Foreign Service vs. Civil Service
While I was serving as Science Counselor in Warsaw, Poland, around 1995 my main job was to oversee a science cooperation agreement between the US and Poland. They had signed a five year agreement to fund the program, which would consist of approved projects between American and Polish scientists. For two years, the US and Poland funded the agreement with matching contributions of two million dollars each year. The third year, Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of the House, which then refused to fund any more cooperation in future years. In the one year he oversaw the cooperation, my predecessor in Warsaw had funded only one small cooperation project. In the first year I was there, I created a panel of senior scientists to vet proposals, and obligated the entire amount of the funds in the bank. Thus, when funds were cut off, we could approve no more projects. The Poles were anxious to continue the cooperation and offered to fund it at any level the US suggested, but Washington suggested zero. I was called in to the office of the Polish Foreign Ministry official responsible for all of the Western Hemisphere, who berate me and the United States for being dishonest and failing to fulfill a formal promise we had made in the original cooperation agreement. I was deeply embarrassed for myself and my country.
About this time, the State Department called me and said that the Science Counselor in Rome was leaving, and that Italy was about to hold the rotating presidency of the European Union, more or less doubling the work of the embassy there, because it would have to handle EU matters as will as bilateral US-Italy issues. Since my main job in Rome had gone up in smoke with the failure to fund the science cooperation agreement, I agreed. I delayed my departure, however, because as another part of my job, I had secured an agreement to use ten million dollars of the debt that Poland owed the US for environmental projects administered by a Polish NGO, the Ecofund (Ekofundusz). I was the embassy representative on the Ekofund board, and I wanted to attend the first board meeting after the approving of the new funding to make sure that everything was in order before I left. It was, but then it happened that the day I was scheduled to leave Warsaw was the day Newt Gingrich shut down the US government. We were told not to leave Warsaw after we had send all of our clothes and other belongings to Rome except for what we had in our car for a two or three day trip. I protested, and we finally arranged approval to leave Warsaw for Rome. Rome had promised me an office and housing when we got there.
When we arrived a few days later, it turned out that there was no apartment available. The embassy housing office had given the apartment that they were supposed to be holding for me to a new DEA agent. I had no gripe with the DEA agent, whom I didn’t know, but the State Department had promised me to have an apartment ready, and the embassy housing office worked for the State Department, not DEA. It seemed like they could have said the apartment was already reserved. That was my first clue that something was rotten in Rome. My wife and I lived in temporary housing for months before the embassy finally found us an apartment, which was quite distant from the embassy, making for a long commute.
I discovered that the man I replaced as Science Counselor was a long-time colleague of Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew. He was not a career Foreign Service officer. He had apparently been brought into State on a Schedule C appointment, a political appointment that allows the person to stay only eight years (the maximum length of a presidential term) unless he converts over to career status. I sounded like this man had tried to convert to career status but had been turned down by the State Department, which meant that he had to leave because his eight years were up. That is why he was leaving just as the office’s workload doubled when Italy assumed the EU presidency.
After a while I began to understand that I was not wanted by the embassy. The Ambassador appeared to be mad with the Foreign Service for refusing to extend the tenure of his friend. As a result, he did not want a Foreign Service officer in this position. Bartholomew was not a career Foreign Service officer, having come in as political appointee, working at senior levels of first the Pentagon, and later State. Thus, he had no particular loyalty to the Foreign Service, of if he had, it was offset by his anger at its refusal to accept his science protege.
I found when I arrived that the embassy had tried to have a Civil Service officer who worked at the State Department appointed as Science Counselor, but apparently the Foreign Service had rejected that request, too, since the position was designated for a Foreign Service officer. Ironically, the person the embassy wanted was someone I knew. He was the deputy director of the office that was supposed to be the Washington support for Foreign Service science officers in the field. It was an office in the State Department Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science (OES) that dealt with the bureaucracy of science activities, including supporting science officers in the field, and administering science cooperation agreements like the one in Poland, that had been cancelled. So, in less than a year, I had been stabbed in the back twice by this office. It did not defend the Polish agreement, and it did not support me as the chosen science officer in Rome. And when I left, I was going to be replaced by the number two man in that office. The director of that office was Martin Prochnik; I can’t remember the name of his deputy who replaced me in Rome. Prior to going to Poland, I had been the deputy director of the OES office across the hall from that office when I worked on wildlife and forestry environmental issues. Apparently they really hated my guts for some reason; I don’t know what I did to them.
In any case, from the moment I arrived in Rome, it was apparent that the embassy wanted that deputy director of the science cooperation office to replace me. I could have stayed. I had all the qualifications for the job, and my assignment was for three years. On the other hand, I was old enough and senior enough to retire. And i was not happy with the Foreign Service and the State Department. First, it (actually Congress) had cancelled the Polish cooperation agreement, leaving many Polish scientists in the lurch. Under the old Communist government, almost all scientists worked for the government. With the downfall of the Communist government, they were all out of work. Eventually they would find work in the new private sector, but the cooperation agreement was intended to give them a little cushion while they made the transition. When it collapsed, many of the scientists faced additional financial hardship. And I was the one who had had to give them this news, making me persona non grata in the Polish science community, and the target of criticism from the Polish Foreign Ministry that the American government was dishonest and did not honor its agreements. Adding insult to injury, the government shut down on the day I was supposed to leave Poland, for a few hours effectively putting my wife and me on the street in Warsaw with no place to live.
When I arrived in Rome the government was still shut down, and the embassy had given my assigned house away. Only essential personnel were allowed even to come to the embassy. I had been declared essential, because that was the only way to allow me to travel from Warsaw to Rome. But, that meant that there was no one to talk to about how the office worked, even about where the files were, what the safe combinations were, who my contacts were in the Italian government, etc. Meanwhile, my staff who were sitting at home were not getting paid. It was a mess. Because I had had almost no warning that I was going to Rome, I spoke no Italian. It was an inauspicious arrival.
One of the main issues that the office handled was fisheries. Just before I arrived, four environmental groups had sued the State Department, claiming that it had failed to enforce a UN resolution concerning swordfish fishing by the Italians in the Mediterranean. The Justice Department, which apparently handles all trials for the government, assured us that they would win, but they lost. As a result, the person most responsible for fisheries policy was a federal district judge, in New York. He had to approve any policies and actions by the State Department regarding swordfish fisheries. In practice this meant that we, the State Department, would propose something to the judge. The judge would then ask the environmental groups whether they approved. They would always ask the Greenpeace staffer for swordfish what he thought, and his opinion would be run back up the chain of command. If he approved, it was okay, if not, then no. Greenpeace’s Italy office was effectively put in charge of US policy on this issue.
Another issue I handled was nuclear non-proliferation. The Republicans in Congress had cut off funding for an agreement that was supposed to end the North Korean nuclear bomb program, the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO). As a result, the US was unable to fulfill its obligations under the KEDO agreement, thus freeing the North Koreans from the restrictions they had agreed to. Since the US Congress would not fund our obligations, we asked the European Union (through the Italians) if they would pay what we owed. It fell to me to ask them. This was too much like what I had experienced when the Republican Congress had cut off funding for the Polish science cooperation agreement. I felt awful asking the Italians to do what the Americans had promised to do, but now refused to do.
I also handled space issues. Over the years, I had been NASA’s representative in the country where I was posted, and it was always one of the best parts of the job, because everyone loves NASA. However, the Shuttle had carried an Italian “tethered” satellite into orbit, which was lost. It attached to a wire that was reeled out from the Shuttle to run experiments, and then it was supposed to be reeled back in. However, the line it was attached to broke, and the multi-million dollar satellite drifted off into space. Thus, this visit by the Shuttle crew was sort of an apology tour, although no one said that out loud. Again, a less than stellar performance by the US.
Finally, while at a cocktail party celebrating the launch by the US of a satellite for the Italian telephone company, one of the executives of the company approached me and said something like, “America must really hate me since you won’t give my daughter a visa to visit Disneyworld.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but when I asked the Consular Counselor about it, she said, yes, the Helms-Burton Act barred issuing visas to any family member of anyone who connected to Cuba. It turned out the Italian phone company had some connection to the Cuhan phone company which triggered the Helms-Burton Act. I had earlier read Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” in which the child of the heroine in the book is denied a visa to leave Italy by the Nazis in World War II. The Nazis prevented her from leaving by preventing her child from leaving. The tool was a visa that was withheld in Rome by the Nazis. The parallels were uncomfortable.
The embassy did not want me. My office’s fishery policy was being dictated by Greenpeace via a federal judge in New York. The US was not fulfilling more promises it had made, this time to North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. We had lost an Italian satellite. And we were following the footsteps of the Nazis in refusing to issue visa to people we didn’t like in Rome. I had thought I was doing the State Department a favor by agreeing to move to Rome on such short notice, and would be welcomed with open arms, but it was quite the contrary. My heart was not in it. I decided to call it quits and retire. I left shortly after Italy gave up the EU presidency and the embassy workload returned to normal.
The embassy got the Civil Service officer they wanted. I might have stayed if I had gotten more support from the Foreign Service as an institution, but maybe not. The Foreign Service also has the goal of moving people out when they are near the end of their careers to make from for younger officers coming up. I was never an outstanding FSO, but I was not the worst either. I had a number of years more before I would have been forced to retire by the State Department’s up-or-out promotion system.
The Foreign Service is facing serious problems as senior officers leave under Secretary Tillerson, but it will probably turn out to be a good thing for younger officers who will find faster promotions some time in the future.