Tag Archives: U.S. Foreign Service

Hiring Bank Presidents to Perform Appendectomies

When we need surgery, we don’t ask a bank president to perform the operation. To lead soldiers into battle, we don’t assign data engineers.

Yet, in assigning leaders for our foreign policy teams in U.S. embassies, we sometimes appoint those with no experience in foreign affairs. Instead, the criteria used for ambassadors to some of our embassies, is how much the candidate has contributed to the election of the president.

Both political parties have used the appointment of ambassadors to reward political donors and party apparatchiks. Around thirty percent of our ambassadors have been political appointees. Some talented and conscientious appointees use their career staff and function well. Others are more interested in refurbishing the ambassador’s residence than in meaningful work.

American men and women enter the U.S. Foreign Service, our diplomatic corps, after rigorous exams and vetting. Once appointed, they study foreign languages, statecraft, relevant computer applications, leadership training, and the regions where they will be assigned. They advance through the diplomatic ranks according to an up or out system like the military, gaining experience in the foreign countries where they begin at the lowest levels.

Yet when ambassadors are assigned to our largest embassies, career Foreign Service officers often are ignored for the positions.

My first assignment as a new Foreign Service officer was to Saudi Arabia, shortly before the first Gulf War began in 1991. As the war progressed to victory for the American led alliance against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, we worked under a competent team. Charles Freeman was the U.S. career ambassador working with the Saudi government, as General “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf directed the military operation.

Since then, although U.S. military leadership in the Middle East is still entrusted to career soldiers, all ambassadorial appointments to Saudi Arabia have been political appointees. Perhaps that’s one reason we so often seem to win the war but lose the peace.

Why I Loved THE AMERICAN MISSION

The American Mission, by Matthew Palmer, is the story of a young U.S. diplomat in Africa. The diplomat, Alex, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a massacre he was unable to stop, in Darfur, one of the troubled regions of Sudan.

The disorder has damaged Alex’s career. In his new assignment, he deals with a corrupt African government, as well as his own betrayal by some of his colleagues, and his progress toward redemption.

I loved the story for many reasons. Readers love a decent but damaged hero who struggles to overcome the forces of evil. As a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, I also personally identified with the settings.

Finally, someone has written a realistic story (with certain novelistic liberties, of course) about the U.S. Foreign Service. Palmer has taken U.S. diplomats out of the realm of striped pants cookie pushing and created a more realistic picture of what they do.

Matthew Palmer should know. He is, in fact, still an active Foreign Service officer. I watched a video interview with him about his newest book, The Wolf of Sarajevo, which I look forward to also reading. Palmer, of course, can write realistically about diplomats in the Balkans, as well as other places, because he served there.

Palmer said he cringes at popular perceptions of diplomats in the literary world. He had difficulty getting his novels accepted by a publisher. Publishers had problems with the “foreign” element of the story. A story about Americans in Africa? they asked.

I sympathize. In pitching my novels, at least two editors told me they would have difficulty pitching a story set in a foreign locale to their American readers.

This perception is changing. Several such novels have become popular with American audiences. (Books by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, come to mind. In a lighter vein, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith are popular.)

Even U.S. political campaigns seldom explore foreign policy in any depth. Perhaps the publishers and the politicians are missing a newer population, more interested than they had supposed in countries beyond our shores. After all, Americans should know about the countries where they send their soldiers to die.

James Bond Wasn’t a Foreign Service Officer

A blog for those interested in taking the tests for entry into the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service (my former employer) caught my attention. I quote from her blog:

You: I’m trying to get a job with the Department of State.

Other: Which state?

or

You: I’m taking the Foreign Service exam this weekend.

Other: Really? I didn’t know the foreign legion even still existed.

Then the blogger recounts a home leave to family.

My mother-in-law mentioned that she just started reading a book and the main character is a State Department employee who works in an elite unit who has to uncover some conspiracy or other while infiltrating a mental institution. Granted, I haven’t worked for State too long, but I’ve yet to see this job appear on the bid list. It sounds awesome though.

Why is it that foreigners appear to better understand what the Foreign Service does than our fellow countrymen?

Good question. Her blog supplies some answers.