Sunday, November 23, 2008

Where The Pants Are Not Striped, and Cookies Are Not Pushed

I'm back from my temporary duty, which consisted of a brief visit to a volatile country and a drop-in at one of our most hazardous diplomatic posts.

If you've been following the news, you can probably guess which diplomatic post that was from the following clues. All these incidents occurred there in the last week: a USAID contractor was ambushed and killed, an Iranian diplomat was abducted when departing his home for the office, two foreign journalists were shot, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of a sports stadium, and, in a region outside the city, a missile strike of unattributed origin killed five al Qaeda figures, one of whom was reportedly a suspect in a 2006 plot to bomb ten airliners heading to the U.S. from Britain. In addition to all that, a few months ago the principal U.S. diplomat there was ambushed while en route to the office but escaped unharmed. A few weeks after that incident, the principal officer of another, non-U.S., diplomatic mission was successfully abducted in a similar attack.

Why was my pencil-pushing self in such a crazy place so far from my cubicle? Because Danger is my middle name, that's why. (Actually, Risk Analysis is my middle name, but there is no way to make that sound dashing; in fact, it should be the opposite of dashing).

More to the point, why are any of my fellow citizens there? I was lucky enough to make a flying visit and be back outside the city limits before nightfall, but others are doing a full year's tour there. During that tour they are separated from their families, working in dilapidated and overcrowded offices, facing a substantial risk of attack every time they move between home to office, and are constantly surrounded by police and security escorts.

I saw no striped pants, tuxedos, or dinner jackets on our diplomats there. The pants were either cargo-style or jeans. The women perhaps kept to a higher standard of casual dress than the men, but the diplomatic couture topped out around the L.L. Bean level. No one was passing out cookies on little china plates either, although the tiny on-site cafeteria where our diplomats eat lunch was selling fantastic banana bread made by one of the local employees who was originally a baker by trade.

During the drive to and from that city I was surfing the Internet via my Blackberry [and that was a real 21st century moment: reading the New York Times over my cell phone while riding past scenes of primitive agriculture - little terraced farms, huts with thatched roofs, donkey carts, children carrying bundles of firewood, sugar cane fields being harvested by the burning and chopping method, and so on] when I came upon Diplopundit's post of that same day with its link to this Washington Post Federal Diary column on the overseas pay gap that effects the Foreign Service. Reading that column I was forcibly struck by a U.S. Senator's perception of the lavish living that we all imagine goes on at those plush diplomatic posts:

"Congress should be focused on improving conditions of workers who have lost their jobs or may lose their jobs and not on handing out huge raises to foreign service officers who already receive very generous benefits overseas," said John Hart, Coburn's communications director.

That statement by Senator Coburn's spokesman is a perfect example of the ridiculously out-dated, but generally held, public perception of fancy embassy life that, so far as I can tell, is derived mostly from movies. That misperception adds insult to the injury of the pay gap. In the public mind every embassy is London, Paris or Rome, whereas in reality there are 277 embassies and consulates, most of which are unimpressive, and they are often located in places far more dangerous and/or unhealthy than, say, Washington DC. The staff who serve in those places deserve their danger pay or hardship differentials, to say nothing of equity with other agencies in their basic pay. For the record, I say this as a non-Foreign Service employee who has no personal interest in the pay gap issue.

Senator Coburn's position brought this rebuttal by a Foreign Service Officer:

He [the FSO quoted in the column] does quarrel, however, with Coburn's notion that foreign service officers are seeking huge raises on top of other big benefits. It's true that diplomats get a housing allowance and, in some cases, dangerous duty or hardship duty pay. But that doesn't negate the need to close the gap, especially for lower-level diplomats.

That sort of rebuttal doesn't go far enough. Leaving aside the merits of correcting the pay gap, I'd like to see someone correct the American public's perception of embassy life. Some sort of Foreign Service Truth Squad that could fill in the picture of what life is like in all those places where our diplomats work out of ratty hovels rather than palatial surroundings.

I saw that the FSO quoted in the WAPO column had previously served in the Central African Republic, which happens to be another diplomatic post that I have visited during my occasional forays outside the cubicle. That would be a good place to start correcting the image of embassy life, since no amount of pay or benefits could ever be enough to make diplomatic life in the Central African Republic desirable.

I normally object to the term 'third world hell-hole,' but in the case of the CAR it applies, and then some. First of all, the place is isolated. Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Heart of Darkness about a scary expedition up the Congo River to the uncharted center of the Dark Continent, but that Belgian trading post where his protagonist met Mr. Kurtz wasn't the true center. If you go up the Congo River to Conrad's metaphorical Heart of Darkness and then keep going, you will reach its tributary, the Oubangui River, and eventually arrive at the true center of Africa in Bangui, capital city of the CAR. Even by air, the CAR is isolated, with only a few weekly flights. On the day I was due to leave, I didn't bother going to the airport, since flight schedules meant less than nothing, but instead stayed at the embassy through the night and occasionally called the airport control tower to ask if they saw a plane on their radar yet.

Secondly, the place is horribly impoverished. Our embassy there is located on a main street that I suppose was once paved but which long ago returned to a state of nature. Bangui seems to have reached its peak in the late 1970s, during the reign of Emperor Bokassa the First, and ever since then the city has been decaying to entropy. To relate a bit of local color, when I was there, the city had so few working fuel pumps that improvised gas stations were re-fueling cars from old wine bottles filled with diesel.

The pervasive misery of the CAR isn't just my subjective impression. The CAR ranks #171 out of 177 countries measured on the UN Development Program's World Development Index, making it just about the sorriest place on earth. (FYI, Sierra Leone gets the honors of being #177.) In the CAR, life expectancy at birth is 43.7 years, the Gross Domestic Product per capita is $1,200, and only 25% of the people have access to an improved water source, i.e., plumbing. In a place like that, not even the foreign diplomats can escape the general privation.

Having seen the U.S. embassy offices and houses in Bangui, and experienced the difficulties and uncertainties of simply getting there and back, I can assure my fellow Americans that Senator Coburn's lowliest intern wouldn't want to trade life styles with the most senior diplomat there, even with the housing allowance. Much less would he want to trade places with the diplomats in the hot-spot that I was happy to drive away from at high speed last week.

Maybe there should be a Truth Squad counterpart to State Magazine's happy-talk Post of the Month feature?


Consul-At-Arms said...

In over 10 years with the State Department, I've worn a tuxedo in the "line of duty" precisely once. And that was at during my single Western European assignment.

Sen. Coburn's out-of-touch communications director might not be basing his under-factual statement solely on the basis of late-night movie fare. He may have actually traveled abroad on a STAFDEL or CODEL ("congressional staff delegation" or "congressional delegation," respectively). In which case some of the fault for his unrealistic impression of Foreign Service life may actual be our own fault.

When congressmen or their staff members travel overseas, describing that experience as being "inside a bubble" does not do it justice. They are met, escorted, control-officered, protected, briefed, introduced, coddled, dined-out, and expense-accounted to a fair-thee-well all the way to "wheels-up." And all by FSOs. We so want to make a good impression on our congressional visitors, after all our Department is the one without much of a natural "consituency" back home, but we do ourselves something of a disservice when we make it look too easy to our visiting fireman.

Any FSO reading this may wish to take a moment and imagine, privately, arranging things so that one of your recent CODELs or STAFDELs could experience one of the more annoying (or outright dangerous) realities that you face in your everyday life overseas. You know the ones I'm talking about too. It's just a thought experiment, nobody will get hurt.

State Magazine's single biggest flaw may be the way the Post of the Month feature reads its shilling for a travel agency. In a way its understandable, a post is putting its best foot forwards, hoping that FSOs will bid on the jobs that come open there.

As for the lowly interns.... I've met just one or two of those over the years who seem to still be nursing a grudge that they didn't pass the FS exam.

I'm just saying.....

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

Digger said...

I have quoted and commented on your post here:

Anonymous said...

Yup, that's a great post. I'm not in the service but have worked closely with those who are, and well appreciate the perception problem.

And even when the Tux is on, it's still ultimately business.

FYI, I found it at

Anonymous said...

You've made the beginnings of a plausible argument for considering the possibility of raising the hardship bonus for that particular post... although your description of the unpaved road didn't continue on to describe the starving embassy staff living in run-down hovels with no swimming pool. And you might be interested to note that gasoline is widely dispensed/sold in liquor bottles in Thailand, where some people (particularly motorcyclists) prefer the convenience of a local shop that lets you clearly see the quantity/quality of the fuel. I like your blog, but you haven't begun to dispel my impression that FS posts are very attractive to many qualified people who would be happy to do the jobs for less salary even if it entailed a few years in hardship posts. I'm not posting this to be argumentative; I hope you'll appreciate a bit of honest anti-echo-chamber feedback.

FSO Globetrotter said...

Great post!

FSO Globetrotter said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

TSB: Go easy on Coburn... He's from Oklahoma. They are trying to
fight off Sharia Law down there and it looks to me like they haven't had money for education
for decades...Plus.. He's a doctor and doctors know everything!