The thankless task of the Foreign Service officer

The murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals in Libya this week drove home the point that America’s Foreign Service officers, far from their reputation as pencil-pushing bureaucrats, often confront enormous personal risks in the field. In a rare act of bipartisan unity, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry ...

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MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

The murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals in Libya this week drove home the point that America's Foreign Service officers, far from their reputation as pencil-pushing bureaucrats, often confront enormous personal risks in the field.

In a rare act of bipartisan unity, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and ranking member Richard Lugar (R-IN) issued a resolution commending the fallen Americans and arranged a memorial with a photograph of Stevens, who had once served as a congressional aide to the committee.

"It's a stark reminder that anywhere in the world, those people representing our country in the foreign service are on the front lines," Kerry told my Washington Post colleague Karen DeYoung. "It's more dangerous than it has been in a long time because of radical, extreme religious exploitation and terrorism."

The murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals in Libya this week drove home the point that America’s Foreign Service officers, far from their reputation as pencil-pushing bureaucrats, often confront enormous personal risks in the field.

In a rare act of bipartisan unity, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and ranking member Richard Lugar (R-IN) issued a resolution commending the fallen Americans and arranged a memorial with a photograph of Stevens, who had once served as a congressional aide to the committee.

"It’s a stark reminder that anywhere in the world, those people representing our country in the foreign service are on the front lines," Kerry told my Washington Post colleague Karen DeYoung. "It’s more dangerous than it has been in a long time because of radical, extreme religious exploitation and terrorism."

But members of Stevens’ profession have more often been the object of ridicule and criticism in Washington, particularly among conservatives who have viewed career Foreign Service officers as too sympathetic to the Democratic Party, too willing to sell out American interests, and reluctant to follow orders from Republican presidents’ political appointees.

Barry Goldwater, the patron saint of the American conservative movement, once suggested that the only way to fix the State Department is by "firing the first six floors" below the Secretary of State’s 7th floor office. 

Even in the midst of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, conservative commentators have lashed out at America’s ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, a career officer whose previous posting was in Pakistan, for rumors that she had ordered U.S. Marines not to carry live ammunition, according to a report in Mother Jones. The allegation, drawn from conservative blogs was untrue, according to the Marine Corps, which issued a statement saying "reports of Marines not being able to have their weapons loaded per direction from the Ambassador are not accurate."

The memoirs of the Bush administration’s most conservative foreign policy figures, including John Bolton, who would later apply Goldwater remedy for reform to the United Nations, and Douglas Feith, reveal deep suspicions regarding the political inclinations of Foreign Service officers. "The essence of my complaint about the State Department [is] the refusal of officials there to look to their president as their touchstone," Feith wrote in his book War and Decision.

In his memoir Surrender is Not an Option, Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, derided State Department Brahmins for promoting a culture of "clientitis" and conspiring with so-called EUroids — European Union diplomats — and other foreign diplomats to hatch agreements that served the aims of diplomacy more than American interests.

"State careerists are schooled in accommodation and compromise with foreigners, rather than aggressive advocacy of U.S. interests, which might inconveniently disrupt the serenity of diplomatic exchanges, not to mention dinner parties and receptions," Bolton wrote.

In the president election, Texas Governor Rick Perry, found a ready target in the Foreign Service. "I’m not sure our State Department serves us well," Perry told Fox New host Bill O’Reilly in a radio interview in November 2011. "I’m talking about the career diplomats and the Secretary of State who, all too often, may not be making decisions, or giving advice in the administration that’s in the country’s best interest."

In Washington, this week, the embassy attacks provided policymakers with an opportunity to reflect on a profession which is not always understood or fully appreciated by the public, and which is frequently vilified for being insufficiently patriotic.

"All over the world, every day, America’s diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world, that these aspirations are worth striving and sacrificing for," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, noting that the names of America’s fallen diplomats are inscribed in marble in the State Department lobby. "Alongside our men and women in uniform, they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation."

Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, said remarks like Perry’s underscore ignorance about the role Foreign Service professionals play in serving American interests.  "There are those few who have the suspicion that you’re sympathizing more with foreigners than with Americans," she said. "There is a view that these [foreigners] are people who hate America and therefore we should be shooting them, killing them or at best having nothing to do with them."

Johnson said she hopes the tragedy in Libya will help us "put behind the outmoded image of diplomats as striped-pants cookie pushers."

Diplomacy has always been politically fraught in a country founded on fears of foreign entanglements, a sentiment that rose to a fevered pitch during the Joseph McCarthy era, when American diplomats were investigated for suspected sympathies with the Soviet Union. The profession has carried personal risks for Foreign Service officers since William Palfrey, a former aide de camp to Gen. George Washington, who was lost at sea in 1780 while en route to serve to serve as America’s consul general to France.  The American Foreign Service Association keeps an online list of the names of U.S. diplomats killed in the line of duty. Generations of American diplomats during the 19th century were stricken down by cholera, yellow fever, and small pox serving the cause of diplomacy abroad.

While diplomats still succumb to the ravages of tropical disease, American and other Western diplomats have been targeted by terrorists since early 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy. That same year, America’s ambassador to Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was assassinated — the last ambassador (before this week’s events) to die violently on the job. In October of last year, U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford was withdrawn from Syria on the grounds that it was too dangerous.

Even in Libya, which is a nominally pro-Western government, foreign diplomats have been the target of terrorist attacks since April, when armed groups exploded a roadside bomb alongside a convoy carrying the U.N.’s top representative, Ian Martin. In June, armed groups attacked a British convoy carrying Britain’s ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith. The ambassador was unharmed, but two British guards were injured.

"I got the first attack on the international community back in April, but mine was only a little IED (Improvised Explosive Device)," said Martin, who headed the U.N. mission in East Timor during the violent siege of 1999.

Former U.S. diplomats say that the American public generally doesn’t appreciate the risks diplomats face and the importance of their work in serving American interests. And they said diplomats like Stevens — an Arabic speaker who arrived at his posting (via cargo ship) as a special envoy to the anti-Qaddafi insurgency in Benghazi.

"Chris Stevens, whom I knew, really represented the very best of the foreign service," said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel and founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "The capabilities of people like this is in the Foreign Service are precious for the country and they are not well understood or really appreciated."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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