You wait until wheels-up, because that's what you do
February 26, 2011 3:03 PM   Subscribe

"Meanwhile, Important Politician stretches out in his business class seat and listens to his wife talk about the pearls! And the silk scarves! And the amazing food! And IP thinks back to that Foreign Service Officer he just met. And he thinks: what a great life that guy has! He goes to parties at the President's mansion. He drinks fancy wine. He drives around in air conditioned motorcades, with people saluting him as he walks into government buildings. He goes hiking - in the middle of a work day, even! - on the Great Wall. What a cushy life he leads, thinks Important Politician." A proposed pay cut is not going down well with some Foreign Service Officers.
posted by vidur (13 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Related: Select Photos from the Archives - Chief of US Liaison Office - China (1974 - 1976;)
posted by clavdivs at 3:22 PM on February 26, 2011

I can tell you with a reasonable amount of certainty that these Important Politicians don't give a rat's ass for foreign service, protocol, and other officers that work with VIPs. Honestly. The vast majority are so wrapped up in their own importance that the officers are largely invisible to them - except when something goes wrong. Then the officers are very, very visible and extremely exposed.

Wanna know why these kinds of cuts get made? Because paying these people extra for what amounts to hazard duty points a finger directly back to the policitian, who consumes this attention lavished on them by officers. Going on a weekend holiday with the wife to some far-flung location on the pretext of an official visit? No politician wants to admit that they "spend" money this way, although none would give up the perk. Appearing to be fiscally conservative by cutting spending on foreign officers makes them feel good, and can be spun well to the public, but don't kid yourself. It's not the foreign service officer's fault. Foreign service officers already have a pile of work to do without having to deal with the time-suck that is shepherding a politician around.
posted by LN at 3:25 PM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wonder if the general culture is misled about some of this too. Embassy work is just paperwork and occasional hair-tearingly fraught conflict resolution. The fancy lifestyle is almost exclusively for Ambassadors, when they have time for it.
posted by the mad poster! at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2011

The FSOs are some of the smartest, most capable people our country has to offer. And eventually, the great mass of them will discover that they're being entirely taken for granted, that the sacrifice isn't even close to worth it, and they'll leave.

There are no riches in that career. You get a JD, or an MA, or (commonly) a PhD, you go through a wringer of an application process, and then if you're "lucky" you get to rotate through one hellhole after another every two years, never staying in any one place long enough to learn the language or the culture or get comfortable. Your spouse's career is over; your kids never make permanent friends and the school they graduate from is never the same one where they started. Love of country, love of challenges and travel is all well and good. But this is abuse, and they shouldn't have to put up with it.
posted by 1adam12 at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

I tried a few times to get into the foreign service -- indeed, that's why I went to law school in the first place -- but it didn't happen. I got agonizingly close, but... Yeah.

Looking at the numbers, however, it's good that I didn't. At the time, a Canadian foreign service officer was starting at $28K, rising to $32K after the five year probationary period. The average salary for a lawyer in Ontario is $61K, which is OK, but it's nowhere near what people think lawyers make, based on their perceptions of what they make in the States. Given that $61K is the average, including the high-power lawyers on Bay Street, there's an awful lot of lawyers who aren't doing very well.

So right from the start, a lawyer F.S.O. would have been making half of the average. I left school with a LOT of student debt, and I got out at the tailend of the good times. Realistically speaking, I couldn't afford to have taken a F.S.O. spot anyway -- I would never have been able to pay my student loans back.

I knew all of this going in, of course, and still I tried. I never wanted anything so badly in my life, and personal sacrifice didn't matter. My guess is that the foreign service is filled with similarly-driven individuals. From the outside, it all looks marvellous, and there's allowances for housing and taxes and whatnot -- but my loan officers wouldn't have cared about that. In the end, it was good that my heart was broken, I suppose.

This is my longwinded way of saying that politicians cut the foreign service because they can. The cuts are largely invisible, and the people are motivated by something other than money. But there is a price to all this. People are being driven away. Already when I applied, they were desperate for professionals, and that can only have gotten worse. I wouldn't have cared about lower pay, but there is a point where it all becomes untenable. I suppose I was lucky in reaching that point before I ever got in.

But there comes a crunch. And when it comes, we're all screwed.

(Apologies for the long post -- it remains a sore point, and this FPP landed right on it.)

posted by Capt. Renault at 3:52 PM on February 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

He has also accurately described the life of most intelligence professionals.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 3:54 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

What's the average salary for an FSO? I never saw it mentioned in the links provided, just percentages.
posted by Atreides at 4:34 PM on February 26, 2011

I stand second to few in my admiration for the work that Foreign Service Officers do. I've worked alongside many, and had more than a couple go above and beyond in helping me or people I know out of jams. Their pay absolutely should not be cut.

And yet, that blogger? Needs to turn down his self-regard from 9 to about 6. He works hard and sacrifices quality time with his family and doesn't get enough credit? Join the club. It's a big goddamn club, but there's plenty of room for one more. Staties don't have a monopoly on any of those things. They don't have a monopoly on doing it for the government, or in foreign countries, or even for the government in foreign countries.
posted by Etrigan at 5:10 PM on February 26, 2011

a lot of this stems from ancient history: the (john) bircher forefathers of the modern republican party saw the state department as a nest of communists and tweedy, ivy league, internationalist republicans (like g hw bush) who stood in the way of a decisive military confrontation with communism.

plus, as the military industrial complex has metastasized, the DoD has taken on many of the back channel functions of a tradition Department of State. Given the US military is spread all over the world, talking to the local or regional military commander is probably the best way to get a message to the US government.

then, add on the increasingly militaristic US response to foreign policy challenges and one begins to wonder just what the foreign service is useful for....

which is to say the the issues behind underfunding the department of state go well beyond petty politics.
posted by at 5:17 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Many members of the American public get their info about the world from Hollywood. They believe that anyone whose job requires them to travel abroad at government expense (especially to Yurrp) lives like James Bond.
posted by bad grammar at 5:26 PM on February 26, 2011

You couldn't pay me enough to be a Foreign Service officer.

Your advice is ignored, your personal life is restricted, your spouse even if in the service may or may not be posted to the same place (this used to be true, at least), your pay is government pay, your posting could well be a real crap hole, and that big time gold ring, ambassadorships in London or Paris or Rome invariably go to political hacks who donate to the president.

Who, as I noted, ignores your advice.

(Fun though it would be to blame this all on republicans, I would note that in the past sixty five years there have been plenty of know-it-all democratic administrations that were militaristic and anti-communist.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:56 PM on February 26, 2011

Most people in the foreign service are not working in the political department. So they are not doing all of these exciting things. They are stamping visas.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:55 AM on February 27, 2011

The FSOs are some of the smartest, most capable people our country has to offer. And eventually, the great mass of them will discover that they're being entirely taken for granted, that the sacrifice isn't even close to worth it, and they'll leave.

I'm not sure to what alternative they would end up being more attracted to. I live in the DC area and kids just graduating from college are caught up in the romance of being an FSO. They don't care about the pay (which is why they take unpaid internships and compete for government jobs).* Also, it seems like a lot of FSOs are of the overprivileged class, having attended Princeton and Georgetown, and various other Ivy League schools. Like the jerk featured in this post who ran a sex contest between him and his other FSO friend and a hedge funder.
posted by anniecat at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2011

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