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

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Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo during a demonstration on September 11th, 2012. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

Anne Smedinghoff, the 25-year-old diplomat killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, joined the Foreign Service straight out of college and eagerly volunteered for the Kabul assignment in July. She longed to be out among the Afghan people, helping them rebuild their lives.

While out on a delegation that was delivering books to a new school on Saturday, Smedinghoff and four other Americans were killed in a suicide bombing in the deadliest day for Americans in Afghanistan this year.

"A brave American was determined to brighten the light of learning through books written in the native tongue of the students that she had never met, but whom she felt compelled to help," said Secretary of State John Kerry. "And she was met by cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers."

Smedinghoff's death, along with that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans who were killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, cast a spotlight on the difficulties of modern diplomacy in volatile areas.

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Today's Foreign Service is a multifaceted force of 13,000 professionals who do everything from helping Americans abroad with their problems, to approving visas, to rebuilding war-torn countries. They are simultaneously the faces of America and members of their host communities, always striving to maintain the delicate balance between having enough security to be protected, but not so much that they can't interact with ordinary citizens. They aim to help their host nations and their people, all the while striving to keep Americans safe from terrorists.

For his recent book, America's Other Army, former Washington Times journalist Nicholas Kralev visited 52 embassies and consulates and interviewed 600 diplomats and the last seven secretaries of state. The book offers a thorough picture of how the Foreign Service has changed since the start of the War on Terror, as well as where it might be headed from here.

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Here is an edited transcript of a recent conversation with Kralev:

What would you say are some of the primary ways U.S. diplomacy has changed since September 11, 2001?

9/11 had a profound impact on American diplomacy and the U.S. Foreign Service, both conceptually and practically, in terms of what diplomats do every day. The most significant shift in how Washington thought about the role of diplomacy came in the realization that it's directly linked to national security -- and more importantly, to homeland security. Until then, diplomacy's mission was seen mostly as protecting and promoting U.S. interests abroad, but not as protecting the homeland and the security of Americans at home.

In fact, soon after the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush's 1990 National Security Strategy said that "our first priority in foreign policy remains solidarity with our allies and friends." Why? Because "we have been blessed with large oceans east and west, and friendly neighbors north and south," but "many of our closest friends and allies" were not so lucky. Well, 9/11 proved that those oceans don't really protect the homeland.

How has that affected what American diplomats do around the world?

Traditional diplomacy -- managing foreign relations or taking care of the business of the United States abroad -- is still alive and well. But since 9/11, the Foreign Service has been also tasked with helping to prevent conditions that allow for terrorists to be recruited, trained, and sent to attack the United States. In other words, helping to create conditions that foster modern human and societal development -- meaning that every country should provide basic services and economic opportunities to its people, so they don't have a need to turn to terrorism or other criminal activities to feed their families.

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Specifically, they work in the areas of organizing free elections, building and reforming democratic institutions, infrastructure, education and health care systems, promoting entrepreneurship, creating independent media and many others. Even more specifically, American diplomats help to reform judicial systems, improve child nutrition, modernize child adoption, set up and manage antiterrorism programs, recover from natural disasters, fight corruption -- and the list goes on and on.

How is that different from the U.S. nation-building efforts before 9/11?

According to that 1990 Bush strategy I mentioned earlier, nation-building in the period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 was done largely for humanitarian reasons, and because the U.S. had a "responsibility" to "do our part." In Central and Eastern Europe in particular, Washington wanted those countries to become NATO allies and also join the European Union -- after all, they are in the backyard of longtime U.S. allies in Western Europe. President Bill Clinton's 1996 National Security Strategy was similar in that respect. The reason it provided for nation-building was to "alleviate human suffering and pave the way for progress." Neither strategy cited a direct link to U.S. national security, which is why those efforts weren't nearly as global, ambitious, and costly as they are today.

"I have no doubt that the single most important skill to rise to the top in the Service is knowing how to work the bureaucracy and having the right connections."

Another major difference after 9/11 is that the Foreign Service has been operating in war zones, which is not only very dangerous but also makes the job of bringing about good and effective governance extremely difficult. American diplomats hadn't served in a war zone since Vietnam, and those who had done that were no longer in the service after 9/11, so that led to an identity crisis of sorts.

What kind of personalities succeed best in the Foreign Service?

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.

Now, this is what makes a good diplomat, which is not always the same as succeeding in the Foreign Service. After all the research I've done, I have no doubt that the single most important skill to rise to the top in the service is knowing how to work the bureaucracy and having the right connections.

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What are some of the short-term and long-term goals of diplomats that occasionally clash?

Such clashes are actually part of everyday diplomacy. For example, with Russia and China, Washington has to play a careful balancing act between its advocacy of human rights and democracy, and the help it needs from Moscow and Beijing to address strategic issues, such as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. Currently, Pakistan is perhaps the best textbook example of that clash, because it makes the work of American diplomats there utterly challenging and frustrating. The main short-term U.S. goals in Pakistan are destroying al-Qaeda and winning the war in Afghanistan. However, the long-term goal in the region is a stable Pakistan, but also a stable Afghanistan, as well as stable India. To be able to influence the Pakistani government to help achieve that long-term goal, you need to build mutual trust and an effective working relationship. Things like drone attacks advance the short-term goal of defeating al-Qaeda, but they also badly hurt the trust and confidence-building with the Pakistani authorities.

Has social media made it harder or easier for the Foreign Service to communicate with the public, both in their host countries and in the United States?

The U.S. government has determined that, in the 21st century, in order to effectively influence a foreign country's decisions and actions, it's no longer enough to lobby just the host government. You have to go directly to the people of that country, even if their authorities don't like it. As we've seen in recent years in places like Egypt and Iran, even in non-democratic states public opinion matters -- and that's largely because of social media and instant communication. So social media has definitely made it easier for American diplomats to reach foreign publics. At the same time, the fact that the Foreign Service has to deal with more players than just governments makes its work more challenging, and it also makes it harder to achieve quick and fruitful results.

How have the competing pressures to bring more tourists and other paying visitors to the United States while keeping away potentially dangerous individuals changed consular work over the past decade?

During the first few years after 9/11, the focus was entirely on keeping out dangerous people, which earned the U.S. a reputation for being unwelcoming and led to numerous complaints about mistreatment of law-abiding foreign citizens. But letting another terrorist in the country was the Foreign Service's worst nightmare -- and because watchlists and relevant technologies weren't as sophisticated as they are today, many legitimate travelers suffered. The recent improvements and streamlining of the visa process have made a positive difference, but now the challenge is that the White House wants to increase the number of foreign visitors, which would help the economy.

That puts consular officers in a peculiar position, because they are also required by U.S. law to deny tourist visas to potential immigrants -- not to mention the fact that some of the best foreign students who could benefit the country seem like potential immigrants on paper. Another persistent challenge is the workload. About 10 million non-immigrant visa applications are submitted each year, and about two-thirds are approved. Officers have an average of 2 minutes to interview an applicant, review documents and make a decision. Even though more Foreign Service officers have been hired in recent years, at some posts, officers still interview over 100 people a day each -- and they deal with lies, fake documents, and even spitting. You won't believe some of the stories people make up to get visas. At least those stories made writing my book more entertaining.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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