A dissent on the Foreign Service

Barack Obama has taken a little editorial criticism over his appointment of financial supporters to ambassadorial positions. Kristofer Harrison dissents. Mr. Harrison is the former Chief of Staff to the Counselor of the Secretary of State, a position he filled during the Bush administration.

Over the weekend Mr. Harrison wrote us to take issue with the Washington Times story on Obama being “on track” to appoint an unprecedented proportion of political appointees and financial supporters rather than Foreign Service officers to ambassadorial positions. This is one area in which Mr. Harrison is, shall we say, hoping for change:

One of the least talked-about problems of the Bush Administration was its penchant for promoting foreign service officers into every position imaginable – at the State Department, at DoD, at the NSC and elsewhere in the national security bureaucracy. The Foreign Service is the most broken, left-wing bureaucracy in the US government…worse even than the CIA. If it cannot be disbanded outright, we should at least be pushing for its marginalization.

The foreign service is an anachronism. It is based on Bismarck’s Foreign Service, from a time when finding well-traveled, educated professionals who could carry a government’s message abroad was difficult. There is no problem finding those people now. In fact, professionals who have worked, invested in and studied abroad are usually more qualified than Foreign Service officers, who are rarely specialists in a region.

Professionals are often policy wonks and have spent their careers dealing with certain regions, countries and cultures. They are also still grounded in American society. In comparison, FSOs’ exclusion from American society is a well-know problem. They often go abroad and are locked inside embassy compounds with very little connection to people other than foreign government employees.

FSOs usually return from their last posting as a cheerleader for there former resident country rather than as an advocate of US interests in that country…and they often return weird. On my first day in the State Department, I saw a man walking around Foggy Bottom wearing a monocle.

My roommate from graduate school is now an FSO. After graduating from Harvard, with fluency in Turkish, Russian, Kazakh and Arabic – a pretty good mix for the War on Terror – he has been posted in Barbados, Ukraine and now China. A colleague of mine in the Iraq office had spent her diplomatic career in South America before becoming a deputy Iraq policy. She was afraid of visiting Iraq and only did so once in more than two years on the job.

Just look at our current unqualified Ambassador to Iraq [Christopher Hill]. He spent his career in the Balkans and Korea before heading Condi Rice’s check-writing operation to Kim Jong Il. No Middle Eastern experience whatsoever. It wouldn’t be difficult to find more qualified people outside of the Foreign Service (who collectively, by the way, fought like mad to make sure they wouldn’t have to be posted there).

I do find it strange that Obama is not relying more of the Foreign Service as it is filled 85 percent with folks like Joe Wilson, who believe the US is at fault for much of the world’s problems. One of the reasons why Cuban spy Walter Ken Myers went unnoticed for so long is that his political views were par for the course among the career FSOs. He was a hero in the building after giving a semi-public speech trashing the President.

From 2001-2008 these people fought like mad to put President Obama into office. As conservatives we need to be careful not to lock ourselves into a paucity of good choices should we ever regain the White House. Cheering on a 70/30 rule does just that. We should want as close to a 0/100 percent as possible.

Even if FSOs were completely neutral, wouldn’t we want “the President’s Representative” in a foreign country to have some stake in the current president’s policies? Part of the problem for a lack of support for President Bush’s policy’s abroad was that many of our main spokespersons (our career Foreign Service Ambassadors) disagreed with the President and didn’t care for defending his message.

After dealing with far too many left-wing, unqualified and often loopy Ambassadors, I am in favor of Presidents – whether Republican, Democrat or Obama/Socialist – appointing as many political appointees into Ambassador slots as possible. Who would you rather have in Japan? Joe Wilson or Joe Nye? Governor Huntsman is far more qualified for China than any Foreign Service officer. In almost ever case it’s possible to find a governor Huntsman equivalent. Professional diplomatic service does not mean they are qualified, desirable or even competent.

Let’s be careful about cheerleading for this loopy, left-wing, and often incompetent fraternity.


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