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Are Political Appointees the Only U.S. Diplomats Who Haven't Been to the Country to Which They Are Assigned?

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Much news in the press about recent ambassadorial nominees who haven't been to the country where they were selected to serve (see also the hilarious satirical video and the excellent piece by Ambassador Robert J. Callahan, "Plum posts if you can afford them: End the auction of ambassadorships").

I'd be interested in knowing, however, how many career American diplomats have actually been to the country (ies) to which they are assigned.

Or, indeed, if they can handle, at the beginning of their assignment, its local language (or understand its culture) adequately, despite well-intentioned linguistic /area training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).

In my case, of all the countries to which I was assigned, I had previously visited only three -- the U.K., Russia, and Czechoslovakia. Other nations where I had the privilege to serve -- Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- I had never been.

To be sure, as the wise diplomat Peter Van Buren pointed out in an email kindly responding to a draft of this entry,

While certainly true at the junior and mid-levels, outside of places like Iraq and Afghanistan I think a lot of senior officers are on second tours or more in the same country. At least they have done some country desk time. That is certainly true for places that actually care a bit about language skills such as Japan, China and Korea.

But would it not be ideal for an FSO who hasn't traveled to the country where she is assigned, to live for several months in that country -- preferably with a non-English speaking family -- before beginning her official duties?

FSI does make it possible to study "superhard" languages -- Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean -- overseas for 44 weeks. But a greater emphasis for in-country exposure -- both linguistic and cultural -- prior to an official posting is well put by a sophisticated retired multilingual U.S. diplomat who studied three languages at FSI and, in addition, was tested for two more:

I could never understand why language training could not be done in situ via arrangements with a local university. Embassies normally have a pool of TDY housing or could help arrange local rentals. USG per diem would be more than sufficient to cover rent in most places. A year of language training in a country of assignment would also be helpful in that it would facilitate contact with one's future colleagues at post and help understand U.S. issues and policies in the country. Even with 1-3 trips back to Washington for consultations, pack-out, and, perhaps, the final language test at FSI, the overall cost would be less than what is being spent now on language training at FSI.

As a result of such on-site exposure, FSOs -- if not all of them can be included, then at the very least those involved in political affairs/public diplomacy should be -- would then have greater knowledge of where they are assigned before working at/for the U.S. Embassy.

And, perhaps, be in a position to provide valuable on-the-ground advice to an ambassador who has not been there previously.

This, conceivably, would avoid the unpleasant situation of the blind leading the blind.

It is not out of the question, however, that Diplomatic Security would raise objections to FSOs being overly immersed in the life of a foreign land, perilously away from fortress embassies.

A final, perhaps cynical, thought: Experienced FSOs can, in fact, be useful in illuminating politically appointed ambassadors with little or no government experience about a "country" (tribe might be a better word) and language (dialect?) that is quite foreign to Americans, no matter how privileged, wealthy, healthy, widely traveled, or well-connected at the White House they may be.

I am referring to the hard-working State Department, with its often incomprehensible, to the taxpayer, language and acronyms, as well as multilayered bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of thinking, which lead some veteran diplomats to consider The Department the center of the universe.

As these admirable loyal troopers can sadly discover after years serving in numerous countries overseas (if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium), their true spiritual home (I won't call it final resting place) ends up being an anonymous office space on a floor of the secure Harry S. Truman building in the imperial capital.