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View Diary: Idiocy at the State Department (85 comments)

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  •  What do you know? (89+ / 0-)

    Do you even know any State department Foreign Service Officers personally?  I am married to one.  He is a fluent speaker of the language in the country where we are posted.  He does TV and radio interviews in that language, as does the ambassador here.  Many, but certainly not all of the people at are embassy are fluent in the local language.  

    Some of the diplomats who are not got only a year or less to study it.  It costs a lot of money to create fluent speakers of foreign languages.  Our personnel are often dealing with people who have studied English since they were school children, and are proud of their ability in English, and quick to switch into English.  In multi-language countries, you can cause a lot of issues by using only ONE of the local languages but not others on official signage etc.  For example in the Philippines, India, Kenya etc there are multiple local languages, and English is the bridge between groups.  It would be ideal to have every US staff member fluent in a local language, but it is not realistic financially. One year of full-time language training does not make a person fluent.

    Diplomats are moved every few years not only so that their experience in issues can be used in other places, and so that they develop a multi-lateral, broader overview of topics so they can help develop policy as well as implement it.  They also move regularly so so that their families don't make them quit. Not a lot of families are willing to spend 20 years in some countries, but will spend a few years there.  

    I personally have a limited amount of time I can live in a country where I have to assume all my conversations are being listened to, all my email is being read, and my home is under video surveillance continuously.  In other countries our personnel have to take malaria medication, live in dangerous places with limitations on their movement, or have limited educational opportunities for their children.  In almost ALL posts there are limited career opportunities for family members.  

    In order to make diplomats and families willing to spend time in less comfortable countries, they need the opportunity to spend some time in one of the countries with more interesting or pleasant life.  They couldn't have that if diplomats could choose to spend all their career in a particular country.  Some families need regular tours in the US to keep them willing to continue with the work; others find it financially untenable to be in DC and try to stay overseas.

    Diplomats do NOT always agree with US policy, but they work to change it by argument and persuasion from within, or they leave the service.  We have many officers who are first-generation immigrants, or who married foreign nationals. There is no political test to be a diplomat, and my husband has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  His personal views can be used to inform analysis and policy discussion within the department, but in public it is his responsibility to support the policy of the current administration.  I would bet that in Pakistan not all our personnel support the drone policy, and  express their opinions and work toward reducing or eliminating drone strikes.  Some probably support it because given all the information they have, it is in their view the best approach the US can use at the moment.  

    Finally, the Arabic translators who were fired were military, not State. Many years ago being homosexual was considered a security risk because a person might be trying to hide their sexual preference and so would be vulnerable to blackmail. State now has many gay/ lesbian foreign service officers, and has continually expanded benefits for partners of those officers as allowed within federal law.

    •  Thank you (19+ / 0-)

      That was my first thought on the language issue as well, there are so many local dialects and languages especially in former colonies whose borders were drawn by westerners. At least with english you don't risk making embarrassing translation errors.

      Thanks for your perspective.

      “Birds…scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth. They know the truth. Screaming bloody murder all over the world in our ears, but sadly we don’t speak bird.” Kurt Cobain

      by RadicalParrot on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 06:48:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thank you for your input. I have tipped both the (32+ / 0-)

      diarist and you.  You are right about everything you say, and yet the diarist is right about some things too.  

      The state department officials (well, USIA) I knew when I was a Fulbright scholar in Mexico in the 1980s were fluent in Spanish and were doing exactly what you describe in your paragraph about how diplomats do not always agree with US policy.  This was under Reagan, and most of the folks I came to know posted in Mexico City at USIA were Democrats, but they never felt that their positions were under scrutiny because of their political leanings, and they saw their mission as transcending the ebb and flow of politics.

      That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

      by concernedamerican on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 06:53:06 AM PDT

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    •  Thank You, the Americans I've known who worked (11+ / 0-)

      at embassies were amazingly familiar with the language, the most fluent speakers I would meet.

      Their professionalism and competence were refreshing. The State Department is a part of our government that does work.

      How big is your personal carbon footprint?

      by ban nock on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 08:08:41 AM PDT

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    •  Best not to personalize Dreidlgirl (14+ / 0-)

      It's best not to personalize these things, Dreidlgirl. Your husband may be--presumably is-- a wonderful person. All the people from the State Department that you know may be wonderful people. And you raise some legitimate issues in mentioning the desire of locals to speak English and the complications that may ensue by using one local language to the exclusion of others.

      But I read the daily State Department briefings. I have read countless Wikileaked cables. These are experiences just as valid as your own.

      I am struck by how clueless State seems to be. I'll do a slightly longer post below on this. In brief, the problem is more comprehensive than language, but language is an important element.  

      •  I'm not taking it personally. (7+ / 0-)

        I just have some actual knowledge and experience as to why State functions the way it does.

        If you think that because of State Department briefings and wikileaked cables you have a great depth of knowledge on forming and carrying out US foreign policy, then please step up and take the foreign service exam.

        •  Ad hominem is not debate (0+ / 0-)

          I don't have any reason except your word to believe that you actually have any personal knowledge whatsoever on the State Department. Trying to put people down what you assume to be their personal knowledge might be is ad hominem. Stick to objective facts.  

          Do you want chapter and verse on how the CIA is part of every major station, that the intelligence officers pose as State Department officials? On how the intelligence people  and FSOs have overseen and planned torture and murder? State Department officials have done plenty of terrible things. There shouldn't be any argument about what are well-known historical facts.

          If you actually do have a spouse in the service, that subtracts from your ability to see this issue objectively.

          •  I never asked to debate. (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            whizdom, BvueDem, pragmaticidealist

            You used the example of State Department briefings and cables to support your view.  

            You shouldn't assume what I know or don't know from a few paragraphs written in response to a post derisive of an entire agency of people.  

            I do not claim to be wholly objective, but I AM knowledgable about what actually goes on inside an embassy.  Objectivity does not inherently trump subjectivity when there is an information gap.

            •  I for one appreciate your efforts to let (0+ / 0-)

              the rest of us know what goes on.

              I do know that in the seventies and eighties the diplomatic staff was expected to know the language where they served. This all fell away during the reign of Bush the Elder, and was even much worse under Bush the Younger. But of course, even way way back when, the situation sometimes was so dire, that you see novels like "The Ugly American' getting written to expose what goes on.

              It seems a lot of the thinking inside the Washington beltway these days comes down to "Who has the military right, needs nothing else."

              Offer your heart some Joy every day of your life, and spread it along to others.

              by Truedelphi on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 07:48:25 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  I'm struck by... (8+ / 0-)

        how clueless you seem to be. So, there.

        Does everyone at every embassy speak the local language? Of course that's not true.

        However, dissing dialogues conducted in English, which is the closest thing to a universal language, makes no sense.

        Also, with respect ot choosing Ambassadors and other high-ranking personnel, language fluency is probably not the highest criterion. Nor should it be. It would be a nice bonus, but there are many considerations that go into those hiring decisions.

        Look -- I know how weird these decisions can seem. 70 years ago, my father enlisted in the Army. While he was waiting for the Army to find boots to fit him, he took a bunch of tests, including language aptitude. Not surprisingly, he did really well. In addition to English, he spoke fluent German and Yiddish. So, naturally he was enlisted to translate German intercepts, yes?

        No -- he was sent to school to learn Japanese. Presumably, the need was greater there....because we'd put our Japanese speakers into camps.

        We don't live in a perfect world. I'm sure you do plenty of things that would look stupid to outsiders.

        Coming Soon -- to an Internet connection near you:

        by FischFry on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 09:57:40 AM PDT

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      •  That really isn't fair. (3+ / 0-)

        I'm no defender of State or of U.S. foreign policy in general, but dismissing this perspective on State's function out of hand is entirely unfair.

        You assert that State is clueless. Provide some evidence for that assertion.

        “Birds…scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth. They know the truth. Screaming bloody murder all over the world in our ears, but sadly we don’t speak bird.” Kurt Cobain

        by RadicalParrot on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 11:17:49 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I've read many of those cables too and they were (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        CharlesII, Lujane

        often appalling. My sense is that they are generally written and re-written by the hacks back home, assembling the data they wanted to arrive at an assigned point of view.  There is a dichotomy between the political wings of State, where there is still a certain cold war mentality, and the young personnel abroad. It is changing, but sloooooowly.

      •  Perhaps State seems clueless (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Calamity Jean

        because the CIA is slacking off on their main mission (gathering clues for US policymakers, including those at State) to play their James Bond games of Spy vs. Spy.

        Diplomats, no matter how fluent in the local language, have a limited number of hours per day, and spend many of them in host nation diplomatic circles, talking to people who have their own national agenda. It's CIA operatives who are supposed to be out circulating on the street finding out what else is going on.

        "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

        by Orinoco on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 12:10:41 PM PDT

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    •  Thank you (15+ / 0-)

      I also have an acquaintance who works for the State Department, and has worked in a number of overseas posts, most recently, a year in Kabul, Afghanistan (one of those difficult assignments that people get rotated through).  Prior to this she received a year of training, including Dari, and I think maybe also some Pashtu (2 languages of Afghanistan).   I'm not sure how much fluency this produced, but there was definitely some knowledge, and an attempt. In addition, my friend also knows Indonesian, Korean, and Japanese, 3 other countries they've worked in. I know they're very fluent in at least one of these.  There are of course exceptions, for instance when ambassadorships are given out as political rewards (like for instance I believe Caroline Kennedy is being given the ambassadorship to Japan).

      We're well represented by my friend, a very intelligent and capable person from what I know, and I'm proud to have them representing us.

      I will also say one other thing from personal experience about use of English: I once took a foreign language course myself, overseas.  Just a short 2 week intensive course with the Goethe Institut in Germany. My classmates were also all foreigners, from all over the world.  I had classmates from Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Russia, England, Scotland, and possibly a few others that I don't remember.  And one other "American", a Taiwanese immigrant who spoke English with a foreign accent.   The thing that struck me most about this course is that every one of these students spoke English, almost all of them quite fluently. A couple of them remarked to me that I was very lucky to know English as a native language, because it's so universally used and useful to know. Outside class, my classmates generally conversed in English (which disappointed me actually, since this wasn't helping me to learn the language I was there to learn).  Classroom instruction also used English for explanations of the language I was studying.  

      English really has become nearly the universal 2nd language of the world, and is commonly used when 2 people who don't have a common language want to communicate.  I've had an Italian person in Germany looking for directions asking me in broken English if I spoke English (assuming I might be a German who spoke English, I presume). Things are often labeled in English as a 2nd language, sometimes even only in English. I remarked to a German friend that the radio buttons in his German car, with a German radio, were labeled only in English. He said that's become common, instead of having things labeled in lots of different languages, that everyone just learns the English words for things like On/Off, Volume, Tuning, etc.  So I don't think it's necessarily out of place for the State dept. to be conducting some of its foreign policy in English.

    •  How dare you inject perspective into a rant?!? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dreidlgirl, BvueDem

      This is the internet, ma'am. Please refrain from discussing facts that might contravene a good meme.

      Coming Soon -- to an Internet connection near you:

      by FischFry on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 09:49:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Agreed, as wife of one Foreign Service Officer and (8+ / 0-)

      mother of another, thank for for this well-written post.  

      "I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it." Terry Pratchett

      by kiwiheart on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 09:59:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Just to be clear, I am thanking dreidlgirl. (7+ / 0-)

        I think the diarist is overreaching.  Do individuals at Department of State make mistakes?  Of course.  In general, however, they are committed, smart, and work very , very hard to understand the culture and language of the countries to which they are posted.  Most younger officers are frequently sent on goodwill events where they must use the language of the host country (speaking at high schools, for example).  They are expected to answer questions, not just give a prepared speech.  

        "I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it." Terry Pratchett

        by kiwiheart on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 10:14:02 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  The State Department, foreign service people (7+ / 0-)

      on the ground abroad are extraordinary ---really intelligent, fluently multi-lingual, and with in-depth knowledge of the culture(s) and history of their posted country. Really, they dazzled me. What I'd give to be able to study at their language schools! Ambassadorial posts are another matter, they are selected for more political reasons.

    •  That's a good perspective, but I can tell you (6+ / 0-)

      from personal experience that quite a few American employees in our embassies are some of the most arrogant and condescending Americans living or visiting in some foreign lands.

      I was recently in a local restaurant when a group from the consulate come in for dinner as well.  The Consul, the security officer, and several others.  I know the current Consul (and several past ones - they rotate often) personally. The security officer and I have had several conversations in the past as well.

      There was one American woman in her mid 20s who I didn't know.

      One thing readers should know is that Americans tend to dine earlier in the evening than locals. Some restaurants don't really get busy until 10 pm or after. So, the service was a bit casual at this earlier hour. We're used to that as is anyone who lives here full time.

      As we were sitting nearby, we could hear this young woman say, "I hope they realize that we are the most important people here!"

      Well, we couldn't believe our ears. While I hope the Consul had a word with her later in private, it's not our place to tell him how to run the ship.

      That is not an uncommon attitude among State Department workers.  We've never known Consuls to behave that way, but lower level employees have often done or said quite arrogant things. The stories spread around town like lightning.

      "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

      by YucatanMan on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 11:50:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Seasoned diplomats from other countries (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Lujane, YucatanMan, Dreidlgirl, BvueDem

        or the representatives of the home country will recognize that to be the case:  the arrogance of inexperience.  And the Foreign Service, like lots of other high-level jobs, attracts all kinds of personalities.  

        My husband is a foreign service officer, though not American.  With one exception, we have had positive encounters with and opinions of American diplomatic officials.  

    •  Perfectly said. (3+ / 0-)

      I can't imagine people would sign up to work in a place like Sudan where you have to live in fear for an entire 20 year career.

      "Buying Horizon Milk to support organic farming is like purchasing an English muffin in an effort to prop up the British economy." -Windowdog

      by Windowdog on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 05:47:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thank you. Best comment of the day. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pragmaticidealist, Dreidlgirl, Apost8
    •  Very interesting and informative. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dreidlgirl, BvueDem

      Thanks for sharing.

      "I'm totally pro-choice in the matter of abortion. But of course I'm also so radically pro-life that I think every person from birth onward must have full and affordable access to healthcare." - Gail Collins

      by gritsngumbo on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 08:53:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  A good response! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:


      by Inoljt on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 07:49:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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