Wednesday, December 24, 2008

NORAD Tracks Santa

The North American Aerospace Defense Command has begun tracking a flying sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer, believed to be carrying gifts for everyone but the leadership of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's directorate of Security Infrastructure. At this writing, the craft just passed Auckland New Zealand.

Monitoring the flight from Peterson AFB, Colorado, the defenders of our airspace will supply live video feeds of actual real-time satellite footage to a special website.

NORAD's predecessor CONAD (the Continental Air Defense Command) began tracking the annual journey of Santa's sleigh on Dec. 24, 1955, after a series of errant phone calls was made to the CONAD Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. A Colorado Springs newspaper had printed a Sears, Roebuck & Co. ad which provided a telephone number for children to call to talk to Santa. The number was one digit off, corresponding to CONAD's operations center. The subsequent barrage of phone calls convinced the CONAD watch officer, Col. Harry W. Shoup, that Santa was a man worth watching. He directed his staff to monitor the progress of the sleigh, a tradition that is now in its 50th year.

For the last four years, the task has been facilitated by Google Earth. Thanks to Google, busy State Department officials, or those at embassies facilitating Codels, can track the old man's progress on their Blackberries.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One Nation

Today is Veteran's Day in America.

At 1030 this morning, in Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Navy Band will strike up, at 11, a wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and subsequently, there will be a ceremony in the Memorial Amphitheater.

I will be in Arlington, to place a pebble on my father's grave, and so will Dr. Lester Tenney.

Tank Radio Operator Lester I. Tenney, Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, Illinois National guard out of Maywood, Illinois. Most recently stationed to Clark Field in 1941, most recently deployed to Lingayan Gulf, on the Bataan Peninsula, in 1942.

Today in Arlington, Private Lester Tenney, the youngest son of Gus and Fannie Tenenberg of 1200 West Sherwin avenue, Chicago, holder of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, three Presidential Unit Citations, and the Prisoner of War Medal, the National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Coregidor, one of the last survivors of the Bataan Death March, will represent that group for the 62nd consecutive time in the ceremonies.

Tenney is 88 years old, and because he lied about his age in order to enlist, is one of the youngest members of the organization. There are less than a hundred left, and they have decided to disband. Tenney was one of the founders of the group, which fought for 63 years to obtain a simple apology from the Japanese. Unlike American POWs of Nazi Germany, who received both apology and restitution, the Bataan Death March survivors (most of whom were also sold into slavery) were neither compensated nor apologized to.

Like many Americans, Lester Irwin Tenenberg (he changed his name to Tenney because that was his nickname in Camp 17) was the son of immigrants. In his case, Jewish immigrants from Germany. Like many former German Jews of that period, his bar mitzva, his Jewish coming of age (normally performed at the age of 13), was delayed by events, and forgotten about.

Last Saturday, at sixteen thirty hours, at Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington DC, I had the privilege of seeing him called to stand at the torah for the very first time. He was accompanied by his stepson and his grandson, and their families. In fact, it was a triple bar mitzva. His stepson Donald Levi (65) and his grandson David levi (39) were called to the torah as well.

It is traditional for the Bar Mitzva Boy to give a short talk on the portion of the torah which was read. In this case, as it would happen, it was Lech Lecha, in which God told Abraham to leave his native land and his father’s house in Ur Kasdim (in Sumaria, now Iraq) for a land that God would show him, and in which Abraham and his family began their long march to Canaan (now in Israel). It was a longer march than Lester's, but, as he pointed out, Abraham had food, water, rest, and his family around him.

The one thing both shared was faith. "A lot of my friends on the death march never came back," Tenney said. "Those of us who survived all prayed to the same God. I never lost my faith in God.”

Nor did he lose his faith in the United States. "We were beaten and starved. We lost track of the time, and of the days, but we knew that one day, somehow, we would get home," he said.

Tenney collects American flags. And he gives them to schools, veterans homes, and other organizations. "The reason we fight is for the love of our flag," Tenney said. "It's a big part of our history and lives have been lost over it. People need to know their history and I intend to tell them."

"When I see our flag," he said, "it still moves me to tears."

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Digger, in her blog "Life after Jerusalem," shares a recent article from Mother Jones about the exodus of FSOs from the service.

The article touches on a number of themes we have mentioned before: broken promises with regard to the training promised to FSOs who volunteer for Iraq and Afghanistan, failure to reward hardship service, failure to adequately fund our work, and in general, the practice we have described in this blog as making personnel decisions based on "what management can get away with rather than what is right."

The result, according to the article, is an exodus from the Foreign Service, causing a brain drain which can hurt our ability to advance America's interests overseas.

I am a bit older than Digger. Most of my age-mates are in the senior ranks, and one thing I can say for certain. More than half of the FSOs who entered on duty when I did have retired, most on the very first date they were eligible to do so.

They speak not only of promises broken to them, but of a failure by the current administration to use their expertise properly. This has been the first administration in years that, rather than treat FSOs as experts and expert advisers, treats them instead virtually as servants, as pawns whose sole function is to follow orders and carry out policies devised, in many cases, by people with far less Foreign Policy expertise than even a junior-level FSO would possess. A number of those retiring at the first opportunity have gone so far as to let it all hang out in angry speeches on their last day of service. It is sad that, for many senior officers, the only time they feel comfortable telling the current administration what they think is when they are literally hours away from an approved retirement.

During last night's presidential debates, both candidates mentioned the seriousness of situations affecting our relationships not just with Iraq and Iran, but with North Korea and Pakistan as well. In fact, in an era of global trade and regional alliances, when a person on a boat on a Swedish lake can dial a number and talk to a person on a mountain path in Waziristan, when one can walk into an internet cafe in virtually any country on earth and communicate with someone else in virtually any country, every relationship we have with any foreign government or population is serious.

The past eight years have shown us what happens when one ignores some relationships in favor of others, and when one makes decisions based on short-term political goals or narrowly focused political philosophies rather than seeking to build permanent relationships of peace, cooperation and respect with as many countries as possible.

I watched the debate last night with a group of people, most younger than I, and realized again that there are millions of Americans who literally do not remember when America was, as it was in my youth, a universally respected and trusted leader of the world community.

They do not remember when America was truly secure, because even most of our enemies respected not just our military strength but the values we actually stood for.

It is sad when the candidates of both parties have to address an American audience that is more concerned with protecting ourselves from those who hate us than it is with preserving our stature of respected international leadership which many Americans (and even some junior FSOs) literally no longer remember.

Either path (protection by military supremacy or the more difficult path of returning our country to a position of leadership by example)will require more than soundbites and politically correct rhetoric. It will require using the tools we have, letting our experts be experts, and investing money and resources in the agencies which can guide the leadership of our country along a path that both candidates claim they want to follow:

To do what is right for the American people, and not merely what is desired by a percentage of the population.

Every Foreign Service Officer is sworn to serve our nation, and not just our president. We need the resources and leadership to allow us to do that.

Every departing FSO that I have ever seen expresses anger and frustration among their reasons for departing the service. But without exception, every one also honestly regrets that they have been prevented from using their skills to serve our country; which was, for nearly all of us, our primary desire and motivation in joining the Service in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September Eleventh

Today is September 11, and on this day seven years ago, two thousand nine hundred and seventy three innocent American citizens lost their lives. People died, families lost their loved ones, friends lost friends and colleagues.

It is a day to be remembered for all time. A day for reflection, and introspection, and memory. A day to consider the loss of people from our national life, and a day for their friends and family to know that our country is with them in their grief.

But at the risk of angering many of our readers, I would like to suggest that the nation must move on. This is my opinion. It is not a policy statement by Concerned Foreign Service Officers.

Psychologists like to speak about the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. And as a nation, we must continue our path through those stages.

For the past seven years, many of us have been locked in anger. Like the divorced person who harbors a bitter hatred for the opposite sex, we have let that anger affect our dealings not only with other nations, but even with their descendants in our community.

It is not constructive, and in the end, it is harmful to ourselves.

To be very honest, I think, our political leaders have facilitated us in our anger. It is easier to agree that "men/women are all pigs" than it is to be the one who says "it is time to get on with your life." But somebody has to say it.

It is time to get on with our lives.

That does not mean that we forget the loss and horror of this day, or that we should not honor those who died for no reason. This day should always be remembered.

But it is time for America, I think, to look around the world, and to relate to our friends, neighbors and other members of the international community of nations, in a way that is unaffected by the despicable actions of a small number of cowardly murderers.

To dress up again in our good clothes, put a smile on our face, and be the America that we were before that date. To assume again a true place of leadership in the world community.

Before everyone forgets why they used to like us.

And before we forget who we are and what we stand for.

Anger, bitterness, xenophobia and fear, were never before attributes anyone could have ever attributed to the America I grew up with.

Let us put those things back in their place, and move on.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Patriot: From the Greek "Patris," fatherland and "iot", a native person. A person of the fatherland.

In common use these days, a person who defends the fatherland. But it could be anyone who defines him/herself as being of the fatherland and assumes the responsibilities of a native.

It is sad that the current meaning of the word has become narrow and divisive. As if there were rules defining who can and cannot call themselves a patriot. It should not be a club that is difficult to enter.

A soldier is certainly a patriot. But so is anyone who does anything, in any way, in a purposeful effort to improve, advance, develop, protect, feed, educate, house, clothe, or even entertain America. Or to protect the values that our country represents.

Today, on the 232nd anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, America stands more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime.

This might be a good day to reflect on what America really stands for, and what values we want to present to the world.

This might be a good place to start: click

Happy Birthday America.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why We Don't Just "Soldier Up"

There is a TV show I like called "House." House is the last name of a TV doctor who is brilliant and relentless in his efforts to diagnose the rare and unusual medical conditions that are brought into his life each week.

His intelligence and experience enable him to see things that are not always evident to the hospital administrators, or even to other doctors, and his relentlessness causes him to do things that the administrators do not want him to do. Like order costly tests when there is little evidence that the condition they test for exists. The tests, of course, always confirm what House has already intuited. House has once again saved the patient's life.

In every episode, the hospital administrators are infuriated, and tell House that he is not a team player. Not following their rules. Not getting with the program. Which is that the hospital is a business, in the business of making money, and avoiding lawsuits, and House can't simply waste money or violate protocol chasing every hunch on the off chance that he might save a life.

House, on the other hand, suffers from the delusion that the hospital is in business to save lives. And that the oath he took to save lives means that he is supposed to save them. And he saves them.

If the Washington Times, the second largest newspaper in Washington, were to review "House," they would say this:

"House forgets who he works for. He doesn't understand the terms of his employment. Why doesn't he get another job?"

It is easy for most viewers of the show to understand that House is doing his job, and doing it well. Few would side with the idea that a doctor should do only part of his job, in order to cost his boss less money.

The reason that most viewers side with House is that every viewer has a pretty good idea of what it is that a doctor is supposed to do. And nearly every viewer has personally benefited in some way from what it is a doctor does.

The second annual "let's bash the Foreign Service because of statements made in what was supposed to be a frank and open town hall meeting" festival has begun, and among other the things, the Washington Times has printed a truly disgustingly ill-informed editorial, which is nicely dissected and exposed in the blog "Consul at Arms."

The Times' editorial does not even correctly identify the Director General by his correct title, referring instead to an earlier position he held (although, in fact, during the town hall meeting he did act more like the executive secretary than the DG, I must say.) If the author can't even get the titles straight, that says a lot about the lack of effort that went into writing this drivel.

But the drivel is less important than the fact that enough people believe it to enable the Times' senior editors to want to publish it under their name.

The facts, of course are these:

The concept of directed assignments is not new. It has existed for decades. Every Foreign Service Officer knows that the Department can choose to send them anywhere it wants to.

Directed assignments have never had to be used to staff Iraq, or any other war zone in my memory. Enough FSOs have volunteered for Iraq that there has been no need for directed assignments, and it does not appear that it will be necessary this year either.

What really bothers the Times editors, however, is the idea that there are some FSOs who do not want to go. Although there are enough volunteers to staff Iraq, there are some who do not want to go there. And those FSOs had what the Times editors consider the "unbecoming" gall to actually express their opinions to State Department leadership at a town hall meeting.

They actually told their bosses what they thought, at a meeting that was supposed to involve a frank and open exchange of ideas!!!!

Putting aside the fact that there are enough volunteers to fill our embassy in Iraq, how dare anyone in the employ of the State Department put their own personal safety over our wartime objectives in Iraq?

Why, the Times wonders, do these people simply not "soldier up"?

Well, the short answer is that FSOs are not soldiers, and the Department of State has a great many other priorities besides the war in Iraq.

Yes, we are a country at war.

Yes, Iraq is a very high priority country for current foreign policy.

But we do have embassies in every other country with which we have diplomatic relations, and they need to be staffed too.

The Foreign Service is not the military. We do something completely different. We have a completely different mission to perform for our country.

The official Mission Statement of the State Department is to "Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, Reduce widespread poverty and Act responsibly within the international system."

In plainer English, the State Department has a worldwide mission to advance American interests by promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts; supporting and encouraging governments that respect their citizens; providing aid that enables people of other countries to survive disasters and improves their health, education, and economic situation; assisting American citizens overseas; promoting understanding of the United States; and helping combat destabilizing influences. We promote American trade, we help Americans who find themselves in trouble, and we promote understanding of America through cultural and educational exchange.

That is a different mission than that of the Department of Defense.

The mission of the Department of Defense is "to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country."


I did not write that. It is the official mission statement of the DOD.

So why don't people understand the difference?

Because unlike doctors, and soldiers, we do not directly touch the lives of many Americans, at least not in ways they can see.

Nearly every American has a relative who has either served in the military, or is currently serving. There are certain age groups in America in which nearly everyone of that age has either served or seen most of their friends serve.

The military is visible in every American city and on every college campus, and in many high schools as well. And we have numerous holidays to honor them. Including National Donut Day, which was last Friday, and honors the Salvation Army "Donut Ladies" who brought home cooked meals and donuts to the boys at the Front during WWII.

In contrast, unless they travel overseas, or work in a business that does business in other countries, or have a business that depends on foreign tourists or foreign skilled workers, many Americans simply never think about the State Department at all.

And when they do, apparently, they do so in the context of something far more familiar to them, and often painfully personal. Military service.

If my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife has to go to Iraq to risk their lives for their country, why can't those cowards in the Foreign Service?

Do they consider their lives more precious than that of my son?

No, we do not.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is much, much larger than "either serve or quit."

We can fulfill the mission of the State Department, and serve the American people, and do the jobs we were hired to do, in one of the 270 other embassies and consulates that are not in Iraq.

Unlike the military, and particularly the military of your youth, or of your father's days of service, our normal assignment system is based primarily on individual preference.

We are not usually assigned at the discretion of our leadership. They have the right to do so, but it occurs very rarely, and only when necessary.

There is a reason for this, and it has to do with more than personal safety.

We serve America best by being experts in certain subject areas. We speak foreign languages. We know foreign histories and politics. We are able to move easily in foreign cultures. We can interact with counterparts in foreign governments.

Believe it or not, though, very few of us can do all of those things in every country on earth. Few of us speak more than three or four foreign languages. Many of us are experts on one culture, or one part of the world, and not on others.

The skills required of a soldier are roughly the same no matter where that soldier is sent. While it may be helpful for a soldier to know the local language or be familiar with local customs, it is not an absolute requirement.

For those who are serving in the armed forces, service in Iraq is the fulfillment of everything they are trained to do. Their job, their real job, is to fight America's wars. And service in a war zone is the price they must pay for their training, and their peace-time employment, whether they want to go there or not.

There are many FSOs, experts in Arab countries, possessing of some military experience, able to speak Arabic, for whom Iraq is also the ideal post. The post that makes the best use of their skills, for the benefit of the American people.

For many other FSOs, however, service in Iraq would be a waste. Not of our lives, but of our skills. Forcing us to serve in Iraq would take us away from postings where we could use one hundred percent of our skills, and where those skills would most benefit the American people, and force us to go to a post where we have far fewer skills to contribute. Where we are less able to serve at the level we might serve somewhere else.

So, given that Iraq has been, and will continue to be filled by volunteers, many of whom possess directly relevant skills and abilities, why not let those who have other skills and abilities serve where they are more useful?

The Foreign Service is not the military. And comparisons to the military are ill-informed.

It is unfortunate that our leadership has not stepped up to clarify that fact.

It is appalling when the second largest newspaper in our nation's capitol is incapable of telling the difference.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

CFSO Supports Rolling Thunder

CFSO supports the Rolling Thunder RUN in Washington in their mission to ensure that America's Missing in Action/Prisoners of War and veterans are not forgotten.

We urge our readers to write their represesentatives, urging them to support House Bill 2514 and Senate Bill 2639, the Assured Funding for Veterans Health Care Act, a bipartisan measure that would require the Government to fund health care for covered veterans as a mandatory expense, guaranteeing that help would be available to veterans who need it.

Let not those who abuse the words "national security" for personal or political gain ever blind anyone to the fact that many have truly sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for the freedom of every American.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Happy Belated Foreign Affairs Day!!!!!

Most Americans are aware that this coming Saturday, May 17th, is the 58th annual celebration of American Armed Forces Day. The event will be marked worldwide by speeches, events, parades and other tributes to our colleagues in uniform. It is a well-deserved occasion to recognize and honor the service of our colleagues in the armed services, who are certainly deserving of that recognition.

Almost nobody is aware, however, that on May 2nd, inside the Department of State's Harry S. Truman Headquarters building, a small group of State Department employees quietly celebrated Foreign Affairs Day.

The event went largely unnoticed by the media, receiving far less publicity last week than the lack of accountability and appalling management failures of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, recently exemplified by the loss of a large number of laptop computers; followed by the sudden post-exposure "recovery" of some 400 of those missing laptops, in a transparent effort to deflect further inquiry into the matter.

One can Google "Foreign Affairs Day," and, outside of mentions in Foreign Service blogs, find almost no news coverage whatsoever.

And why should there have been?

The Secretary of State did not give a speech.

The Department's spokesperson did not mention the day in the Department's Daily Press Briefing.

The Department issued only a very short Press Notice the day before saying, in total:

"Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will deliver remarks honoring Foreign Service members who died in the line of duty during the American Foreign Service Association’s (AFSA) Memorial Plaque Ceremony on Friday, May 2, at 10:25 a.m. in the C Street Diplomatic Lobby of the Department of State. AFSA President John Naland will also give remarks.

The Foreign Affairs Day Ceremony is a special opportunity honoring the employees who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Two names will be added to the plaque this year:

Steven Thomas Stefani IV

John Michael Granville

The remarks will be open for press coverage."

And that was it.

At that Memorial Plaque ceremony, the Undersecretary of State read an equally brief message from the President and provided a very short eulogy for each of the Foreign Service Officers who died this year in the line of duty.

His remarks were posted on the Department's web page, and broadcast internally on BNET, an internal closed circuit CCTV channel available to State Department employees.

The Department of State and the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), both of which publicly lament the fact that a majority of Americans seem to neither understand nor value the work of the American Foreign Service, missed another annual opportunity to spotlight the Foreign Service and the work it does for America.

According to Defenselink, a DoD website, the purpose of Armed Forces Day is to serve as a "type of 'educational program for civilians,' one in which there would be an increased awareness of the Armed Forces. It was designed to expand public understanding of what type of job is performed and the role of the military in civilian life. It was a day for the military to show "state-of-the-art" equipment to the civilian population they were protecting. And it was a day to honor and acknowledge the people of the Armed Forces of the United States."

Historically, Foreign Affairs Day, which until fairly recently was known as Foreign Service Day, has been a sort of in-house pep rally and homecoming ceremony, attended largely by retired FSOs, at which AFSA and the Department present awards and honor those of our colleagues who gave their lives in the service of our country.

A number of traditionalists in the Department seem to value the intimacy of the occasion. And there is something dignified about a small in-house ceremony.

However, if I were trying to tell America what the Foreign Service does and why it is important to our country, I would certainly value a day of public education about our Service.

The Department has a number of programs to tell the American people who we are.

Diplomats in Residence represent our agency at selected universities.

Hometown Diplomats talk about the Department to civic groups, schools and other groups in their hometowns.

The Department's Public Affairs Bureau (which sponsors Hometown Diplomats) also sponsors other speakers, video conferences and other events.

And a number of retired FSOs write prolifically to local newspapers, often, unfortunately, to defend the Foreign Service against negative allegations.

These programs have their value, but they generally target mainly those who know something about the Foreign Service to begin with. And by themselves, they appear to depending largely on opportunities created by others.

It seems to me that Foreign Affairs Day could be put to better use.

The ceremonies which, now, compose the entirety of the event, could instead become the nucleus of a coordinated day of recognition, all over the country and at embassies overseas, for the remarkable men and women who are employed to represent our country to the world.

Hometown Diplomats, Diplomats in Residence, Public Affairs and others, could lead a coordinated, one-day-a-year, nationwide collection of Foreign-Affairs-themed events.

The Department could reach out to our veterans, particularly to those who have gone on to further service throughout the country in civic organizations, local governments, and universities. We don't have the millions of veterans that the Armed Forces can boast. But we have tens of thousands. And they have voices.

Rather than inviting our veterans to attend show-and-tell and ceremonies in Washington, the Department could support activities to honor them, and our service, wherever they may be.

And rather than addressing a "family" group at an in-house ceremony, the Undersecretary and various other Department leaders could take the day to address the media. I'm quite certain that Larry King, Matt Lauer (Jerry Springer?) and Oprah would love to hear the "war" stories of interesting moments in the careers of Mr. Negroponte, Mr. Pickering, and others.

And at the very least (and with the greatest possible respect to Mr. Negroponte) I would expect the Secretary of State herself to give a speech, along the lines that every Secretary of Defense has done on every Armed Forces Day since 1949.

(And yes, the Secretary was traveling on that day, but yes, she does make statements when she travels; there are media representatives and equipment traveling with her to enable her to do that. Moreover, I wouldn't be too surprised if Secretary Gates gave his AFD speech from Iraq this year.)

We all love to read the articles in State Magazine telling us what a great job we are doing.

Having a leadership that tells our fellow Americans what a great job we are doing would be even better.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wear it with Pride

Sometimes the management of the State Department gets it right, and when it does so, it deserves our approval. For example, todays mail informs us that the Department has created a medal to recognize the sacrifices of children of FSO parents assigned to unaccompanied posts.

The minor children of employees assigned to unaccompanied posts are now apparently eligible for medals and certificates of appreciation, preferably to be presented at public ceremonies.

In all honesty I find that to be an excellent idea.

In the first place, as the Department notice observes, it is a good way to publicly recognize and increase awareness of the sacrifices made by the families of FSOs serving at unaccompanied posts.

In the second, it might impress on the security clearance adjudicators of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security the fact that not everyone who grows up overseas is "less American" than those who grew up within our borders.

It is an interesting irony that, while Foreign Service Officers are expected to be professionally interested in foreign cultures and customs, and while many FSOs are, themselves, the children of FSOs, DS has traditionally regarded a Foreign Service upbringing as suspect.

Children of FSOs who were raised overseas are seen by DS's security clearance adjudicators as possessing too much empathy for the people of other countries, which DS, in its wisdom, inevitably equates with a lack of patriotism.

The fact of the matter is very much the opposite.

If one defines patriotism as pride in one's national heritage, a sense of belonging to a nation, a desire to represent what is best in one's nation, and a desire to see one's nation act in ways that are respected in the world, then, as a group, the children of Foreign Service Officers are probably more patriotic than most citizens who grew up within our borders.

The fact of the matter is that the Foreign Service is elite. Yes, I said the "E" word. We are elite. In the same way that Green Berets, Rangers and Seals are elite. We do a special job. We are among the best at what we do. And we do it with pride.

And what we do is represent America to the world, and advance the causes of our country and its citizens in every country with which we have diplomatic relations.

And just as the children of elite military professionals take pride in the ways their parents serve our country, so too do the children of FSOs. Moreover, in many cases the children of FSOs are taught, from whatever age they enter this life, that they represent America just as their FSO parents do. That they too must comport themselves in a manner that brings credit to our country. That they too, in their own way and in their own environment, are little American diplomats.

And that conciousness, from an early age, of who we are and what we represent, makes Foreign Service children more patriotic than anyone who ever grew up without ever thinking of these things.

The military has known this for a long time. One of the reasons that many military children grow up to enter the military themselves is that they are exposed in childhood to the ideals that the military represents.

It is high time that DS should recognize the same fact as it applies to the children of FSOs.

The Foreign Service is forced to walk a fine line. When we recognize ourselves as possessing special skills and talents, we are criticised as being out of touch with our fellow Americans. And in order to demonstrate that we are not out of touch, that we are not elitist, we often go to the opposite extreme, giving the unfortunate impression that there is nothing special or particularly important about what we do.

What we should do, instead, is take our cue from the military. Take pride in our skills. Take pride in our sacrifices. And recognize them in public ways.

A medal for our children may seem silly at first. But it's a good way to remind America, and ourselves, of who we are. And with what values we raise our children.

Friday, April 18, 2008

On Danger and Directed Assignments

Twenty five years ago this week, the father of a childhood friend of mine was sent on a short TDY to Lebanon. And twenty five years ago today, he died when the American Embassy in Beirut was bombed.

He was not the first American diplomat killed in the line of duty, and he certainly was not the last. But he was someone I knew, and his death impressed upon me, near the start of my own career, the risks that all of us take in the service of our country.

Since then, I have seen colleagues I knew killed in Islamabad, Nairobi, and Dar, not to mention a couple of near misses myself (I was in the embassy in Nairobi, for example, a day before the bombing).

I have very little patience for those who dismiss the Foreign Service as being somehow less patriotic or less willing to serve than our colleagues in uniform.

I joined the Foreign Service in order to serve the United States. And in the course of my career, I have had guns drawn on me five times in anger, been attacked with a knife, had my office surrounded by an angry mob, and had my own home targeted for attack by Bin Laden.

This week, of course, the spectre of directed assignments was raised again in the press, and various media and blogs were filled once again with invectives against those FSOs who spoke out against such assignments in a meeting last year.

I have bid on Iraq positions, and would go if selected.

And I support, in general, the right of the Department to direct assignments, and to move me and my colleagues around as they see fit. For the good of the service.

On the other hand, I support those of my colleagues who oppose directed assignments to Iraq. I agree with many of the points they raised at that meeting. And I question whether directed assignments would actually be for the good of the service, or enable our embassy in Iraq to function more effectively.

I have served in difficult and dangerous posts. Nowhere near as dangerous as Iraq, but difficult nonetheless.

And I have seen people in such posts who really and truly did not want to be there. I have seen how their unhappiness has reduced their own efficiency and hampered the efficiency of others. I have even seen a few of my colleagues lose it completely, creating problems for the entire embassy, usually at critical moments.

Not everyone is cut out for a war-zone assignment, and to my way of thinking, forcing people to go would be foolish. Even those who, on paper, might seem to possess the skills that should see them through.

Moreover, despite a great deal of rhetoric and posturing, the State Department has yet to make good on many of its promises with regard to preparing FSOs for such service, or handling the inevitable consequences, such as a high rate of PTSD, in a fair, compassionate or even honest manner.

FSOs who return from Iraq with PTSD can still, for example, lose their security clearances as a result.

Its all well and good for those bloggers and journalists (and even some right-wing politicians) to compare FSOs to the military, to note that they take the same oath of office, and that they agree to be world-wide available. But it is important to note the differences:

Military personnel self-select for hazardous duty. Yes, they go where they are ordered to go, and would prefer not to get shot at, but let's face it, they joined the military knowing that the primary duty of military personnel is to fight. They willingly chose a career in which there was a very strong probability that, at some point in their careers, they would go to war.

Military personnel are well trained for hazardous duty. It starts on the first day of boot camp and continues throughout their careers. Even those with desk jobs train continuously throughout their careers for the eventuality of a deployment to a war zone.

And as for PTSD, the military recently eliminated mental health questioning from its security clearance procedures, exactly to prevent the possibility that a military officer would lose his or her clearance due to a service related disorder.

And yes, FSOs take the same oaths of office as soldiers do. So do postmen, tax collectors and United States Senators, none of whom share either the willingness nor the skill sets that the military possess to deal with the stress and danger of war.

And frankly, even the military is very careful to exclude from hazardous duty those officers who have not demonstrated the skills necessary to carry out a mission in the circumstances in which they are expected to operate. No one wants a "weak link" to place a mission, or American lives, in danger.

Iraq is a critical threat post, and more importantly, a post critical to our current foreign policy.

We want FSOs there who do their jobs well, and who are at least able to function with reasonable morale under a level of stress most FSOs never face.

There are many FSOs willing to serve in Iraq. And there would be more if the Department actually kept its promises.

And rather than twisting arms, or embarrassing the Foreign Service, I believe that keeping those promises, of adequate training, proper mental health care, and fair treatment of those who return disturbed, is the better way to go.