Sunday, April 28, 2013

GovExec: Foreign Service Veterans Seek to Dispel the Myths

Government Executive had a great piece yesterday about an American Foreign Service Association organized meeting between veteran members of the Foreign Service and the folks up on Capital Hill to dispel notions of diplomats as pin-striped cookie-pushers living cushy lives.

The article includes quotes from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agency's president Ken Kero-Metz about his time in the service.

"described his harrowing experiences in Brazil and war-torn Iraq. In Rio de Janeiro, “crime was through the roof and I got carjacked twice,” he said, adding that police allowed foreigners to speed through traffic lights in high-crime areas.

“Baghdad was the wild west, with no rules,” Kero-Mentz said. Placed in charge of helping rebuild the Iraqi national assembly building in just six months, he was given a helmet, a flak jacket and a white Honda (American cars draw too much attention), along with a pistol “to use on myself if I got captured.”

It would be nice to think that after the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Anne Smedinghoff and Mustafa Akarsu, as well as numerous others, we wouldn't have to remind Congress how dangerous and important our work is. But we still do.

You can read the whole piece here.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Lavender Scare

Times change, thankfully.

This year is the 60th anniversary of The Lavender Scare. Sixty years ago today, on April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order outlawing the employment of LGBT people in the federal government. This set off a 30-year witch-hunt where thousands were fired from their jobs just for being gay. Many committed suicide rather than being exposed to their families.

A few brave souls, like Frank Kameny(who I was lucky enough to meet shortly before he passed away in 2011) fought back and it is due in no small part to people like him that we have some of the protections we do today.

But LGBT people like me still face risks in employment. Sexual orientation could used as a reason to strip someone's security clearance until 1992 (and President George W. Bush briefly attempted to quietly weaken the Clinton's removal of sexual orientation as a reason to revoke someone's clearance by changing the wording of the order from could not be the reason for denial of a security clearance to could not be the sole reason for denial of a security clearance. The original language was restored pretty quickly.)

And it wasn't until Secretary Clinton took office that same-sex partners were treated at least somewhat like opposite sex partners. I still couldn't get insurance for my wife if she weren't employed by the Department, and she still couldn't get expedicious naturalization if she weren't American. But at least now, she could be on my orders, work at post, be evacuated from post, and get a band-aid at the nurses office. So some things are better.

But we are the lucky ones. It is still legal in 29 states to fire someone just because they are gay or lesbian. That number rises to 34 if they are transsexual. Which for mean for us, there is no safe employment in my home state of SC. I could be the best employee at a company and they could decide to fire me at any point just for being gay. Like the teacher in Ohio who was fired after 19 years because her partner was mentioned in an obit when the teacher's mother died. Some anonymous parent alerted the school...such bravery, such conviction, to destroy a woman's life without even revealing your name. (Thankfully, other parents and students are fighting to have her re-instated...she is much loved at her school.)

This is why, as Josh Howard, the director of an upcoming documentary about the Lavender Scare, commented in his editorial for the Human Rights Campaign, that the story of the Lavender Scare is just as relevant today as it was then.

That is why while we are thankful for how much better things are now, we must still fight for full equality for LGBT citizens.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Visiting the Witches Well

Spring is coming. It is warming up, and today was sunny, so that meant it was time to get out of the house.

Estonia has five seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Flooding. We are in the latter, the 5th season, where all the snow is melting and all the rivers and streams are flooded.

When that happens, a well known as the "Witches’ Well", located about 30 minutes outside of Tallinn on the way to Tartu, occasionally begins to "boil" over (the last time was spring of 2008). Local legend holds that the well boils over when the witches of Tuhala make a sauna below the ground and beat each other with birch branches, causing a commotion on the surface.

The real reason is that well is near the Tuhala River, a 26 km long branch of the Pirita River. Some 6 km of its length runs underground. Water starts to spout up from the well and flood the area when excess water from the Mahtra swamp fills up the underground river and the overflowing river water seeks an escape through the well. The quantity of water flowing through the Tuhala River must be at least 5000 liters per second in order for the river to overflow, which only happens during the early part of the thaw.

Of course, it is possible that the thaw that causes the boiling is the result of the heat from the underground witches' sauna...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another Box Checked

You know what is great about the Foreign Service?

I mean other than, you know, serving the country, hopefully making a difference in the world, and all that stuff.

You also get to check off stuff from your bucket list.

I've already checked off seeing Stonehenge (okay, that was before the service), the pyramids in Egypt, Pompeii, the Sistine Chapel, the Hagia Sofia, Petra...and there are more. (My wife likes to point out that all of these things also happened after I met her, including give credit where you may. The Foreign Service does make it easier.)

And this weekend, I checked off one more.


Living in Europe means you get to lots of cool places that seemed like once in a lifetime, except now they are  what you do on a long weekend.So this past weekend, we took a day off and headed to Paris.

We got to visit all those places that are on the standard Paris list...

The Eiffel Tower...

The Louvre...

Notre Dame...

 The Arch de Triumph...

Plus I got to experience a taste of Paris in the spring. I need to go back.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service

Here is a great piece in the Washington Post, Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service, authored by AFSA President Susan Johnson, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and American Academy of Diplomacy President Ronald E. Neumann, and AAD Board Chairman and former U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering.

They write:

"What is wrong at State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, our embassies and other agencies that together are the vehicles for American diplomacy? What accounts for the Foreign Service being marginalized?

The most visible factor is the overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions at the State Department. For all their merit, political appointees are short-term officials, subject to partisan, ­personality-specific pressures. They do not notably contribute to the institution’s longer-term vitality, and their ascension creates a system inherently incapable of providing expert, nonpartisan foreign policy advice.

When the bulk of its leadership positions are held by transient appointees, the Foreign Service is undermined. This situation spawns opportunism and political correctness, weakens esprit de corps within the service and emaciates institutional memory.

Diplomatic capacity needs professional, institutional leadership. A career service must nurture a deep bench of high-quality professional diplomats. But the trend has been in the opposite direction. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions at the State Department, defined as deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, has increased from 18 to 33. The share filled by career Foreign Service officers has fallen from 61 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2012. Only five of the 35 special envoys, representatives, advisers and coordinators appointed during President Obama’s first term were Foreign Service officers."

You can read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Being a Foreign Service Officer Became Much, Much Harder After 9/11

In the wake of Anne Smedinghoff's death in Afghanistan, attention is once again being paid to the difficulties and dangers of being a Foreign Service Officer.

The Atlantic has a piece talking about how our work has changed since 9/11.

The piece includes an interview with Nicholas Kralev, author of the book America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy. Kralev was asked:

What kind of personalities succeed best in the Foreign Service?

He answered: "You need to be very adaptable, to enjoy living in foreign countries and change them every three years at the most, to be good at foreign languages and know how to operate in foreign cultures, and in unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous environments. You also have to be a self-learner and a quick study, because training in the service is minimal and proper professional development doesn't even exist. More specifically, you have to be an excellent writer, analyst, negotiator, advocate and communicator, with broad knowledge and understanding of how the host country works, and have ability to quickly acquire basic expertise in a new field. It helps to be good at entrepreneurship and innovation."

You can read the whole piece here.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Mourning Another Loss

Yesterday, Anne Smedinghoff, a second tour Junior Officer, was killed in one of two attacks in Kandahar, Afghanistan that also claimed the lives of three service members, and two other civilians. She was heading out to deliver books to schoolchildren.

Diplomacy is dangerous. Please remember that it is not just soldiers in war zones. Sometimes it is a young woman trying to help educate and hopefully make the next generation of Afghans less hostile to America than some previous generations have been.

Below is a statement from Secretary Kerry:

Our State Department family is grieving over the loss of one of our own, an exceptional young Foreign Service officer, killed today in an IED attack in Zabul province, along with service members, a Department of Defense civilian, and Afghan civilians. Four other State Department colleagues suffered injuries, one critically.

Our American officials and their Afghan colleagues were on their way to donate books to students in a school in Qalat, the province’s capital, when they were struck by this despicable attack.

Just last week in Kabul, I met our fallen officer when she was selected to support me during my visit to Afghanistan. She was everything a Foreign Service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people. She tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future.

We also honor the U.S. troops and Department of Defense civilian who lost their lives, and the Afghan civilians who were killed today as they worked to improve the nation they love.

I spoke this morning with our fallen Foreign Service officer’s mother and father and offered what little comfort I can for their immeasurable loss. As a father of two daughters, I can't imagine what her family is feeling today, or her friends and colleagues.

I also have been in close touch with Secretary Hagel, the White House, and our senior management team at the State Department, including Deputy Secretary Burns, Undersecretary Kennedy, and Ambassador Cunningham in Kabul. We will all keep in close contact as we learn more facts about this attack and the brave people who were killed and wounded. We are also in contact with the families of those injured.

We know too well the risks in the world today for all of our State Department personnel at home and around the world – Foreign Service, civil service, political appointees, locally employed staff, and so many others. I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty, and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world’s most dangerous places. Every day, we honor their courage and are grateful for their sacrifices, and today we do so with great sadness.

And this is a statement from her parents:

The world lost a truly beautiful soul today. Our daughter, Anne, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, died in the service of her country as she was traveling with a group to deliver books to a local school in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan. She joined the Foreign Service three years ago right out of college and there was no better place for her. Anne absolutely loved the work she was doing. Her first assignment was in Caracas, Venezuela. She then volunteered for an assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which she began in July, 2012. Working as a public diplomacy officer, she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war. We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world. She was such a wonderful woman--strong, intelligent, independent, and loving. Annie, you left us too soon; we love you and we're going to miss you so much.
Tom & Mary Beth Smedinghoff