Thursday, June 6, 2013

Diplomatic Life: It's Not All Parties

A zebra on the game preserve owned by an American couple
in Zimbabwe. These and other animals are threatened by
land grabs by greedy and corrupt officials, and it's often
only the action of the US embassy's FSOs that keep this
from happening. (Photo by Charles Ray)
The deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, along with three other American officials and several Libyans in the attack on the US facility at Benghazi on September 11, 2012, and the untimely death on April 6, 2013 in Afghanistan from an IED attack of 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff, brought home to Americans in stark fashion the perils America’s diplomats face around the world.

Sadly, these are not the first US diplomats to be killed in the line of duty. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) plaque that honors Foreign Service Officers who have given their lives in the line duty has 244 names dating from 1780. Nor, I fear, will they be the last.

The world will remain a dangerous place, more so for representatives of the world’s main power, than for many others, and absolute security is unachievable if they are to do the jobs they are sent abroad to do.
The really sad thing for me, having spent the last 30 years of my life as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), and the 20 years before that in the army, is that most Americans give little thought to the unarmed men and women who serve abroad on the country’s behalf, and frequently go into harm’s way, until there is a tragedy like the ones previously mentioned. Little or nothing is known about the work they do routinely, work that often impacts the daily lives of us here at home.

A lot of what people think they know about diplomats is either outright myth or highly distorted. The myth that all diplomats do is attend receptions and dinners, for instance. Sure, they do attend these events, but not for fun, I assure you. This is how the contacts that are essential to carrying out our mission are made. Life abroad, though, is not a continuous round of cocktail receptions. And, those they do attend are usually in the evening after they’ve already put in a 10-12 hour day doing other things.

What, you might ask, are those other things?

Diplomats negotiate trade and other agreements that help US companies, US citizens, and affect US national security.

They help Americans in distress abroad in numerous ways, from issuing replacements for lost passports to offering comfort for Americans who find themselves on the wrong side of foreign laws.

They observe and report on local affairs to help Washington policymakers better understand the country to which they’re assigned.

And, equally important, they explain Washington policy and US society to foreign audiences.

Along with these duties, they do all manner of things that Americans are unaware of and would probably be surprised to learn.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing a series of articles on life in the US Foreign Service from the perspective of my own 30 years of service, and in those articles I’ll focus primarily on the other things that I routinely did.

Because it’s fresher in my mind, I’ll start with my last assignment before retirement; my three years as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe. Let me start by addressing another myth about American diplomats; that they live abroad like kings. Sure, as ambassador, I had a nice house. It did, after all, represent the American people, and oh, by the way, I paid 2.5% of my salary toward its upkeep, so I didn't live free as some people wrongly believe. And, the roof of the residence leaked for two of my three years in it, and the power routinely went off several times a day, sometimes for hours at a time. When the power went, the electric water pump also stopped working. Imagine if you will standing in the shower one morning with your hair and face fully soaped, and the water cuts off and doesn't come back until noon. Not a pretty picture, believe me.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now, what are some of the other things I did as an ambassador?

On my first visit to the provincial town of Mutare to open an American reference center in the town library, I had a milkshake with the son of a woman who ran a cafĂ© in town. He and I talked about what life is like for a diplomat. I was the first diplomat he’d ever met, and he was thrilled that I’d take the time to sit with him.

When government hardliners began blocking my meetings with Zimbabwe’s youth, my staff scheduled a series of live Facebook chats. This was the first time many young people there had ever interacted with a senior official, from any country, and it became so popular that within a few months over 4,000 young Zimbabweans had signed on to my personal Facebook page. I chatted with them every day, often staying up until well past midnight to answer their questions.

When a group of American medical volunteers were arrested on trumped up charges, it created a furor in the United States. My consular staff was doing a good job of handling it, but as it will often do, the Washington bureaucracy tried to manage from afar and a bureaucrat (who I won’t name) insisted that I personally and publicly meet the arrested Americans to ensure them that the US Government was concerned about their situation. That was totally unnecessary, as one of my consular officials was with them almost constantly, and potentially dangerous, as it could have inflamed local hardliners and caused them to escalate things. We solved it by having my consular officer escort them to my residence when I was hosting a youth concert – part of a series of art and culture events we hosted. I spoke briefly to them, as I did to all the other guests. They were thrilled to be invited, Washington was placated that I’d complied with their ‘instructions,’ and the situation stayed calm long enough for us to get the bogus charges dropped.

At the last July 4 reception I hosted at my residence, we had a young Zimbabwean singer do the National Anthems of both countries, to everyone’s delight.

We had few Americans caught up in Zimbabwe’s land grab, but those that were appreciated the embassy’s intervention. I visited a game preserve owned by an American couple who were under increased pressure from corrupt local officials. During my visit, I spent several hours sitting in blinds (once at night trying to catch sight of a leopard) watching the preserve’s local game. The important thing about the visit, though, was that it sent a clear signal to local officials that the US Ambassador was watching them.

These are just a few of the many, many things I did on a daily basis, things that are seldom if ever mentioned in movies, TV shows, books, and articles about diplomats. I worked a 10-12 hour day routinely, sometimes 6-7 days a week. On occasion, my day went up to 18 hours.

There were receptions and dinners, often until late at night – but, my day didn't end with the after dinner drinks. I then had to go home and spend time transcribing the notes of my conversations for the reports that Washington would be sure to demand.

Was it tiring? You bet your boots it was. But, it was also exhilarating and important.

That’s my three years in Zimbabwe, in quick, broad brush strokes. Next time, I’ll talk about what it’s like to be a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving in the behemoth Department of Defense.