The Peter Van Buren Chronicles — John Brown Interviews State’s FSO-Non Grata

John H. Brown, a Princeton PhD, joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. He was a member of the Senior Foreign Service when he resigned from the FS in 2003 over Iraq. He blogs in John Brown’s Notes and Essays and John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, Version 2.0.  Excerpts below from his interview with FSO Peter Van Buren.

Would you advise young — and not so young — people to join the US Foreign Service?

Before getting dumped into admin leave limbo, my position was at the Board of Examiners, where for over a year since returning from Iraq I administered the Oral Exam and helped choose the next generation of Foreign Service officers. I was competent at the task, got a good performance review and, after a year on the job, it was only after my book came out that State decided I could not work there.

So, I spent a lot of time around people interested in a Foreign Service career. They did not ask for advice and at the Board we did not offer it. However, since my book came out and I have gotten some media attention, ironically more people now approach me with your same question about joining the Foreign Service. Too much irony these days.

What I tell them is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career and be successful. I have come to understand that the Department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time, years, if ever. Even Consular work, which used to offer some space, now has fallen victim to standardization as posts must conform web sites to a single model, for example. There is no agreed-upon definition of success or even progress at State, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or whatever your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than a Congressional delegation go away “happy,” whatever that even is.

At the same time, State has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places, as a routine. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you’d still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your wife at home alone with him for a year?

Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un/under employed most of his/her life. Your kids will change schools for better or worse every one, two or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss can arbitrarily be a used car salesman who donated big to the President’s campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future. It is a very unique person who can say “Yes” truthfully and after real soul-searching.

The full interview with Mr. Van Buren is here.

John also reviewed Peter’s book for American Diplomacy here.  Plus here’s a couple of other book reviews from FS folks below.

from Well, That Was Different

“If you’re going to torpedo your career, you should have a good reason.  And this is a story that needed to be told. I wish Peter Van Buren all the best in what appears to be his second career as a writer. And I hope that some day, a person in a position to make a difference will have read and carefully considered his story before pulling the trigger on a similar crusade mission.”

from Dan Simpson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette associate editor.  He previously served as United States Ambassador to the Central African Republic (1990–92), Special Envoy to Somalia, and Ambassador to the Congo-Kinshasa (1995–98).

“Mr. Van Buren’s best question is, “So how did we end up accomplishing so little when we meant well?” He tries to answer it effectively from the corners of Iraq that he worked in, but I suspect that the real answer lies at a pay grade much higher than his in a maze of bad decisions, too-short tours of duty and massive American misunderstanding of Iraq and its people. The book is short, very readable and has humor as well as profound points in it. If the State Department is given the opportunity, Mr. Van Buren’s next assignment is likely to be Mogadishu or Garry Trudeau’s Berzerkistan.”