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.