Saturday, November 10, 2007

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The FSOs are beginning to leave me cold

Glenn Kessler has a Washington Post front-pager on how Cobdoleezza Rice is not such a great manager at Foggy Bottom.

Given Rice's management performance at NSC, this is not completely surprising. That said, three points in her defense.

First, traditionally it's been the Deputy Secretary of State who managed the bureaucracy at State. And, as Kessler observes between Robert Zoellick and John Negroponte the office, "was unoccupied for the longest period in State Department history."

Second, Kessler compares Rice's management style to James Baker's stint at the building -- and then contrasts it with Colin Powell's embrace of the bureaucracy. Fair enough, but this suggests to me that how the Secretary of State manages the bureaucracy has no bearing whatsoever on whether they are successful at their jobs.

Third, the subtext of the article is that Foreign Service Officers are bitching and moaning about how Rice has made their lives difficult. Policy objections I can understand. Being sent to Iraq I against their will I can (sort of) understand. But some of the complaints voiced to Kessler make the FSOs sound absurdly out of touch:

At State, Rice has pushed ambitious efforts to reshape how foreign aid is distributed and to shift key diplomatic jobs from Europe to emerging powers such as China and India. The foreign-assistance overhaul, in which Rice personally approved country-by-country budget numbers, was criticized by lawmakers and some within the department because it appeared to minimize the advice of specialists in the field. The job shifts were put in place so quickly that a number of Foreign Service officers who had been promised plum posts in Paris and elsewhere had to be told that those positions no longer existed....

Some State veterans compare Rice's management unfavorably with that of Powell, who was secretary during Bush's first term. Powell held large staff meetings daily; Rice cut those to three per week. And twice a week, she holds smaller meetings with undersecretaries and key regional assistant secretaries....

[An] official who served under both secretaries recalled how, after an assistant secretary of state made a mistake resulting in several days of negative news coverage, Powell treated that person with civility. By contrast, the official said, Rice becomes angry over even minor news accounts, turning furiously to the relevant assistant secretary for an explanation. "Dressing someone down like that is not great for morale and does not encourage people to bring up bad news," he said. (emphases added)

No Paris jobs? Fewer staff meetings? Getting angry over negative press? Wow, this is dirty laundry!!!

Coming soon: a front-pager from Kessler about how Rice viciously ordered the State Department cafeteria to eliminate "Free Fro-Yo Fridays"

UPDATE: I received the following in an e-mail from an FSO who shall remain nameless that provides some interesting context to the Kessler story:

Very few FSOs live for "plum assignments." People who go to comfy posts very often have kids in high school (they need a place that has a good one), may be struggling with temporary medical issues, want easy access to aging parents, or may be just be plain tired out from tough years in rough places or having been separated from family at a post like Iraq or Afghansitan. Most of us happily choose challenge and hardship over life in a place like Paris, but most of us also hope for a break here and there and if we finally get such a gift and it then gets wiped away in a reorg, that's no fun.

** Around 2/3 of us are overseas. Debating whether or not the Secretary is inclusive enough in staff meetings is utterly unfamiliar to me. Main State is full of political appointees and civil servants as well. Our FSO careers, however, are mostly spent abroad.

** When I joined, we were all about staffing new embassies after the breakup of the USSR, the world was exciting. There were no embassies in combat zones. Kids could follow you almost everywhere. Today, many hundreds of our jobs involve being in true danger spots and leaving family behind -- or at minimum living under extreme security conditions. It's not just about Iraq and Afghanistan. It's also Liberia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Congo, Algeria... all of these and many others are unaccompanied....

Bottom line -- I wish media coverage and blog postings were more accurate about who we are, how willing we actually are to take on hardship, and how much we are not about who goes to the Secretary's staff meetings or who gets to live in Paris. Even the Iraq story has been told very poorly -- the real story is that 2,000 folks have volunteered already, and many more have recently gone to other tough spots, like those above, where you can't take family. Living life this way is new for us, and our institution is undergoing painful adjustment to a tough world. It is distressing to folks to look ahead and see that this is what it means to make this a career.

posted by Dan on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM




Comments:

I agree Drez, I am sick to my stomach reading about the FSO's complaints. This is the chance one take's when entering a career as an FSO, and likewise the same risks any serviceman takes for our country. Again, they chose this life and inherently there are risks with that decision, no different from joining the armed forces. Perhaps a better comparison would be the Intel Community, either way your work is service to our country. I have yet to read about any penalties for leaving the foreign service, in fact those who leave for the private sector are likely to find a better paying job. To me, their complaints are falling on deaf ears.

posted by: Jeff Dexter on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



If I were in her situation -- or if I were simply someone on the White House staff dealing with public relations -- I would start spinning roughly as follows:

1. There are a bunch of bureaucrats who are upset because they can't get "plum positions in Paris."

2. They are obviously lazy, selfish, and cowardly, because they don't want to serve their country in Iraq, unlike our gallant military.

3. They are racist and/or sexist because they have a problem with Rice's authority. (I would *never* use the phrase "management style"; I would always say they have a problem with her "authority.")

posted by: VentrueCapital on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



The increasing politicization of the State Dept. ranks is depressing. If they can't serve their nation in good conscience, the right thing for them to do is resign, and make room for those who will. I don't particularly like the policies of that government, but it is their right to engage in them until they no longer have power. An awful lot of people in the State Department, like so many in the CIA before them, appear to have decided that only they know what is best and the American people should be content to let them enact policy and conduct foreign affairs how they want to, without any serious attempt at oversight.

posted by: Anonymouse on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



The increasing politicization of the State Dept. ranks is depressing. If they can't serve their nation in good conscience, the right thing for them to do is resign, and make room for those who will. I don't particularly like the policies of that government, but it is their right to engage in them until they no longer have power. An awful lot of people in the State Department, like so many in the CIA before them, appear to have decided that only they know what is best and the American people should be content to let them enact policy and conduct foreign affairs how they want to, without any serious attempt at oversight.

posted by: Anonymouse on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Just a point re the "plum Paris posts." From what I've heard, to get a post in Paris you have to pay your dues. For example, most everyone in Paris's last post was one of the "worst." No one is moving from Rome to Paris. You have to serve in Cameroon, Chad, the Sudan, Afghanistan, etc. Therefore, if I had just spent a tour in some awful place expecting to get a great post at the end, I'd be pretty angry that my plum job was eliminated.

All that said I don't think FSOs have found or will find much sympathy from the public.

posted by: student on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Wait, they're complaining because there are fewer staff meetings? How useless does a bureaucrat have to be to enjoy staff meetings?

posted by: David Nieporent on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Dan you're bending over backwards to be snarky here.

A peak under the hood at the Pentagon or CIA would likely reveal an equal level of careerist self interest and desk-set sniping. Secondly these aren't jobs with a whole lot of prime opportunities or benefits. As student pointed out, putting lipstick on pig of a foreign policy in Lagos for five years, without much in the way of insurance, support or benefits isn't most people's career ambition.

I can understand why the news about the Iraq posting refusal news rankles, but frankly I am surprised that the entire State Department hasn't resigned by now. When you're working for a CEO that doesn't believe in your mission, and is also running the company into the ground, sometimes seemingly on purpose, about the only reason to hang on is that you can't afford to quit. I would guess that this is likely true of every department of government these days, including the military.

posted by: Condor on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



I'm a little surprised that Dan, who is after all a scholar in a field related however distantly to the conduct of American foreign policy, appears to feel the noteworthy aspect of Kessler's story is the Foreign Service rather than the Secretary of State.

The Foreign Service as an institution changes only very gradually; its responses to changes in the Secretary of State can be predicted. This doesn't make all of its responses right. Some of them may indeed reflect deficiencies either in the institution or in its personnel. But it shouldn't surprise anyone that a Secretary of State detached both from her department's personnel and somewhat slipshod in her handling of key administrative issues would attract unfavorable comment from career State Department employees.

If anything, I thought Kessler's story rather understated Sec. Rice's preoccupation with her own public image. Kessler was also charitable enough to mention the lengthy period in which the State Department was without a Deputy Secretary without implying that the unattractiveness of working for Rice herself might have been a factor contributing to it; to refrain from pointing out that the last Deputy Secretary, Robert Zoellick, had had to attend to a number of foreign policy problems beyond Rice's capacity to deal with, and therefore had limited time to address administrative issues; and to withhold discussion of the protracted delays that have occurred in filling other important posts at State while Rice has been Secretary, including the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, the UN Ambassador's office, and the Embassy in Baghdad. Finally, Kessler was at pains to quote a number of people like Negroponte who clearly see spinning on Sec. Rice's behalf as part of their jobs, and placed their quotations in his story without skeptical commentary.

It is notable that a story with so many omissions in Sec. Rice's favor should nonetheless manage to imply so strongly that she is out of her depth at the State Department, and that this has long been a subject of discussion by the people who work there. Making the lives of Foreign Service Officers more difficult is surely a consequence of inadequate leadership, but blaming FSOs for this is a little like blaming corporals and sergeants in the Third Infantry Division for screwing up the initial occupation of Baghdad.

posted by: Zathras on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Wow. The most MBAs in any administration in US history. The president - the guy in charge - has an MBA.

We now know - precisely, having an actual, long running, no compromise experiment in such - what it means when people on the right want to "run the government like a business".

posted by: Azael on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



The State dept is a bureaucracy in the non-pejorative sense of the word, as well as in the pejorative sense. A great deal of the work is done in the field, far out the Secretary's immediate ken or even knowledge. And part of the Secretary's job is making sure that the bureaucracy -- moving the paper, in a fairly literal sense since that is what a great deal of lwoer level diplomacy involves -- is done reasonably efficiently and effectively. It's understandable that Condi Rice, like virtually all of her recent predecessors, wants to focus on the mano-a-mano aspects of high level diplomacy and policy formulation. But if she wants any of that implemented, then she needs to rely in part on FSOs and needs to have someone in place who is capable of making sure that the internal workings of the State machine function with reasonable smoothness.

posted by: Gene on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



I'm posted to an African Embassy. Last night while we were taking our oldest son to a bible study we learned that another parent had been carjacked. Not unusual here. Earlier this year the wife of an FSO was murdered. Welcome to my reality. The difference between many State employees and DOD employees is that the public recognizes that the military serves in harmís way. State Department? Huh? Oh, yeah, Plush Paris Postings. Well, that's true for whoever is there at any one time (although the value of the dollar may make that debatable). But many of us do serve "in harmís way". I've evacuated my family from Jakarta during the fall of Suharto. At the end of all this all I wish to say is that as government bureaucracies go, the Foreign Service beats the Civil Service hands down. Maybe I perceive more of a work ethic. Maybe I perceive the genuine community feeling that can exist as a member of an American outpost in a foreign nation. It may be shocking to you, but I believe in the war we have been fighting since the 1970s. I still marvel at perception Bush demonstrated in his Address to Congress a week following 9/11. And yes, I deplored the fecklessness of his predecessor. But I served that predecessor as I serve the incumbent as a professional. Politics has no place in the Foreign Service; our oath is to our Constitution.

posted by: Craig on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



"I wish media coverage and blog postings were more accurate about who we are"

Such as naming those who oppose administration policy by hostile leaks, and demanding their firing.?

"When you're working for a CEO that doesn't believe in your mission.."

Sorry, the employees don't determine the mission, and the company ain't anywhere near the ground.

posted by: Brett on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



She kicked-ass as Provost at Stanford and made a number of moves that the entrenched bureaucracy there felt "made their lives harder" - basically asking them to pull their socks up, and made it a more effective Office during a difficult period of tenure when the University was under assault over Indirect Cost Recovery issues.
As an kid growing up overseas and well outside the safe American Compound (we were missionaries), I attended boarding school with a bunch of FS kids who were among the most pampered embassy-elites with whom I could possibly rub shoulders, and who's parents got extra hazardous duty pay about equal to my dad's Mission salary. Of course nobody goes into Missionary work looking to make a fortune, or to even maintain a state-side level of comfort and affluence - it's more like taking a vow of poverty - but I left school with nothing but disdain for those snooty and sheltered kids, who seem destined to be replicated over and over in generational phases.

posted by: DirtCrashr on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Zathras said...
"Making the lives of Foreign Service Officers more difficult is surely a consequence of inadequate leadership, but blaming FSOs for this is a little like blaming corporals and sergeants in the Third Infantry Division for screwing up the initial occupation of Baghdad."

That's an apples and oranges comparison. Of course we blame the 3rd ID's leaders for the botched occupation, especially the highest leaders Rumsfeld and Bush.

But you can't blame Rice for making FSO's lives more difficult if that's what's required to accomplish the mission. Maybe she's making it more difficult than it needs to be, or maybe she's pursuing the wrong mission. But article's criticisms are free from any mission context. That makes the complaints look like griping, making them much less persuasive.

posted by: kwo on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Zathras said...
"Making the lives of Foreign Service Officers more difficult is surely a consequence of inadequate leadership, but blaming FSOs for this is a little like blaming corporals and sergeants in the Third Infantry Division for screwing up the initial occupation of Baghdad."

That's an apples and oranges comparison. Of course we blame the 3rd ID's leaders for the botched occupation, especially the highest leaders Rumsfeld and Bush.

But you can't blame Rice for making FSO's lives more difficult if that's what's required to accomplish the mission. Maybe she's making it more difficult than it needs to be, or maybe she's pursuing the wrong mission. But article's criticisms are free from any mission context. That makes the complaints look like griping, making them much less persuasive.

posted by: kwo on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



I'll add that the unnamed FSO's update leaves me more sympathetic to those who were expecting appointments in Paris and comparable locations. No one wants burnt out FSO's. The mission must still take top priority however.


posted by: kwo on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



"...People who go to comfy posts very often have kids in high school (they need a place that has a good one), may be struggling with temporary medical issues, want easy access to aging parents, or may be just be plain tired out from tough years in rough places"

I may be projecting my own experiences here, but this situation sounds similar to those of us who work in an interconnected church/denomination institution.

posted by: yagij on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



Daniel,

I would like to echo the FSO's email.

Americans have no idea what it's like to work at an American embassy and to know that you, your wife and children are kidnap bait for every crazy bastard in the world. As an American Embassy employee, you and your entire family have targets on your heads.

My first post was at the American Embassy in Paris. Nice!

Even in Paris some days, weeks and months you would show up for work with busloads of French police carrying machine guns to protect the embassy. You knew some homicidal maniac had made a threat against the embassy so they were beefing up security.

The embassy would tell us not to let our children put up Halloween decorations in our apartment windows because it marks you as an American and a target for terrorists.

And this was Paris for gawds sake!

My wife didn't like it. The lower level of personal security was one consideration we had when we decided to quit before my 3 year posting was up.

Yeah, I quit the Foreign Service while working at the American Embassy in Paris.

Sure, the U.S. Foreign Service certainly has far more than its fair share of arrogant, pompous, know-it-alls but I understand and empathize with the huge sacrifices many Foreign Service families have to make.

How would you like to work in Iraq?

How would you like to have a job where your family lives thousands of miles away?

I wouldn't.

Foreign Service personnel deserve a lot more respect than they receive.

John L. Wake

posted by: John Wake on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



I think that focusing on FSO's misses the point. The Foreign Service is just like any other large organization or federal bureaucracy (military included): it's big, its resistant to change, it has its share of careerists and whiners, but most people are good, solid dedicated workers who never get any publicity for all the good they do the nation.

More interesting, I think are issues raised about Rice's management style. When added to they dysfunction at the NSC under her tenure, it does not raise a solid record of her as a government manager.

1. There have been several, high-profile incidents involving failures of management at State. Blackwater, the Embassy, Passports, etc. Those are not problems that emerged from outside, those are problems that emerged because State couldn't properly manage its contracts, personnel and workload. As Crocker said in the article, its the Secretary's job to become aware of these issues and deal with them. Those directly supervising these issues (or not, as the case may be) were in those positions because Rice put them there, reflecting poor staffing choices on her part, and a failure to look into problems and solve them before they became national scandals.

2. Related, she has had staffing problems. Her people have had a number of high profile failures. She wasn't able to find a Deputy for 8 months. Her workers, the FSO's are upset. Sure, you may say that she needed to do some things like directed assignments, but good managers work with their employees to accomplish organizational goals, good managers inspire confidence in the organization and earn respect from employees. I'll grant that Rice may need to be firm with the Foreign Service from time to time. But, at the same time, her job is to manage the Foreign Service, not fight with it. She must share blame that she couldn't set up a process to get the Baghdad embassy staffed.

3. She doesn't use email? How on earth does she communicate? Of all things, this is the most amazing. Is she a ludite? Is she too busy going hither and yon to sit down at a computer? Or, is she too paranoid that anything she writes emails will one day be subject to a FOIA (or worse)?
How on earth does anyone manage a large, global organization without email these days? I know some senior managers who claim to spend half their day on email. That may be a bit of overkill, but no email whatsoever? That boggles the mind just a bit.

posted by: Peter on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



I noticed that as well. To my mind Sec. Rice's list of failings and deficiencies is already somewhat lengthy, so I didn't mention this one in my catalog upthread.

But leave aside positives and negatives for the moment. How does someone -- with an academic background no less -- run an organization without using e-mail? That's just eccentric. It would be like a Secretary of State in Henry Kissinger's time refusing to fly, or one in Dean Acheson's refusing to use a telephone. If one thought about it very hard one might come up with some plausible explanations. I suppose they'd have to begin with the amount of Rice's time that must be taken up with tending to her relationship with the President -- who likely doesn't use e-mail either -- and to her personal appearance, for which e-mail is obviously not required.

posted by: Zathras on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]



If your key personnel -- the people who serve in places like Lagos, Port Moresby, Tirana, Karachi and Ulaan Bataar -- are flat-out refusing to go to a particular place to implement a particular policy, that should be a warning to an organization's leadership that there is something wrong with the policy. Actually, it should be a flashing-light and banging-gong ALL CAPS red alert that something is seriously wrong. Good leaders know when to listen.

The officers who are not volunteering do not have the training to do the job that they won't have the resources or the security to attempt. They're being told to go and park themselves in a very dangerous place simply to have a lot of warm bodies in a place that will not accomplish diddly-squat (to use the technical term). Is it any wonder there are not volunteers to fill up every nook and cranny?

One more thing: Rice is going to be Secretary of State for another 433 days and that's it. Everything this administration has screwed up will at that point become Somebody Else's Problem. Bush and his friends will ride off to clear brush (or whatever) and anyone posted to Baghdad will be left to clean up the mess. No surprise that people aren't lining up to be held responsible, while the principals head out for an accountability-free future.

posted by: Doug on 11.10.07 at 08:36 AM [permalink]






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