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Foreign Service Losing Ground at State Department

The op-ed in the Washington Post about the State Department’s Foreign Service losing ground even within the Department struck a nerve with me.  One of the authors was Susan Johnson, whose parents I knew in Washington; her father was a Foreign Service officer.  Another was Amb. Tom Pickering, whom I worked with as a junior officer and whom I looked up to during my whole career in the Foreign Service.

The issue is an old one, the fact that political appointees are taking over more and more jobs at the State Department.  It also highlights the Foreign Service’s loss of prominence to the State Department’s Civil Service employees.

When I was the Science Counselor at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, the State Department asked me if I would be willing to transfer to the American Embassy in Rome, because the Science Counselor in Rome was leaving, and Italy was taking over the Presidency of the European Union, which meant a big increase in the workload for Rome, since it would have to deal with the usual bilateral issues, plus EU-wide issues that came up to Italy as the EU President.  I agreed to go, since I thought the State Department needed me there.

When I arrived, however, I found that Embassy Rome had been fighting with the State Department personnel system for some time over this position.  The incumbent Science Counselor, who was being forced to leave was a political appointee, one of the problems pointed out in the op-ed.  He had come in with Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew, who was then the American Ambassador in Rome.  The political appointee had been in the State Department for eight years, which was the limit for “Schedule C” political appointments.  Bartholomew had tried to get the Science Officer accepted into the career Foreign Service, but for whatever reason, the Foreign Service personnel system had refused; so, he was had to leave.  Apparently Amb. Bartholomew was angry and the system, and was determined to get his own man, apparently someone other than a Foreign Service officer, if only the spite the system.  The odd thing to me was that I knew the Civil Service officer they wanted.  In a previous job, he had worked just across the hall from me.  His office was partly responsible for assigned science officers overseas, and had had a role in my assignment to Warsaw, but apparently not to Rome.  When I had worked with him, I thought he had been a nice enough guy, but under the circumstances I felt that I had been stabbed in the back.  My immediate boss, the Economic Minister in Rome, obviously wanted to replace me to please the Ambassador.  Since I was eligible to retire, I decided to retire rather than try to work for two people who did not want me there.

I was ready to retire anyway.  In Warsaw, the budget for the American-Polish science cooperation that my office supervised had been cut to zero by Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, although we had formally agreed to fund it for several more years.  Then, the day I was to transfer from Warsaw to Rome, Gingrich shut down the entire US Government.  My wife and I had moved out of our house in Warsaw, shipped all of our household effects to Rome, and just had a few suitcases in the car, ready to start to drive to Rome that night.  At about 5:00 pm, Rome called and said, “Don’t come.”  We had nowhere to live.  I finally got Rome to agree that we could leave and go to Rome, but the idea that the US Government would put my wife and me on the street in the winter in Warsaw was abhorrent to me.  It was like sending soldiers into battle and then abandoning them.  It soured forever my opinion of the US Government.

When I got to Rome, one of my jobs was working with the Italians on North Korea.  The US had agreed to supply North Korea with certain things if the North Koreans would give up their nuclear bomb building program.  However, as part of the budget cutting, the Republicans were refusing to appropriate the money necessary to meet America’s obligations under the agreement.  Thus, one of my jobs was to go hat in hand to the Italians and ask them as Italians and as the European Union if they could put some money into the pot to pay for what we had to send to North Korea to meet our obligations.  After what had happened in Warsaw and during my transfer to Rome, I was very unhappy to be representing a government that refused to pay its bills.

So, between the Embassy’s lobbying to replace me with a Civil Service officer, and the US Government asking me to plead for money from the EU that the US was obligated to pay, I decided that I had had enough and I retired.  It’s sad that I left the Foreign Service feeling so bitter.  I suppose I could have stayed and fought the system.  I had tenure and good efficiency reports up to that assignment; I could have stayed for at least a few years, but I didn’t really want to work for an Ambassador and immediate boss who wanted me gone.  It was unpleasant while I was there, and if I had fought the system, it would have become still more unpleasant.  I was replaced by the Civil Service officer, but I never heard how his assignment worked out.  I hope for America’s sake that it went well.

It’s interesting that the op-ed highlights today’s problems particularly in “policy bureaus that deal with issues such as … environment and disarmament.”  Both of these fell in my area of responsibility in Warsaw and Rome, as well as in many of the assignments I had during my career.  Had I worked more on bilateral political and economic issues, perhaps my career would have gone better.

When I worked with Amb. Pickering, he was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science (OES).  I gather that it would be unusual for a career Foreign Service officer like Amb. Pickering to have this job today.

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