Every Issue of The Monthly to your door: Subscribe Online
Too at home abroad
Swilling beer, licking boots, and ignoring the natives with one of Jim Baker's finest'
By Harry Crosby
If official Washington were an S&M club, the State Department would be strictly on the receiving end. Few public servants get so much abuse and so little respect--whether from the American public, the Congress, other executive branch bureaucrats, or even the president. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly once compared dealing with the Department to "watching an elephant become pregnant--everything's done on a very high level, there's a lot of commotion, and it takes 22 months for anything to happen." A generation later, John F. Kennedy would deride Foggy Bottom as a "bowl full of jelly" with "all those people who are constantly smiling." It's hardly surprising, then, that James Baker would continue his habit of relying on a few trusted aides, ignoring the State Department bureaucracy altogether.
Call me a masochist or a smiling idiot, but I joined the Foreign Service anyway. And like any good diplomat who expects to rise thorugh the ranks, I can say that Roosevelt and Kennedy were both right and wrong. The State Department arguably attracts a higher proportion of bright, talented, and dedicated individuals than any other branch, department, or agency of the federal government. It's what happens to them once they join that justifiably sends the Department's critics around the bend. At its worst, the institutional culture of the Foreign Service can work like alchemy in reverse, turning the bright into the dull, the talented into the mediocre, and the dedicated into the merely employed. If Foggy Bottom wants to build up some measure of influence and respect, it's going to have to change the way it teaches its people to do business.
Every year, approximately 14,000 Americans take the written Foreign Service examination, a sort of super SAT that tests their grasp of U.S. history and culture, politics, economics, international relations, and English. (On my deathbed, I'll still remember that Zimbabwe is named after some stone ruins--one of the many questions I flubbed the first time I failed the test.) Of these 14,000 applicants, 2,500 will make the cut and move on to a numbing day-long oral examination, which some 600 to 650 will survive. Eventually, after a lengthy background check, anywhere from 150 to 200 will take the job.
The selection process produces an impressive group of recruits, especially on paper. According to the Bremer Report, one of two internal State Department studies done in 1989, 99 percent of all entrants have college degrees, and 67 percent have some sort of graduate degree as well. But a look behind the numbers shows why the entering classes aren't as good as they could be. If you were a smart, motivated college graduate pounding the pavement, would you wait 12 to 15 months to find out if you got a job that would probably pay you two thirds of what you might make elsewhere? Not likely, especially if you were a hot enough prospect to attract the attention of other top-flight employers. The Bremer Report cites the lengthy selection process as one reason why two out of three candidates offered jobs with the State Department turn them down. You can look at this in one of two ways: People willing to take a job after waiting for 15 months are either very dedicated or not very dynamic.
I had no reservations about the brain power of my classmates--few of whom, contrary to one still-popular stereotype--were Northeasterners or Ivy Leaguers. True to the Department's lingering reputation as a white boys' club, though, most of my fellow entrants were white males (37 percent were female, and the minority quotient was virtually nil). The class's average age was 28, a throwback to the average 10 years ago. (During the intervening decade, the average entrant's age had risen steadily to reach 32 in 1989). We had a sizable contingent of ex-lawyers who moaned about the pay cuts they were taking and teachers who said exactly the opposite; the rest were from business, journalism, or fresh out of college or graduate school.
Why did we join? As one of our instructors loved to remind us, our results on a personality test taken in the first week of training showed that most of us matched the classic Foreign Service Officer (FSO) profile. While there were some would-be policy jocks, most of us--myself included--seemed drawn by the same thing that attracted George Kennan some 65 years ago: "the frequent change of scene, the abundant intellectual stimuli, and the multitudinous glimpses the Service afforded into the lives of other peoples and the workings of governments." In a 1990 survey by the American Foreign Service Association, junior officers cited "the chance to travel" and "exposure to other cultures" as the two most rewarding aspects of the Foreign Service. "Public service" came in a respectable third, well ahead of "pay and benefits" and several other categories.
For all its attention to administrative detail and the Department's doings at home and abroad, our junior officer training stressed mindster over matter. Naturalist Konrad Lorenz would have been proud of the way we fell into the Department's traditional pecking order. All incoming officers were placed in one of four "cones" (consular, economic, political, and administrative), and one of the first questions out of every trainee's mouth was, "What cone are you?" "Political" was the answer that won the most points, and "consular" the fewest--in my limited experience the exact inverse of their practical value.
Political officers love to think of themselves as the Brahmins of the Service, the new Kennans looking down on the lower castes as they twirl globes and negotiate treaties. Truth is, in a world girdled by CNN and ruled increasingly by economic issues, political officers are steadly becoming less useful. But the white glove mentality lingers. The political cone is the largest in the Department, and political officers dominate its upper reaches. Is there any reason why the U.S. embassy in Japan, our biggest economic rival, should have far more political than economic officers? This political officer can't think of one.
More important than your cone is your rank--an inevitable obsession in a profession that rests so heavily on hierarchy and protocol. In day-to-day terms, observing the proper protocol toward the ambassador--keeping the correct side of the couch free for him or her, making introductions properly-- can translate into behavior like drafting cables in only the way your immediate boss wants. That kind of thinking inevitably squelches dissent. One afternoon we were shown a television documentary about an officer whose aggressive human rights reporting displeased both his embassu and the Department. He was denied promotions and given dead-end jobs. Later, two former senior FSOs told their own tales of bucking the head office--in both cases their views were later vindicated, but not before their careers had suffered. The fact that both were still in their fifties and no longer with the Department wasn't lost on their audience. We new hires were getting exactly the wrong message. In a bureaucracy whose real worth rests on the integrity of its reporting, these people should have been presented as heroes, not victims.
Intentionally or not, our instructors and lecturers also gave us a heavy dose of the "us versus them" mentality that so often turns foreign policy into an interagency sandbox squabble. Each tale they told about the increasingly bitter feuds between State and other agencies seemed to end with us on the losing side. The moral of the story was clear: Whatever else Defense, Commerce, and Treasury might be, they weren't your friends. We also heard plenty about how the "new" Foreign Service wasn't as good as the "old," how today's officers were more "dependent," less willing to sacrifice, lacking in a esprit de corps. I learned a lot in eight weeks of training. Besides "take chances, but be aware that you could ruin your career," two lessons stand out: Develop your own style, but always give your boss just what he wants; and have a sense of humor, but don't ever use it.
The golf crisis
The first brush that most of us had with the reality of Foreign Service life came during the assignment process. That's when you realize that you'll be spending your first tour as vice consul in Nuevo Laredo rather than as staff aide in Paris. Doing consular work makes junior officers better diplomats than playing step-and-fetch-it for some ambassador, but you'd have a hard time getting many non-consular officers to admit it. It's a field that most choose either to disparage or to ignore. In my first 10 months at a Third World visa mill, I saw my consul general--a worthy officer in many respects--enter the visa section just once. He was lost and couldn't find his way out of the building.
Consular officers do the dirty work of U.S. diplomacy. They perform tasks like issuing (or, more likely, denying) visas, cleaning up after plane crashes, and visiting U.S. citizens in the foreign prisons. In many cases, they are the only U.S. government representatives foreigners ever encounter face to face, and they spend far more time talking with congressional staff, lawyers, and U.S. citizens than their average nonconsular counterparts. More often than not the work is as grueling and thankless as it is necessary. (If you don't believe me, try interviewing 2,7000 visa applicants in one month, denying the bulk of them, and then saying, "Have a nice day.") Problem is, the Department's dismissive attitude toward its consular officers encourages FSOs to view their work as something to be endured and then forgotten. Look, for example, at the relatively small number of ambassadors who come from the consular cone.
Besides consular work, a junior officer also plays shepherd to official visitors, some more legitimate than others. As a fledging "control officer," I once naively wondered why a bureaucrat whose agency didn't have anything to do with our country was coming to town. "End of the fiscal year," a colleague replied, rolling her eyes at the usual mad bureaucratic rush to spend what's left to annual travel funds. If you don't spend it this year, the logic goes, you won't get it the next.
An impending visit by one congressman paralyzed our post for weeks prior to the event. We even received a Night Action Immediate cable--the kind that calls for waking up the consul general (CG)--telling us that the congressman wanted golf on his schedule. A game was arranged. The congressman left happy, the CG later agonizing over how to handle the hefty check his wife had bounced at the consulate cashier.
The attention lavished on congressional delegations still fell far short of that given to our ambassador, whose visits to the consular district were a cause for hand wringing and high anxiety. We spent two fifths of our travel funds--money intended for reporting trips or consular investigations--doing advance work for one of his visits. Even so, we were faulted for sins like failing to provide his wife with a footstool for getting in and out of her vehicle. The ambassador's position requires a degree of pomp and circumstance, but too often the Service seems to treat these people not as superior colleagues but as foreign dignitaries or demigods.
What's up, Dhaka?
Along with denying visas, taking care of visitors, and keeping the ambassador happy, reporting is the other major component of a junior officer's job. The problem with our reporting wasn't that it was massaged to death or that it sympathized with the host country's point of view. Our problem was that it usually relied on second-hand information. Out of roughly 30 Americans at my post, not a single one spoke the local language well enough to do more than take a taxi across town. Most of our reports were drafted, under our guidance, by Foreign Service Nationals, long-serving local staff who were storehouses of institutional knowledge and contacts. If we had anything to add, it came from the English-language press or from conversations with the relatively ssall, primarily urban, English-speaking portion of the population. Knowing the local language would have cut several months off the time it took me to recognize--and edit out--the cultural, racial, and political biases of our local reporting staff.
This is not as unusual as it should be. According to the Bremer Report, the percentage of language-designated positions in the State Department filled by qualified officers fell from 75 percent to 66 percent from 1987 to 1989. Moreover, roughly one third of those promoted to the Senior Foreign Service between 1986 and 1988 did not have the required proficiency in even one language. In a system that rotates personnel once every two to three years, some linguistic reliance on local staff is inevitable. But what if your local staff isn't reliable? Without an interpreter, not one American in the consulate could ask a rural villager how he was going to vote, much less figure out if the clerk sitting two desks away was selling visas over the telephone.
Some of my FSO colleagues mixed and traveled and some didn't, but the last thing any of them could have been accused of was going native. The U.S. government would have saved a lot of money if they had. If you throw in allowances for housing, hardship, and other benefits, it easily costs Uncle Sam $ 200,000 above salary to keep an officer at some posts. My first week overseas, one colleague prefaced a dinner invitation by saying, "We never serve local food here." Just about everything he and his wife ate came from the commissary. When a family has to come to a country where you can't drink the water, shouldn't breathe the air, and might not like the food, a little coddling is necessary. But it's all too feasible in today's Foreign Service to shuttle between your comfortable apartment and your office, live on pizza and Bud, and watch Home Alone before bed, pretending all the while that you're in D.C. instead of Dhaka. The natives could be rioting in the street and you'd never know it, much less report on it.
Kissing behind, getting ahead
Most people join the Foreign Service to be diplomats, not bureaucrats. What's amazing, though, is how thoroughly the latter mentality takes hold. To give just one example, our consul general regularly encouraged us to hold more receptions and dinners for contacts. Why? In part because, as one of his memos began, "So far only X, Y, and Z have shown up on the embassy's screen for having utilized representational funds this fiscal year."
Most people also join the Foreign Service because it sells itself as a meritocratic elite. But while the good may rise, the Department's institutional culture ensures that the bad just stay there. All junior officers have roughly four years to achieve "tenure." If you pass muster, you're usually guaranteed a career. And according to the Bremer Report, 96 percent of those up for tenure get it--one reason why the Thomas Report (the other 1989 State Department study) says "the tenuring process as currently constituted serves no purpose."
Take the case of one inept FSO at my post. After just barely getting tenure, this person has stayed at the lowest rank for the past 10 years. I watched three of his supervisors try to write employee evaluation reports (EERs) that would keep him from promotion. Not one recommended firing him, primarily because each was following his predecessor's lead. Every officer sess his or her EER before its submission and has the chance to respond to it. I actually provided one of my supervisors with a working draft of mine. As the Bremer Report suggests, the toughest thing about the Foreign Service may be getting in: "In 1987, promotion boards referred only .004 percent of files reviewed to the Performance Standards Board. The number referred to the PSB has actually declined in each of the past three years, during which time not a single senior officer has been referred to the PSB." Now that you know how to survive as a junior officer, it's time to learn how to get ahead. Once upon a time, junior officers distinguished themselves by what they did in the field. As a 1970 Department publication put it, "Our ablest and most energetic officers literally seek out opportunities to report." Not anymore. Today's conventional wisdom is that promotions are faster in Foggy Bottom. As one career counselor told me, "The quickest way to the seventh floor is through the operations center and the secretariat." The ops center plays traffic cop, to put it simply, for all cables and phone calls--one ops center vet described himself to me as a "glorified receptionist." The secretariat functions as a gigantic in/out box for the secretary of state, controlling paper flow and making travel arrrangements. As a junior officer, you're not really doing anything substantive in either job, but you're getting to know the high and mighty and, more important, they're getting to know you. ("Good man, Digby. Damn fine job with that briefcase and conference call.")
Working in the Department is important, of course, as is having some measure of bureaucratic skill. But the obsession with cultivating your superiors, in word or deed, points to one of the Foreign Service's biggest flaws. As a nameless ex-FSO once complained, "The trouble with most FSOs is that they are too concerned about being something or becoming something--being a deputy chief of mission or becoming an ambassador--and not enough with doing anything."
I like the people in the Foreign Service, and I don't worry when I think that one day my life may depend on one of my colleagues making the right decision. Moreover, critical internal reports like those by the Bremer and Thomas commissions are a cause for hope. But for the good of the Service and the country, Foggy Bottom has to stop kidding itself. Fundamentally, FSOs aren't losing their influence because of a lack of money or an abundance of bureaucratic competitors. They're losing it because their culture rewards people for saying what others want to hear, for putting bureaucracy before diplomacy, and for sucking up at home instead of buckling down in the field. Lamenting the lack of "adequate funding," one senior officer recently sent a cable saying, "Were we to achieve the recognition that you and I are convinced we deserve, junior officer program problems might largely resolve themselves." He's wrong. What the Foreign Service needs is a healthy dose of self-respect, and no congressional appropriation will ever be large enough to supply that.
The Washington Monthly 1611 Connecticut Avenue. Washington DC. 20009. 202-462-0128
Comments or Questions or whatever ... please email Nicholas Thompson by clicking here