Burn Bag: The Foreign Service Should Thank Rex Tillerson

Note: We received the following letter as a submission to the Burn Bag. As most of our readers know, the Burn Bag submissions are by design short (though not always sweet) but we’ve decided that this letter merits an exception because it provides our readers a perspective that’s different from the currently prevailing one.

We do not know the identity of the writer but we have a few things that we can share with our readers. S/he is an FS-03 Foreign Service Officer who said s/he was dismayed by the latest public resignation that got so much media attention. S/he has previously served overseas in Asia and also in D.C. where s/he staffed various Department principals, witnessing first hand some of State’s long-standing problems. The writer understands that it would be better to attach her/his name to this piece, but wants to remain anonymous because his/her letter “is not about me, it is about showing that the Foreign Service is multi-dimensional and should not only be defined by Shackelford’s resignation letter.” For those interested, the Shackelford letter is here. Both letters are presented without comments. You are welcome to use the blog’s comment section for civil discussion. 

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The Foreign Service Should Thank Rex Tillerson

In his book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama makes a powerful argument that the “quality of the American government has been deteriorating steadily for more than a generation.” This is in stark contrast to alarmist news articles asserting that the State Department’s current problems began on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Leading the most recent and vocal charge, Foreign Service Officer Elizabeth Shackelford’s much publicized resignation letter has been touted as a symbol of plunging morale and dysfunction within the Department. Shackelford follows the narrative that Secretary Tillerson wants to gut State and diminish the role of diplomacy. Yet underlying these assertions is a misconception of what a healthy State Department looks like. They also fail to grasp interagency dynamics that outlast successive administrations.

In an example of unqualified assertions, former Counselor of the Department Eliot Cohen penned a recent op-ed skewering Secretary Tillerson’s redesign efforts as “management-jargon-laden reforms…that demoralized the Foreign Service.” I cannot argue with the recognition of a demoralized Foreign Service. Change is hard and selling it to our community of stakeholders has never been easy. Secretary Tillerson and his team have thus far failed to communicate the redesign’s benefits, but honestly, in the current politicized environment, would they have been able to? If the Foreign Service wants to reclaim our standing as non-partisan professionals, we should look at the problems the redesign is meant to address and work to shape the discussion, rather than opt out or disrupt from within.

Secretary Tillerson started his redesign by asking a simple question “what is the Department of State’s mission, and how can it best achieve goals and objectives?” While this can easily be dismissed as Diplomacy 101, it is a necessary question to ask. Unlike the military, the State Department operates at the behest of our political leadership and Congress. Inherent to both are special interests groups that back them. So while politicians breathe new life and ideas into the bureaucracy, over time they have also contributed to a dilution of State’s mission – heaping pet projects and cumbersome reports onto a Department unable to handle them. The result has been an erosion of State’s autonomy and increasing overlap between conflicting priorities. Every year we process over 300 congressionally mandated reports on topics ranging from intellectual property and labor issues to democracy promotion and counterterrorist financing. All of these issues have merit, yet how can an embassy advance broader U.S. interests when it has officers asking host governments to pass laws strengthening IPR protection, counterterrorist financing, and trafficking in persons all at the same time? The outward message gets diluted. If everything is a priority, nothing is.

The energy and zeal with which dedicated foreign and civil servants advance the various issues in their portfolio should be commended. Likewise, it is important to understand their frustration when a new administration determines that their work is no longer a priority. That said, creating a more streamlined, mission focused State Department will necessarily leave some stakeholders disillusioned. As we have seen, even the prospect of change has riled a bureaucracy that has grown accustomed to protecting its budgets and issue areas at the expense of broader coherency and efficiency. As a low-level FS-03, I do not claim to know what the Department’s priorities should be. But it is healthy for the Secretary to ask questions on whether we should promote democracy over institution building or freedom over good governance.

Shackelford’s assertion that high-level departures and resignations over the past year have handicapped U.S. diplomacy is misguided. For nearly a decade there has been a group of senior FSOs that have traded ambassadorships and leadership positions amongst each other, effectively blocking much needed generational change. While these FSOs all served with distinction and the way they were pushed out was unbecoming of their decades of service, we should not mourn their loss.

Cohen claims that Secretary Tillerson’s “incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees” crippled his effectiveness. And to that I ask, would Cohen prefer self-serving political hacks instead? While congressional and political oversight prevents bureaucracies from “running amuck,” political patronage has the opposite effect, usually serving to advance narrow short-term interests. In the United States political loyalty is rewarded with positions in government, often (but not always) to the detriment of bureaucratic autonomy and the ability to create long-term strategy. The fact that Secretary Tillerson chose to rely on FSOs in acting positions, elevating their status and providing them increased stature, demonstrates the value he places on their experience and expertise. When pundits complain about a leadership vacuum at the State Department, I have to wonder: where is the Foreign Service Association in standing up for career FSOs like Susan Thornton and Francisco Pamieri who have successfully led their respective bureaus?

So why, if Secretary Tillerson wants to reform the Department, has he enthusiastically embraced a 30% budget cut? Let’s start by looking at the role congress plays in forcing pet projects on the Department and reducing bureaucratic efficiency with a maze of regulations and mandated reports. Congressional micro-management has decreased State’s effectiveness, forcing skilled bureaucrats to spend time on creativity stifling administrative work rather than formulating policy and strategy. Funds for pet projects are cheered at the time they are allocated, but it takes people, time, and money to spend money. Once an initiative is introduced it becomes embedded in the bureaucracy and takes on a momentum that is difficult to reign in. Temporarily cutting funds is one of the best ways to force difficult decisions. It also helps signal to special interest groups that the Department is going to be prudent in deciding which issues it will take on.

Asserting that the Department’s decline started on January 20, 2017 makes it easy to forget the neglect of previous Secretaries and helps us brush off the necessary, but painful, changes Secretary Tillerson is trying to push through. It also serves to absolve the bureaucracy for its complicity in facilitating State’s declining influence. I witnessed our collective failings first hand staffing Department principals. Information memos often came up with boilerplate jargon, offering no useful insights or recommendations. Briefing checklists were full of platitudes but lacked tangible goals the principal needed to achieve during his/her meeting. It is no wonder Secretary Tillerson expanded the policy planning staff.

I do not know if Secretary Tillerson’s redesign will be successful. I do not know if he is adopting the right approach or tactics. What I do know is that if the State Department continues on the same course it will permanently cede influence to political appointees at the NSC and their backers at partisan Washington think tanks. I also know that if the Foreign Service gets mired in partisan rhetoric and the political buzzwords of the day, it will lose any remaining support it has in congress and with the American public.

The American people need career diplomats, not only to develop policy and strategy, but also to help conserve and pass down to future administrations the democratic values and diplomatic traditions that have made this country great. Sadly, our ability to deliver on this mission has been in decline for decades – a bloated NSC is just one example how State has failed to provide the executive branch with what it needs. Stemming this institutional decay will require a Secretary willing to take political punches and a bureaucracy ready to suffer through a period of painful change. Self-serving resignation letters full of unqualified assertions are not bold statements. They are an abdication of responsibility that reinforces stereotypes of the State Department as a “deep state” bureaucracy acting outside the interests of the American people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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First Person: I am a ✂️ FSO who was ✂️ raped in ✂️… Continuing on has been ✂️ incredibly difficult…

Posted: 12:45 am ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Below is a redacted version of the Burn Bag we received. The red scissor indicates the parts of the Burn Bag that we purposely snipped (see explanation below):

I am a ✂️ FSO who was ✂️ raped, in  ✂️

It has been an extremely painful ….. ✂️

Continuing on has been an (sic) incredibly difficult.

To have to continue to go ✂️  with this threatening and frightening person still present and looming around, has been terrifying.

In addition to not feeling safe with this violent criminal down the hallway, I have been grappling in fear and lost about what to do.

Like the grim picture your recent article on sexual assault reporting paints, it’s been hard to gather information on what to do.

I’ve heard of two accounts of other FSOs who’ve been sexually assaulted and these violent criminals are still serving as diplomats, with no apparent justice served despite their efforts to address the issue through HR.

I have many specific questions. ✂️

Is there some place outside of the State Dept and other than the police where one can make a report?

✂️ [W]hat about when the assailant is of equal “rank,” particularly, also a FSO? I’ve heard that in these situations, although both the victim and perpetrator were both FSOs, that it tends to discount the crime overall because it’s “embarrassing” to the Department that a FSO would do this. In the end, the female FSO who was assaulted seems to get no real justice. ✂️

What about AFSA? Is there anyone we can talk to at AFSA who has past experiene or specializes in Sexual Adsault (sic) and Harrassment issues in the FS?

I know that this is sent anonymously and that I can’t get these answers directly.

So I hope that Diplopundit will consider an update to the Sexual Assault blog around the questions I’ve raised ✂️

You have at least one oerson (sic) here in the FS family suffering greatly who would appreciate any information or guidance. Thank you.

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Redacted Burn Bag – a Rare Exception

As we’ve previously written here, we received this Burn Bag submission regarding sexual assault in the Foreign Service. We have no way to contact the sender directly but we know that she reads this blog (90% of adult rape victims are female, so we will use the feminine pronoun in this blogpost). She wanted us to have the information for publication since she did send the information via Burn Bag. While we almost never redact/edit the Burn Bag submissions we post in this blog, we are making a rare exception here.  We are doing so because we have serious concerns that posting all details and locations contained in the Burn Bag submission could identify the victim/assault survivor or alert the perpetrator. While the Burn Bag is clearly intended for publication, we do not wish to place the victim/survivor in potential additional jeopardy, and that’s why this version is redacted.

We should note that this is the second anonymous FSO who reported to us their sexual assault while in the Foreign Service. A third employee who did not want us to use her name has also recently reached out to this blog about her assault while posted in a war zone. She shared  the fallout from her reporting and we will post that account separately.

 

Related posts:

 

 

Whoa! What happened to the Anonymous FSO on Reddit?

Posted: 11:50 EST

[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

In February last year, we posted about an anonymous Foreign Service officer who got on Reddit, the “front page of the Internet” and did an AMAA  (Ask Me Almost Anything). (see IamA United States Diplomat: Anonymous FSO Gets on Reddit and He’s a Riot!). The photo of the dip passport is still up, the questions are still up but all the answers have been deleted.   And here I thought the State Department via careers.state.gov should have paid this guy’s overtime.

US Ambassador Gets on Reddit, Not/Not Nearly as Funny as Anonymous FSO

— Domani Spero
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

In February this year, we had an anonymous Foreign Service Officer who did an AMA on Reddit (see IamA United States Diplomat: Anonymous FSO Gets on Reddit and He’s a Riot!).  Last June, USCG Toronto also did an AMA on consular issues (see U.S. Consulate General Toronto Joins ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit). Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Suzi LeVine joined Reddit for what we think is the first “Ask Me Anything” session conducted by a chief of mission.  Unlike the anonymous FSO’s AMA, this one is official and done on your dime; no need to report her to the FBI or Diplomatic Security.

You might also remember her as the first U.S. ambassador to be sworn-in on a Kindle this past June. Below is her intro on Reddit:

Hi Reddit! I’m Suzi LeVine, the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I am also a former technology exec and a mom to two amazing kids. It’s an honor to serve the American people as an Ambassador and I can personally attest to the critical role Ambassadors play in U.S. foreign policy making. Right now there are 60 Ambassadorial nominees who are still awaiting confirmation by Congress – that’s 60 countries where the U.S. isn’t representing its foreign policy interests as well as it could. Fun fact: My first trip to Switzerland was when I kicked off a solo 6 week backpacking trip from Zurich. I was 18 and, after buying my first Swiss Army knife, promptly learned how sharp they are when I cut straight through an apple into my hand. Let’s just say that I learned how excellent the Swiss healthcare system is. Verification: https://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/15302277727/

UPDATE: Merci viel mal. What terrific questions! Let’s do this again sometime! And, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @AmbSuzi.

photo via state.gov

photo via state.gov

 

Here are some of the questions Ambassador LeVine answered:

Reddit user: Do you think your background which lacks diplomatic experience prior to your appointment as ambassador is a handicap or do you see it as a positive thing to bring another perspective? Or something totally different?  Where do you see issues in the relations between the USA and Switzerland? Where do the countries work well together?
AmbSuzi:  Diplomatic experience does not just derive from work in the Foreign Service. Let me tell you about team oasys from Jordan or team onebuzz from New Zealand. These were two teams and two groups of students with whom I had the honor of working in my capacity at Microsoft to shine a spotlight on innovators using technology to change the world. That’s diplomacy.

Reddit user: It’s always been a dream of mine to work for an embassy–or in the foreign service. I’m fluent in French, 24 years old, and I love America. How do I go about making this dream a reality? EDIT: I forgot to say I am an American…and of course I love it.
AmbSuzi: First off, go for it! http://careers.state.gov (In fact, I think the deadline for summer internships is next week, and that’s a great way to get a taste of this career. Stop wasting time on Reddit and go apply. 🙂

Reddit user: Do you have to deal with a lot of people revoking their US citizenship nowadays? Because it isn’t exactly easy being a dual citizen these days ever since FATCA came around.
AmbSuzi:  I have deep empathy for those who are wrestling with this decision and situation right now. My team and I are actively working to alleviate some of the concerns.

Reddit user: What do you think of the common criticism that too many ambassadors are appointed because they were fundraisers for the President & the Democratic/Republican party? You can look up individual donations here and it appears that you’ve donated quite a bit to the President & the Democratic Party? Do you think that more ambassadors should be career diplomats or is there value in having individuals close to the President serve as ambassadors?
AmbSuzi:  Fair question. I believe that there is tremendous value in a blend. The answer is not “or.” It is “and.” Different skill sets are appropriate in different situations and places around the globe. For example, my professional and volunteer experience as someone who has created partnerships, organized communities, led teams, initiated start-ups, etc., is a terrific match for Switzerland where I work with the likes of Nestle, Novartis, and ABB. Alternatively, someone like my friend, Michael Hoza, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, brings decades of foreign service experience and is equipped to take on the likes of Boko Haram.

Reddit user: What is the most challenging moment of your Career thus far, and how did you overcome it
AmbSuzi:  I tend to approach challenges as opportunities. What can I learn? How can I grow? With whom can I learn from their mistakes? The hardest element of this ambassadorial job so far was frankly, waiting to get confirmed. In my overall very nonlinear career, the hardest moment was going back to work in 2009 after four and a half years home with my kids and hearing people say that I was no longer qualified.

Reddit user: Ambassador, you were the first in such a position to be sworn in with your hand on an e-reader instead of a book. That made the news on some tech sites, but the news reports lacked some kind of background. Whose idea was it, and what was the thought behind it?
AmbSuzi:  Great question! (By the way, what is the plural of octopus?) As for the e-reader, I wrote about this in my blog post here: http://go.usa.gov/wnBz. After reading, let me know if you have any additional questions.

Reddit user:  How regularly do you speak with State Department officials back in Washington DC? Who is your immediate superior? Wendy Sherman? How much of the day to day operations of an embassy come from officials in DC?
AmbSuzi:  We have regular communications, and it’s important to share what’s happening in Switzerland with D.C. My technical, immediate superior is the President. That said, we do a lot of coordination within the European and Eurasian Bureau, which is run by the awesome Toria Nuland.

Here are the some other interesting questions from Reddit users that the ambassador did not respond to:

  • Do you think that presidents should continue to appoint plush state dept posts to their highest donors? I do realize this goes both ways, and both parties are involved in this practice.
  • Do you have a Swiss bank account, and are they all they’re cracked up to be?
  • Do you get paid double?
  • Among the other ambassadors in Switzerland, who are the best to party with?
  • Can I move in with you? I’m tired of this shit country!
  • How many push ups can you do?
  • Anyway to hook me up with a trip?
  • How did you get the gig? Did you have to go to a special college, was it more about who you knew than what you knew?
  • How much did you have to “donate” to get the Ambassador position????
  • What advice would you give somebody interested in becoming an Ambassador (or at least working abroad for the State Department)?
  • Does it get boring being the ambassador to a neutral country while we are on the brink of WW3?

We were sorely disappointed there were no questions about Jason Bourne, TP, prostitutes, crashed UFOs, Argo, or Benghazi.  Maybe next time?

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