Saturday, November 15, 2008

Well Said...

Every month in the Foreign Service Journal AFSA President John Naland writes a column. In the past couple issues Naland has focused on the professional development and responsibility of Foreign Service Officers. Reminiscent of the debates over the professionalization of the U.S. military officers corps in the past century, Naland has suggested a range of measures, including education and open debate, that would improve the overall quality of our diplomatic corps.

Naland's column in the November issue of the Foreign Service Journal was brilliant. In it he points out the obvious...while much of the criticism (including my own) of the Secretary in failing to get resources for the Department and in (quite frankly) misusing the men and women entrusted to her leadership is just, it ignores the obvious. The Secretary is supposed to be surrounded, supported, and, if necessary, challenged by the senior career leadership of the Department. That senior leadership has failed.

Naland sums the problem up well:

"These examples show senior officers failing to stand up for the career Service. Instead of speaking up to their political superiors about likely negative consequences of the pending decisions, some officers became compliant yes-men and yes-women. Some crossed the divide between nonpartisan career officials and political appointees by allying themselves with a politically appointed patron. As a result, they reaped personal gains such as obtaining or retaining a plum assignment leading to a pay-grade promotion or performance-pay bonus."

These officers know who they are. So do many of the rest of us. Happily, I do not believe they are representative of the majority of career Foreign and Civil Service personnel in the Deparment. Hopefully in the next administration, these people will be given an opportunity to shine.

Will a New Secretary Mean New Leadership?

Rumors of Hillary Clinton possibly become Secretary of State have apparently shifted the focus of transition speculation to the State Department for now. The Washington Post this morning had a couple articles on the topic. The most interesting article, which really was nothing new to those of us in the Foreign Service, was on the serious lack of resources for the Department and the Foreign Service.

It was bad enough when our travel budgets were slashed so that---even cramped in the worst seats in the plane (no "economy plus" for our fearless public servants)---we lacked the money to travel to the places and meet the people necessary to advance our nation's foreign policy agenda. Now I'd be happy if my office had the money to buy us pens.

And forget about Secretary Powell's much lauded training float. Foreign Service Officers get one week of leadership and management training every few years. I know we're supposed to be the best and the brightest, but 3 weeks of classroom exploration does not make good leaders. And that lack of training shows...

The State Department, despite its important mission, is a very small government agency, with relatively weak lobbying power, especially compared to the Department of Defense. It's important, though, that we have a Secretary committed to fighting for the resources he or she needs to carry out the administration's foreign policy. It was deeply disappointing that recently the loudest call for increased funding for the Department of State came not from the Secretary of State, but from Secretary of Defense Gates. Hopefully our next Secretary will understand that repeated exhortations for Foreign Service Officers to make sacrifices in service of their country should be combined with the expenditure of a little political capital and sweat to get the FSOs the resources that might help make their sacrifices worthwhile...

Monday, June 2, 2008

I'm Not Really as Qualified as I Claimed I Was

It's been awhile since I last blogged, mainly because, quite frankly, I was beginning to find this whole foreign service thing a bit tedious, and the last thing I wanted to do was prolong thinking about it while I was at home. Tedious or not, however, I've been thinking a lot about the foreign service recently, so have a jumble of thoughts to share.

Let's start with the big news: the Department has once again launched the bidding season with a call for volunteers for Iraq. This time they've been a bit more forthcoming, and have sent letters to prospective "volunteers" informing them what jobs they'll be asked to volunteer for. Perhaps finding it out this way, rather than via the Washington Post is the reason that reaction to the letters has been much more muted than it was last year. Perhaps. I'm skeptical myself. My informal survey of the lucky volunteers thus far has revealed a surprising number of people who have already done hardship tours. (Actually, it's not surprising at all---one of the "criteria" for the positions is that you have served in an NEA post in the past. Most NEA posts are hardships.) So building upon this observation, I speculate that there is less wailing and gnashing of teeth this year because these are people who were under no illusion that they could spend their entire careers in posts without hardship or danger.

[A brief aside: it's not actually an illusion that one can spend his or her entire career without serving in a hardship or danger post, despite what our human resources bureau keeps telling us. In fact, since returning to Washington, I've been presented with no small number of role models who not only survive the foreign service without doing their "fair share," but who actually thrive. Click here and here for just two examples.]

Anyway, back to Iraq volunteers...while the reaction has been muted, there has been some. The one or two people I've heard of who are not at hardship posts and have been deemed "qualified" have responded with the plaintive cry that they are not, in fact, qualified for the assignment! This was a consistent theme last year, and one that I've been thinking about a lot. Yes, I suppose that people who already have Arabic and area experience are qualified for these jobs. On the other hand, how many of our colleagues stood up in A-100 when handed a flag and declared, "oh no, I can't go to [fill in the blank]! I'm not qualified!" Better yet, how many people, when they joined the foreign service and were told they would have to be worldwide available, responded, "well, okay, but I'm really only qualified to serve in Canada, because that's the only place I've visited and I only speak English"?

Fine, fine, most people join the foreign service with international experience already. But how many of those people really believed that would be the only region in which they served? Were there mass protests on flag day when the CDOs applied other criteria than pre-employment travel and education to decide where one would serve. (How many people majored in the Bahamas and Jamaica anyway? Poor Iceland, I bet we'd be hard pressed to find diplomats qualified for that post...) Clearly our CDOs had more power than we imagined...sent to Africa on your first tour? You're probably only qualified to serve in Africa now. Good luck establishing that minor bureau...

I suspect that the very same people loudly declaring that they should not be sent to Iraq because they are not qualified, would not have the same concerns if the Department suddenly decided to direct them to Europe or Australia.

One could argue that Iraq is a special case. It is a war zone, and, thus, requires more experience than an Embassy in Western Europe. As someone who received one of those "you're qualified, so you're volunteered" letters though, let me assure you that I have no special training in war fighting (or surviving). If Iraq is a special case, nothing in my career as a generalist, including my service in NEA, has especially prepared me for it. I have no background in Iraq and/or its politics. I imagine I'll learn. I am a generalist, afterall, and am supposed to be able to do my job anywhere in the world.

It was really annoying last year to hear some of my colleagues scream and moan and insist that they shouldn't go for any number of reasons. To me that sounded like, "not me, take so and so instead." If the policy of sending so many people to Iraq, including against their will, is bad, it's bad; there's no need for foreign service officers to throw each other to the wolves to limit the personal impact of that bad policy. Some of the outcry last year left a very bad taste in my mouth as I watched at least one A-100 classmate loudly and publicly proclaim that her life was so much more precious than everyone else's and, as a result, it was absurd that the Department would even consider sending her. In the end, they didn't. She has now moved on to complaining about other things, like the inconvenience of flights to her next (non-Iraqi) post.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is This Really Annoying, or is It Me?

The Washington Post reports:

Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee called yesterday on Pentagon officials to further explain the awarding of a $50 million Air Force contract to a company owned by people close to senior Air Force officials, demanding accountability at the highest levels of the service.

. . .

A Defense Department Inspector General's report disclosed Thursday showed that senior officers pushed the contract to Strategic Message Solutions as part of an effort to improve the Air Force's Thunderbirds air show.


Does anybody else in the Foreign Service find it deeply disturbing and/or insulting and/or infuriating that we are spending FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS on an AIR SHOW while we at the Red-Headed Stepchild (read: State Department) have been told we can't have any new pens or notepads because there's no money?

Just for fun, let's think about what FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS could buy us at the Red-Headed Stepchild. Hmm....just off the top of my head, I'm thinking about a few of those positions that are being left vacant to staff Iraq. Or maybe some travel money so we can actually visit the places we're supposed to keep up relations with. Or, I don't know, trailers with solid roofs so we don't have to sleep under our desks when insurgents shell the green-zone....

Friday, April 11, 2008

Knowing Who You Work With

One of my friends pointed out to me that one of the improvements in the new bidding system was actually really useful. By publishing a list of all the positions and who is filling each, we can now have a better idea of with whom (or for whom) we will be working. That is outstanding!

When I first joined the foreign service somebody told me that who you work for matters much more than where you work or what you work on. In my first tour I worked for and with an outstanding team of people. It was truly an incredible experience, and I could not imagine why anyone would have complaints about working for the Department. It was at this point that someone advised me to find a good supervisor and follow them around. I thought that advice was a little bit absurd. Boy was I ignorant.

In subsequent tours I learned not only is it incredibly important to find good supervisors, but that it is even more important to avoid bad ones like the plague. It began with horror stories from my colleagues, and was all very abstract until I lived that own personal hell myself. Bad supervisors and co-workers can make even paradise seem like a living hell.

So as I travel through the foreign service, I make it my own personal mission to plant in the ears of people I like the names of the worst people I've ever worked for. There's the guy who only likes male employees who kiss his ass incessantly, and who will bend every rule in the book to ensure that his little proteges work for him, even if they aren't at all qualified for the jobs. He also has arbitrary rules about EERs he writes, which seem to boil down to "women should never be recommended for promotion." Then there's the woman who actually has no experience for the job she's in, doesn't really understand what it requires, but really likes to make sure her people are "doing things!" Also fun is the screamer. You know the type (or perhaps you are fortunate and you don't yet know the type). All communication with staff should be done above a certain decibel level and should include only really obscene words. My own personal favorite is the single boss who lives to work. He likes to have most of his meetings in the evenings and on weekends, and must take notetakers along with him. Working all the time lends the mission a sense of urgency that makes us all feel much more important. Isn't that fun?

This is all very subjective though, and the number of people I can warn is really limited (unless I take to running through the FSI cafeteria shouting a warning like the town-crier. Actually, that might not be a bad idea for one or two of the above...) Wouldn't it be great if there were a website, like the "rate your professor" websites, where we could post reviews of supervisors? Supposedly all DCMs and CGs now have 360 reviews done of them before they're hired. But the candidate selects his reviewers, and the results are, of course, never made public. I'd really like to write a review of one of my old DCMs (the guy who thought women shouldn't be promoted), but I don't see that as likely.

In the meantime, the DG's proposal is our best option. We can now look at the list, and do due diligence with all our friends. It really does matter with whom you work.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New Bidding Instructions!

Great news! The State Department has just issued its bidding instructions for the 2009 summer bidding season. In an effort to streamline the process, the powers that be are reducing the number of bidding "seasons" from three thousand (or so it seemed) to 2 or 3 (I don't remember exactly). There will be an Iraq and Afghanistan season and then "everything else." In an effort to encourage people to serve in places that most need officers (read: Iraq), the number of jobs open for bidding will also be reduced, to exclude those positions that aren't so important.

HR is also promising that there will be increased transparency and fairness this bidding season. Hooray! Perhaps now I can finally get an answer as to how below-grade, out-of-cone officers keep getting plum assignments that never seem to show up on the bid list. (Hope springs eternal.)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

In Defense of the "Cookie-Pushers"

There is another thought provoking article in the April issue of the Foreign Service Journal, but this time they touch on a topic I've been thinking about for awhile: the nature of diplomacy. The State VP's article argues that while Secretary Rice's "Transformational Diplomacy" is important, we shouldn't neglect "Traditional Diplomacy." I couldn't agree more. Actually, I could. I would argue (at the risk of being publicly flogged) that the State Department is spending way too much time and resources trying to transform the world, and far too little time trying to establish good, cooperative relations with other countries.

Let me preface my discussion by pointing out that I have not yet served at a post with less than 25% differential. I think working in less-developed areas is challenging and rewarding. I think it's something that every foreign service officer should experience. It is work that does change the world, and the fact that U.S. Embassies are in so many places (where most others are not) is something to be proud of. It is also, incidentally, something that the U.S. foreign service has been doing since long before Secretary Rice stood up and declared it her policy.

That said, I believe implicit in the Secretary's statements is the notion that diplomatic service in other, more-developed countries is not valuable. This is a seriously flawed assumption, and one, I think, that emanates from the philosophical view that "soft power" (diplomacy) is not as useful as "real power" (military and economic influence). Or, in other words, we are the world's sole remaining superpower, why should we have to work with other countries to accomplish our goals?
The war against terror, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, has revealed the flaws in that philosophy. We cannot accomplish our military mission in Afghanistan without the help of our NATO allies, and the weak "Coalition of the Willing" in Iraq has fallen apart, leaving the U.S. almost alone in fighting that war. This collapse is due in part to the fact that while the U.S. foreign service has focused all its attention on learning a new skill set: "re-building" a country devestated by war, we have neglected those relationships vital to achieving our goals overseas. No matter how much we want the people in the world's neglected hinterland to love and understand us, most of the decisions vital to our security and prosperity (counter-terrorism, energy security, arms proliferation, etc.) are being made by existing and emerging powers like Russia, the EU, China, and India. Diplomatic relations with these entities will define the shape of the world for decades to come. Iraq may be this administration's number one foreign policy priority, but that does not mean it should be this nation's. That would be short-sighted.