First, full disclosure: My wife is a U.S. diplomat. Most of our best friends either currently serve in the State Department or are retired from State.
UPDATE/Correction: Reports now say the woman consulate employee was not a Foreign Service Officer but rather an American hired locally to help with American citizen services. Her husband works with the El Paso sheriffs department.
Maybe the murder of U.S. consulate officers in Mexico this weekend will help remind the American public that there about 5,000 American Foreign Service Officers who work overseas in places such as Ciudad Juarez, Baghdad, Kabul and hundreds of other places where their lives are threatened each day.
I’m one of the first to complain that many in the US foreign service often don’t grasp larger issues other than what is on their desks on any given day. (And many withing the State Department are also angry about this as well.) I still get angry over the comments by one senior US diplomat 20 years ago when asked why the State Department didn’t anticipate the Solidarity movement. He said, “What? Do you expect us to talk to workers?” Or a snobbish visa officer denying a prospective student a visa to attend college in the United States because, “The school wasn’t prestigious enough for what the student wanted to study.”
These kinds of comments are the type that make most people just toss-up their hands and say, “Get rid of these elites.”
But the State Dept. has changed. And so have many of the jobs its members have to carry out.
The teams in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan designed to rebuild the villages and towns are all State Dept. people. (Of course, they did not get the necessary training to do the job properly because that would cost money. And the previous administration did not want to ask for more money to do something it said was already covered.)
More U.S. diplomats are in locations where the local security officers recommend traveling in groups and only in the daytime. (Although that did not help the couple in Ciudad Juarez.) Worldwide, threats are made against US diplomats from the first tour officer adjudicating visas to career ambassadors.
And yet, there is little explanation of these dangers in the U.S. media when stories about the foreign service come up.
I can’t remember the exact numbers right now but roughly the perceived portion of the U.S. budget spent on diplomacy and diplomatic missions by the American public is somewhere around 5 percent of the total federal budget. The real number — again I am trying to remember — is closer to one half of one percent. That is the portion spent on non-military and non-commercial promotion diplomacy. That pays for the embassies and all the State Department employees.
FYI, the State Department is the smallest of the cabinet agencies. There are only about 10,000 U.S. foreign service officers. Period.
So with a small budget, a small staff and even less training the State Department sends people into the world to represent the United States. Some do a great job (like my wife and our friends) and others do a good job. And they have all faced threats to their lives because of the profession they chose.
It might be nice if their work could be better understood and that some recognition given every now and then.
The State Dept. has a long way to go to better explain itself. (But it has been doing a whole lot better recently.)
But more importantly the American people have to stop thinking the world ends at their city border. And here is where the U.S. media come in.
The media bean counters have to stop thinking the same way. Their attitude of Local! Local! Local! does not allow enterprising reporters to look for the international connection to local stories. There is just about always at least one good international link to a local story or the other way around. It just takes some imagination and an understanding that the world no longer “over there.”