US: a fraying Foreign Service and the language issue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 3 13:35:23 UTC 2007

Tuesday, 02 October 2007
A distorted picture of a fraying Foreign Service

A link to Jeff Stein's September 21, 2007 Congressional Quarterly article
"State Department Cajoles Young Diplomats into Iraq Service" on the State
Department's difficulties in recruiting first tour officers for Iraq
assignments appeared in my inbox last week. Mine is far from the first
commentary on it in the blogosphere. But I seem to be the first so far as I
can tell who has actually experienced State's assignments process close up.
Unfortunately, this article is littered with half-truths that too often turn
into unbecoming slurs. In short, Stein paints a distorted picture of a
spoiled U.S. Foreign Service replete with disloyal Generation Yers in the
most junior ranks leading the pack. US Foreign Service hater Jesse Helms
would have been proud.

The half-truths in Stein's article begin with an interview of retired
Ambassador Skip Gnehm who is quoted as saying that when he joined the U.S.
Foreign Service in 1969, "Every (entering) class went to Vietnam." It was,
he apparently told Stein and the new recruits, the price of admission. The
reality: That was true in 1969, but by January 3, 1970, the State Department
had changed its assignments policy for first tour officers. None were sent
to Vietnam for the last five and one-quarter years of the war. At the time,
US Information Agency junior officers trained with State junior officers. I
was in that January 1970 class when we learned of State's new policy. None
of my first tour State Department colleagues – or those in future classes –
was force assigned to Vietnam unless they had agreed to the condition before
entering. This only happened to one person who had agreed and had previously
served there in the military. Journalistic lesson: don't base a story on a
single interview even if, as is the case with Ambassador Gnehm, the person
is well known and highly respected.

Few of my State colleagues went to Brussels, Madrid, or Bern – but none were
sent to a war zone and very few to a Communist country first time around. In
fact, some of the most satisfying and career enhancing assignments happened
outside the "cushy" US Embassies in Europe. USIA, meanwhile, had dropped the
forced Vietnam assignments policy for first tour officers at least a year or
more before State because personnel had decided it was counter-productive to
send inexperienced press and cultural officers into combat areas. Second
tour officers, however, were fair game. I did have one USIA classmate who
served an abbreviated tour in Danang. At the end, he and his family were
evacuated from Saigon during those last hectic weeks in April 1975.

To continue

Jeff Stein quotes a recent Government Accountability Office study (to which
he should have linked but did not) that suggests that "today's crop of young
diplomats don't want to go to anywhere hot and dirty" because "posts in
Africa, the Middle East and South Asia continue to receive the lowest number
of bids, while posts in Europe and "the Western Hemisphere receive the
highest." In 2005, Stein noted, "67 positions in Africa and the Middle East
went begging" and that "the State Department has too often had to fill
critical, Third World slots with inexperienced officers who . . . can't read
or speak the local language" and as a consequence do a lousy job. This, he
tells us happens at the senior level also.

Let's break this apart: first positions – then *foreign language competency*

Positions: So what else isn't new? European posts have always been the most
popular for US diplomats and, therefore, the most competitive. I'll bet most
American military, journalists and business people would also prefer to
serve in Europe all things being equal. In the Foreign Service, however,
such assignments do not necessarily lead to rapid career advancement in part
because of the way the system operates. Likewise, assignments that
require *hard
language* training have made promotions even slower. Furthermore, bid
wish-lists, training and the realities of State's Byzantine-like assignments
process do not necessarily coincide.

Stein omits the fact that Foreign Service Officers must also bid on jobs in
those "hot and dirty" posts. He also seems to have forgotten, or not known
that there are comparatively more of them these days – in part thanks to
Condoleezza Rice's decision to move mid-level and junior positions from
"cushy" places like Moscow to Delhi and elsewhere. I'll bet the 67 positions
that went unfilled (a fair number were press and cultural) in 2005 was
because the State Department did not have the personnel to fill them. The
Foreign Service was literally gutted during the 1990s, a casualty of
mistaken post Cold War euphoria when peace and democracy were thought to be
breaking out all over.

Colin Powell worked hard to restore the ranks (but experienced diplomats and
especially those who speak a hard language are not made in a day). Once Rice
took State's reins in 2004, she exponentially increased demands for
personnel because of Iraq and Afghanistan but failed to add the requisite
additional positions and people to fill them. So what do you expect? You get
what you pay for.

The reappearance of the Ugly American?

As for a deficit of language trained, culturally aware, experienced US
diplomats assigned to posts where the language they speak is spoken, the
problem is far more complex and deeply rooted than Stein or the GAO study
indicates. This is – and has been - a costly and major weakness throughout
the service for years. It is one both Congress and the Department need to
address beginning now. In reality, it need not have happened.

One problem is that State's assignments and training policies do not mesh.
Another problem is that the promotion and retention policies of the
Department forced hard language trained officers out of the service
willy-nilly especially during the 1990s just when they had reached the point
when they were most valuable. Ambassador Monteagle Stearns documented this
well in his 1996 book Talking to Strangers (Princeton University Press).
Stearns' history of the problem is well worth a read – or reread. The
consequences have come home to roost a decade later: they were predictable
but no one listened. Meanwhile, the costly mistake should not and need not
be repeated. It takes years, not months, to take even the most talented
foreign language learner up to the proficiency needed for much diplomatic
work. A short course at Berlitz – or even at State's own Foreign Service
Institute – doesn't scratch the surface.

Stretched far too thin

In terms of personnel numbers and competency deficits, the service has been
treading on thin ice for some time. The added demands of Iraq and
Afghanistan have made it worse.

For years now State, like the military, has had its ranks stretched far too
thin – and the ranks of the State Department – there are a few thousand
Foreign Service Officers all told overseas and in Washington - are miniscule
compared with those at the Pentagon's disposal.

It's beyond me why the US has 1,000 Foreign Service Officers serving in Iraq
(this according to Stein), a country where we should have as small a
diplomatic presence as possible since few can do what they have been sent
there to do – e.g. talk to Iraqis – given the horrendous security situation.
No wonder those who are there are, in the words of the conservative retired
army officer Ralph Peters "the most frightened human beings you'll ever

In my view, they don't belong there.

Why shouldn't they be scared – these are people hired to represent US
interests abroad through peaceful means of communication most useful in
non-combat zones. An aside, I found the cocktail party to be one of the
least useful venues for accomplishing much of anything besides making
perfunctory acquaintances.

But there's yet another inconsistency in Stein's article. In one place he
reports that junior officers are standing in line to study Arabic, but in
another he writes that they prefer Europe or Latin America to a country that
is "hot and dirty." Actually, parts of Latin America are "hot and dirty" too
but I have to wonder if the reticence to serve in Iraq, in particular, might
have something to do with questionable support for the Bush administration's
policies there. Most career diplomats are hard-headed political realists
whose most effective "weapon" is the power of persuasion not the
intimidation of recently fired gun powder or the flash of cold steel.

A military "solution" to a political problem is not a solution

>>From what I know about the service, few US Foreign Service Officers at any
rank have ever chosen to serve in war zones. If this had been their
predilection, they would have become career military officers – or enlisted
with Blackwater - instead. Most diplomats believe that a military "solution"
to a political problem is not a solution. The current, never-ending US
lead-with-the-fist policy in Iraq and elsewhere therefore – like that in
Vietnam – is most diplomats' nightmare.

Perhaps if the Bush administration had adopted the Baker-Hamilton report's
recommendations for greater diplomacy and less military last year instead of
signing on to the Kagan boys predictably failing military "surge" and blind
refusal to engage the less cooperative neighbors then one might have also
seen a better response on the part of US Foreign Service Officers in terms
of stepping up to the Iraq plate.

Meanwhile, there are a fair number of State Department posts where Arabic is
the language of the people. None include Europe or Latin America. Yet
State's personnel is so stretched that it is too often not possible for
people to obtain language training before being sent overseas. The
Department also, however, needs to use its hard language speakers in places
where the language they are taught is actually spoken – and that doesn't
always happen.

As for the advisability of forced assignments - something that is a military
fact of life and a policy Stein's article seems to endorse for State, there
was a reason both State and USIA stopped making them sometime in the 1980s.
The problem is far more than poor morale – morale was the best ever under
Colin Powell. State's morale couldn't get much worse now. Rice's
"leadership" of the Department does not command the same respect from the
"troops" because of her attitude towards them and the institution itself.
She's clearly either over her head – or just doesn't care.

She and others – including Stein, Ralph Peters, defence bloggers and
Krongard, State's current controversial Inspector General - need to
understand that unlike the military, US Foreign Service Officers and other
State employees are civilians, not indentured servants tied to their
employer for a set period of time. They can and do resign on the spot. This
happened in USIA before it abolished forced assignments. Such resignations
didn't happen often, and USIA tried hard not to force assign anyone – but
occasionally it did. When it did, it often didn't work. This, by the way,
was before Gen X or Y had even graduated from kindergarten so please don't
blame them.

Finally, Stein's comment that one of the ways State persuades "rookie"
diplomats to sign up for hardship posts is that such assignments are
mandatory if they want to be considered for promotion to the Senior Foreign
Service. Give me a break. Anyone who believes this doesn't know how State
operates. Its personnel policies are best known for their ability to change
over time. The only almost sure way to get on the promotion fast track that
I remember was to stay in Foggy Bottom and early on become a seventh floor
staff assistant to a very senior officer.

Regardless, by the time an officer has gone from the junior to the senior
ranks twenty or more years have passed and State's promotion policies will
have changed several times. There are lots of grades, steps and years in

Too bad Stein didn't talk to a few more people in the Department or even
those in the Foreign Service retired ranks before he wrote his article. The
State Department is not the military. At State, carrots, respect and
rational policies still tend to work better than sticks.

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