Smart Diplomacy and the Age Discrimination Saga of US Diplomat, Elizabeth Colton

I’ve written multiple times in this blog about US diplomat, Elizabeth Colton regarding her litigation with the State Department on the mandatory retirement in the US Foreign Service. But I’ve never meet her or worked with her. And because her case is under litigation, she has also declined to be interviewed for this blog. But Walter Russell Mead is somebody who has meet her, and knows her and is familiar with how she works. And fortunately, he can speak about her because he is not an employee of the State Department.  

Walter Russell Mead
is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, won the Lionel Gelber Award for the best book in English on international relations in 2002. The Italian translation won the Premio Acqui Storia awarded to the most important historical book published in Italian.  He was recently in Karachi to meet with Pakistani students, journalists, and others to discuss US Foreign Policy.

This past weekend, Mr. Mead posted Smart Diplomacy? As Crisis Hits Karachi, Bureaucrats Sideline Star in The American Interest Online.  Excerpts below

On my recent lecture tour in Pakistan, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Karachi with Dr. Elizabeth Colton, a 65-year-old ex-journalist who has made her second career in the State Department working on public diplomacy for the United States.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve encountered Dr. Colton.  Over the last eight years I’ve run into her in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.  In Algeria during a particularly violent time, in Sudan, twice in Pakistan, and in Baghdad back when life there was even more dangerous than it is now, Dr. Colton has been working to win friends and make America’s case out in places where that is a difficult and dangerous thing to do.  I’d never met Liz before I made a State Department sponsored lecture tour in Algeria where she managed things brilliantly.  Since then I’ve come to see her as one of America’s most effective and brilliant (if often unconventional) diplomats and developed tremendous respect for who she is and what she does.

She does an incredible job, using contacts and connections she built during a lifetime in journalism to bring people into contact with the US who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with us.  I’ve seen her work doggedly through the resistance of stiff anti-American bureaucrats to get American diplomats and speakers onto university campuses for free-wheeling debates in places where free speech isn’t normally allowed.  I’ve seen her build circles of loyal friends in countries where too many American diplomats never get outside the security bubble.  She’s responsible for reaching out to hundreds of journalists and students and persuading them to apply for programs that bring them to the US to see us for themselves — and to take those perceptions back home.
Her Karachi connections run particularly deep; she’s known the Bhutto family from her time in London when she helped the newly exiled Bhuttos following the military coup that deposed, arrested and ultimately hanged Benazir Bhutto’s father.  Given that the Bhutto’s party is now running the country (to the extent that anyone is), her connections, her journalistic skills and her deep knowledge of some of the key figures in Pakistani politics make her an invaluable public servant in a critical time in one of the world’s most important and troubled countries.
[T]he State Department bureaucracy wants to put her out to pasture — and to do it in the most inefficient and expensive way possible.

There’s a mandatory retirement age for State Department foreign service officers of 65.  It’s a hangover from the time when arbitrary retirement ages were common in the American economy; it may well be unconstitutional age discrimination.  The policy only applies to career officials; political appointees (who usually hold the most powerful and best paid State Department jobs) are exempt.  Exceptions to this shortsighted and inane policy can be made on a case by case basis, but the State Department, possibly because Dr. Colton has challenged the law in court, is refusing to extend her time in Karachi.  […] The Near Eastern bureau has asked for Colton to be assigned to the Cairo embassy for a three year tour, but for obscure bureaucratic reasons the State Department is limiting the extension to one year.
Yes, friends.  We have an experienced, savvy and dedicated diplomat in Karachi, Pakistan, the intellectual and media capital of the country on the front line of whatever this global conflict that we’re fighting is called who was willing to stay a second year in a post that most diplomats leave after one.  And what does the State Department want to do?  Take her out of Karachi where she’s built an extraordinary network and send her nonsensically on an artificially shortened one year assignment to Cairo
[T]reating Dr. Colton in this thoughtless and cavalier way is insane.  We do not have a surplus of well-connected, seasoned public diplomats who are as Colton was, ready, willing and able to spend years building relationships in the world’s most dangerous places.  When we find people like this, we should honor and treasure them, not dump them when they pass an arbitrary age limit.
To make matters worse, the State Department’s personnel policies by and large reflect the realities of an earlier era: the rigid State Department system struggles with two career families and with people like Liz Colton who change careers.  The shift in America’s diplomatic focus away from Europe towards sometimes more challenging Asian, African and Middle Eastern environments — not to mention the wars, security threats and strains associated with the War That Must Not Be Named — will ultimately have to transform the way the United States recruits, trains and manages its diplomats.  The bureaucracy is going to have to get better at attracting talent from outside the system and develop much more flexible management methods.  That would be tough in any case; since Congress takes a direct hand in State Department oversight, and writes many of its personnel policies into law, this is going to be hard and its going to take time.
The Obama administration promised to give us ‘smart diplomacy’.  Smart diplomats would keep Dr. Colton on a job she does brilliantly, especially when times are as critical as they are.

Readers who agree can do three things.

  • First, you can send an email to Dr. Colton thanking her for her service and telling her that the folks back home appreciate and honor Americans willing to put their lives on the line to represent our country abroad.  You can reach her at  Wish her a happy birthday and let her know she’s not alone.

    [DS Note: Lets help Mr. Mead with this with someecard created especially for Dr. Colton’s birthday]. - Best wishes on your unhappy birthday, Ms. Colton! My mom says

    Click to email this card.

  • Second, you tell the State Department what you think.  You can send an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to make sure Dr. Colton gets a three year tour in Cairo and that procedures are changed to make it easier for people like her to extend on hardship posts past 65; make yourself heard on the State Department’s Twitter and Facebook page.  Let them know that American diplomats willing to stay on past retirement age in hardship posts deserve the country’s thanks and support — and if you think the retirement age should be the same for career officers as for political appointees, tell them that also.
  • Third, you can contact your elected senators and congresspeople to ask them to take an interest in this case.  The State Department cares what Congress thinks.  Senators and representatives care what you think — especially in the run up to elections.

Mr. Mead said a lot more in his piece. Just go and read the whole thing here.

We should note that this case has been in litigation for sometime. And HR, under the office of the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources, which in turn is under the Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, picked August 4 just a couple or so weeks before her birthday to tell Dr. Colton that her service has been extended until September 2011. Never mind that the Director General, herself has said that “it will be several years before we are able to close the gap at the midlevels that resulted from restricted hiring in the 1990’s.”

Apparently, that fact has not kept State from chucking out their seasoned diplomats out the door.  Dr. Colton reportedly “will be ending her tour in Karachi on August 31, the end of the month in which she celebrated her 65th birthday.”

So wait, wait — don’t tell me, let’s see if we got this straight —

  • After serving in Karachi for a year and waiting for her fortune cookie, she was notified via email that she is allowed to take on a new assignment for a year. We must point out that Karachi, Pakistan is a 30% hardship post and a 35% danger assignment. It is fair to say that Karachi is not a walk in the park and there is a high possibility that somebody might just give you a deadly whack over there (or USG won’t give you the highest danger pay). Dr. Colton has not only served a year in Karachi, she apparently also requested to serve another year there.  
  • The limited extension granted to Dr. Colton was for the lowest possible tour of one year even if she is only going to Egypt. As far as we know Cairo, Egypt is not in a war zone and tours there are normally 2-3 year assignments. (Although as I read Mr. Mead’s article, I thought, wow, it’s a good thing they are not sending her on TDY assignments here and there from now until 2011!)
  • To “enjoy” her one year extension, she has to move to another country for a year, never mind her requested extension at her current position in Karachi. We note that she is currently serving as Public Affairs Officer; we don’t know if the Information Officer position at US Embassy Cairo is of comparable rank.
  • And she’s supposed to leave post on the last day of the month when she turned 65? State does make you leave at the end of the month in which you turned 65, that is, if you are subjected to MAR. But really — do they have to kick her off like a soccer ball to Cairo the same way, when she was granted a one-year extension from mandatory retirement anyway?  

Holy Molly Macaroni Crap!

Whose great idea was this? Please help me scratch my head, I’m having a hard time understanding this. Thank you!

Can’t they make this any more easy for her like say — have her walk backwards to the airport when she board her plane for Cairo?

I would love to see what her travel authorization looks like!
I can agree with Mr. Mead quite easily — this is just abosultely absolutely i-n-s-a-n-e!

Not only insane, it also smells just a tad petty and vindictive.
You know — one might get the wrong idea that the somebodies over there are mad as heck at her for taking the State Department to court.
Please HR fellas, whatever you do, do NOT/NOT make her pack her own HHE. That would not look good in the press.   

And before I forget — would somebody please tell the Director General that the provinces in Karachi’s consular district are drowning in a flood that has not been seen since 1929? And that putting a new public affairs officer on the ground no matter how talented just when you have an ongoing disaster is negative (-) 45 in the scale of best management practices?

Pardon me? Oh yes, the Director General absolutely wants to hear from you; in the latest issue of State Mag she writes: 

If you have any general comments or suggestions about how to improve management, you can send them to me via unclassified e-mail at

I hope  you all take up her invitation.

In Mr. Mead’s article, one reader asked “Isn’t an orchestrated campaign on Dr. Colton’s behalf that includes letters and e-mails to Secretary of State Clinton and members of Congress likely to infuriate the State Department bureaucracy even more and make Dr. Colton’s position worse not better?
Um, hey dude, she’s lucky she did not get her email notification within 48 hours of being ordered to decamp to Cairo.  But really, can you imagine Dr. Colton’s position as any worse than where it is right now? What? She lucky she got an extension, she should be grateful? Um, hey this is the government. What’s luck got to do with it?

At the end of the day, as we shake our heads in disbelief at how poorly this is handled, we are left with the regs (or the FAM) that the HR folks can wave at our faces, and a certainly that the bureaucracy has been taken over by artificial non-intelligence.  How else can you explain why a dedicated and talented diplomat who volunteered to hell holes and crappy places gets treated this badly by the State Department?

And the sad part is?  Somebody at the HR shop will probably get a Meritorious Honor Award for taking care of this case.