager to have a look at the action: It's not every day you get to see a revolution in the making.
Now, I should mention that Olga was a political dissident when she lived in the U.S.S.R. So I thought that a nice street demonstration would be just the thing for her: She had organized plenty of them herself.
The nice thing about Olga is that I can always count on her for another point of view.
She said, "Don't be stupid. If you have something you want to accomplish, then I'll come with you and support you. But it's dumb to get shot just out of curiosity."
Although her point may seem obvious -- "Don't get in harm's way for foolish reasons" -- in practice it frequently is disregarded. It demands thinking more carefully about our purposes than most of us are comfortable with. At those times, it seems to me, one has to focus -- and focus in advance -- on the purpose and not on the risk. Is this really going to be worth it? The same principle is behind the only useful lesson of the Vietnam War -- never fight a war you don't intend to win. Which brings us back to Iraq.
How do you prepare to go into a troubled area, in case your risk-reward calculation proves to have been skewed in the wrong direction?
Have a plan. Decide in advance on some lines of action that might be useful if the crunch comes. Think of all the contacts that could even remotely be useful. Are you a member of Rotary International? The Lion's Club? The International Bar Association? Who are their officers or members in the area where you're going? Does your company have an Arab American employee whose wife has a cousin in the PLO? They should all be in your plan. If trouble comes, you can't have too many ideas: No one knows which will turn out to be a good one.
Make sure the people back home know what the plan is. They shouldn't have to re-create it. They may not be able to. Probably they won't be as well informed as you are, and they won't know where you keep the telephone number of the Byelorussian ambassador to the United Nations.
Keep to your itinerary. Nothing helps if no one knows where you are. Both your family and your company should know where you are expected to be and how to reach you. Communication within a trouble zone is likely to be much more difficult than communication from the outside in. And people outside have much more freedom of action. They can get access to people you can't, and can devote their full time to trying to get you out. Make it easy for them to help you.
Don't be ashamed to ask for help. The more help you can attract, the better. Try to rally support from politicians, from the Red Cross, from your professional organizations.
Go public. Your supporters should try to get your situation into the newspapers and on television. If the whole world is watching, bad things are less likely to be done. My wife knows that many Soviet dissidents survived because their names were known in the West. If you can be a cause ce'le`bre, be one.
Know where the American authorities are, and keep in touch. In traveling abroad, even with no trouble in sight, it is always worthwhile to learn in advance the location of the American embassy and consulates, and their telephone numbers. Nothing is harder than trying to get a telephone number in a language you don't understand perfectly from a telephone company that doesn't operate perfectly and isn't really interested in your troubles anyway.
A good resource: the U.S. State Department's booklet listing key officials and phone numbers at Foreign Service posts around the world. "Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts" is updated three times a year and is available for $1.75 ($5 for a one-year subscription) from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325; ask for stock number 744-006-00000-7.
If your situation is unsettled, let the consulate know where you are and how you can be reached. Don't be embarrassed to call it for advice.
On the other hand, don't feel bound by consular advice. Our embassy in Kuwait advised, early on, against trying independent escapes from the country. The lawyer I mentioned took the advice, and stayed put, when his Syrian client set out across the desert in a two-wheel drive Mitsubishi with a local guide. The client escaped. The Iraqi army picked up the lawyer at the house where he was staying.
The client, of course, was taking what looked like the larger risk, and the embassy advised against it. But be aware that diplomatic officials are always going to err on the side of inaction. Their own risk -- at least their perceived risk -- is less if they advise doing nothing. Seek advice; but always remember that when the worst has happened you really are on your own. Make your own decisions.
Be friends with your local business associates, and include them in your plan. People will frequently go beyond mere courtesy, even into personal risk, to protect their foreign business partners. I know of another American businessman who has, to the date of this writing, stayed safely with the family of a Kuwaiti businessman he was visiting when the invasion came. He isn't out yet, but he still has options. The Iraqi army doesn't leave you any.
William E. Holland is a lawyer with the firm of Chadbourne & Parke in New York.