Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Weekly Humor, Several Weeks Late

Trying to return to a normal schedule. i got really bored today during one lecture and wrote poetry instead. Enjoy!

To Riyadh i go
Veil in hand, flak jacket too.
Oh shit - i chose this?

The Main State building:
Old chairs, bad art, strange floor plans.
1960s chic.

Direct'd assignments...
Speak Arabic? Know Islam?
To Iraq you go!

Make no sense and obfuscate.
Maybe that's State's goal?

Saudi Arabia:
Oil, sand, camels, bedouins...
Entertaining life!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Once the Euphoria's Worn Off

i had some idea that this was coming, but official confirmation came out in today's papers: "State Department to Order 250 to Iraq Posts." (Linked to the NYT so that everyone can read it for free; the Washington Post's version is much longer but might not be free for non-subscribers.) It's not really surprising, given the nature of the job. It's one year of separation from your family in a war zone. There are certainly perks for those going (virtual doubling of salary for the year, first choice of onward assignments, etc), but there are obvious consequences for the officers in Iraq (PTSD, for example) that State is still struggling to deal with.

The first question everyone asks is, "Are you going to be sent to Iraq?" The simplest answer is "not right now." First-tour officers don't go to Iraq unless they have significant experience that qualifies them - a previous career in the military, for example. We entry-level officers simply don't know the ropes well enough to be useful in such a unique situation. Moreover, our first tour or two are considered apprenticeships: much of what is done in Embassy Baghdad simply isn't applicable to other missions.

Of course, there's always a catch. Right now, the major shortage in Baghdad is at the middle levels - people who've been in for eight to fifteen years, roughly, largely due to a service-wide shortage of these officers from hiring freezes in the 1990s. There's a catch-22 here: the young officers are the ones most likely to be singles with no family reasons to prevent them from going to unaccompanied tours, but their skills just aren't up to par for the empty positions. However, mid-level officers are the ones most likely to have a family with younger children that they don't want to leave behind, but they are the people needed in Iraq.

So, where does that leave me? i will be in Saudi Arabia until September 2009, and there is no telling what will happen in Iraq between now and then. i'll be honest, though. If i have the skills needed in Iraq at that point and i am mentally stable, i likely will volunteer for a tour there. It's a while away, so i have time to evaluate the situation better.

i don't particularly have a problem with directed assignments. i took the pledge of worldwide service availability to heart when i joined, and i am prepared to deal with wherever i'm sent. i think everyone in my class knows that we could be sent to Iraq - we came in to this job with that knowledge. It's probably harder for the people who joined in the 1990s, who had no expectation of wars like this when they came in. i'd rather volunteer for a terrible post and know that i'm going willingly than be dragged there by force.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


September 2008 is the big date! i'm here in DC until then, taking more Arabic, getting job-specific training, and taking security courses. i'm so thrilled!!


Morning line odds

3:1 Baku
3:1 Saudi Arabia
6:1 Mexico
6:1 The rest of my list

The ceremony starts at 3 PM Eastern, ending by 4.30. Text messages will go out as soon as i'm able, and high-pitched, eeping phone calls will begin after the ceremony.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

People Who Make My Job Harder

Did you know that this week is Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week? Thanks to David Horowitz and his team of buffoons, we have a week of activism dedicated to exposing the Muslim threat to America/freedom as well as the American leftist movement's attempts to stifle free speech and conservative thought - evidently they're Islamo-Fascists, too. i mean, with posters like this, how can you think otherwise? That guy with the gun is probably the president of your local college's chapter of Young Democrats.

This is ludicrous. Many people still cling to that term like a life preserver saving them from rational thought. Even though we (State) finally got most people in the government to stop using that term, it poisonously lives on in the private sector. Disgusting.

Sorry for the rant. This really infuriates me.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Fewer than three days until i find out The Big News. i am a bundle of nerves! Luckily, i will be very busy until then in a conscious effort to keep my mind occupied.

Continuing last post's theme, today i got a handout that listed every official embassy and consulate evacuation going back to 1988. It was pretty interesting to see what prompted past evacuations and to trace trendlines across twenty years (sorry for the alliteration). Of the countries of interest to me, Pakistan and Yemen top the list, with some posts there being evacuated 6 times since 1988. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Pakistani posts come in at 5 times.

Some of the more mundane reasons across the board are basic things like hurricanes, flooding, SARS, and volcanoes. (As an aside, you know something's wrong when those are considered mundane reasons to uproot on short notice!) Of course, there are also coups, civil unrest, civil wars, border wars, army mutinies, missile attacks, embassy bombings, and terrorism on the human-caused side of evacuations. Then there are some that just make you scratch your head, such as Y2K (four countries), environment with no other specifications, and the nebulous category Kosovo. Now, i can understand being concerned about safety in the Balkans, but we don't see an evacuation from Baku listed under Karabagh, or Tbilisi as Abkhazia.

i'm not trying to be flip about a very serious subject, or to engage too severely in gallows humor. i really do find it interesting to see how the data play out in what leads to a total evacuation or a mere drawdown of personnel. It's also interesting to see what posts get evacuated for events like the invasion of Iraq and who successfully lobbied to stay at post. i've been thinking about all of this in the context of what is likely to affect me at some point in my career. i will have the opportunity to get involved with the emergency planning group at post, which i find very exciting - i really do work best under a lot of stress, and while i don't wish a bombing or an earthquake on anyone, i want to try my hand at some simulated crises to see how i can handle it. What can i say - my interests draw me to places that aren't high on the lists of stable, secure, and incorruptible nations. Time to come to terms with the fact that i'm likely going to deal with such a drawdown or evacuation in my career.

Stay tuned for further information on Flag Day. i'll release the morning line odds on my posts Thursday.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Terror and You in the Workplace

Every now and then something happens that makes the realities of my immediate future a little clearer. The bombings yesterday in Karachi do exactly that. Were i posted in Karachi, what would i be doing now? Would all of my colleagues at the consulate be okay? i would almost certainly know someone who saw the attacks, even if they were uninjured. If i were in Islamabad (and there is a small but existing chance of going there next summer), i imagine that i would have had a very long night trying to deal with this.

Many of our speakers have emphasized that the Foreign Service of today is not the one that they joined in the 1980s. 700 positions around the world are unaccompanied, meaning that the US government is not willing to accept the liability of an employee's family's safety in such locations. Thus, the families remain in the United States while the employee goes to post for an abbreviated tour. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq are among these places. To put that number in perspective, there are only about 11,000 Foreign Service officers in the service. Never before has our government been so forthright about putting its diplomats so close to harm's way, and this has consequences, both good and bad, in terms of diplomacy and security. The Karachi consulate was bombed in 2002, killing two people. Nine people died when the Jeddah consulate was stormed in 2004. It could happen to my post next.

i can't focus on previous death tolls in places where i might go. What's the point then? i'm just mentally crippling myself. Awareness, however, is a good thing, and the Karachi bombings brought home a little more clearly what i will face, first-hand or indirectly, in my career.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Horrors of Professional Attire

So my initial phase of training requires me to wear a business suit every day. Fine, whatever. i am suffering in quiet in my suits and heels (!). But today, i got official confirmation of the fact that i have to invest in formal dresses. Plural. Because, unlike tuxes, i can't really rewear dresses at one post. Also, i will have to buy cocktail dresses... with gloves, shoes, accessories, etc to go with them. Dear god in heaven, what have i gotten myself into?

i don't even know to what stores one goes for this type of crap. Why did i turn away from academia, again?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Diplomatic Maxims, or Explaining Strange Looks in Class Today

So today we wrapped up our diplomatic history modules. We had to return to our maxims that we wrote a few weeks ago and rethink them. A few people were chosen to explain theirs aloud, and unsurprisingly i was one of those lucky ones. (It appears the history profs noticed that i was among the few who stayed awake the whole time!) So, here's my initial maxim that i explained today in front of about sixty shell-shocked listeners.

Promoting stability for the economic and security benefit of the United States and its citizens at home and abroad.

No idealism, no bright-eyed optimism, not even a token nod to freedom. Yeah, that went over real well, especially given that about two hours beforehand one of my classmates, an immigrant from Armenia, stood up and advocated for the bill that's working its way through Congress now.

After our discussion and reflection on the modules of history we've done, most people modified their statements, toning down some of the earlier, proscriptive elements that didn't really address safety or trade issues. Many of the original ones i heard addressed issues like America's obligation to help impoverished nations, to spread and to support freedom and democracy, and the like. i think most people did choose to keep some element of idealism but tempered it with deference to security, etc.

However, i chose not to modify my maxim. Yes, it is heartless and thoroughly lacking in idealism. But here's my reasoning for it. While i will have the chance to tweak policy in my career, i hold no illusions that i can actually shape or redirect it, or at least not for a very long time. There is simply too much inertia behind most policies for one person to change. i would rather be honest with myself from the start and try to work within the system. The alternative i see is to fight against it for years, thus getting myself edged out of the system. i certainly do have some ideals (many of which drove me to seek federal service), but following them too strictly will only cause disappointment when i have to defend a national policy i don't like. Far better to take those rose glasses off now.

i do find it amusing that i write a goal that's all about working within the system. i have well and truly become a suit, haven't i? Anyway, comment away on this. Feel free to tell me how wrong i am or to offer suggestions. We are encouraged to revisit these periodically in the future, and i probably will.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Preliminary Photo Fun

Last Saturday i wandered around the Mall for a few hours enjoying the sunny weather. i didn't really go inside any of the museums or stay in one place for too long; i just wanted to get the lay of the land in DC. Happily, it's all starting to come together into a logical map in my head.

If you're in DC, it's worth your time to pay a visit to the Mall this week and next to see the entrants to the Solar Decathlon. It's a multi-year competition among engineering schools domestically and abroad to build a house that's solely powered by the sun. For those in the know here, Randall Pope is on the MIT build team (i saw him last night) and Noel Tyler is coming to town this weekend to work with the Georgia Tech team. More proof that Arkies can find other Arkies wherever we go, right? Anyway, the houses are open to the public next week. i'm really excited to go back and to examine some. Company is welcome, of course!

This is a hidden side of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, which looks very fun but is sadly closed for renovation. The brickwork and flourishes on the outside are awesome.

In case you Wash U folk thought you could escape The Bunny, you're wrong. This is in the Hirshhorn's sculpture garden. Ahhhh! Will the anorexic bunnies and fat horsemen of St. Louis never stop stalking me?

Finally, i present to you one of the loveliest women that the DC area has to offer. My friend Rachael and i encountered these beauties on the train (thus explaining the slight fuzziness... we were en route) from College Park, MD back into DC, and we had a solid 7 stations of travel during which to mock them. It was so bad that they knew we were making fun of them and we didn't care. Please note the Pepto-tinted stilettos (left) and the conspicuous absence of a skirt in the photo. It was there, but it was so short it was obscured by the seats on the train. Her friend's attire (right) is also entirely hidden, which is just as well since it looked like a bright yellow bathmat that had been run through a shredder then put out to pasture on someone's body. i know i'm no expert in the fashion department, but should you ever be faced with footwear choices like this, please go barefoot!

i do believe that's it for today. Keep sending in photo suggestions (museums, monuments, and model houses to come), and i'm going to unpack my air shipment of stuff that just arrived from Arkansas. Hurray!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Upon Returning from West Virginia

i survived! Normally i don't like team building exercises (smarmy, lame, waste of money, etc), but this one actually went really well. We were grouped based on our MBTI scores (see previous post), and luckily we type A, anal-retentive micromanagers worked well together, learned a lot, and had a lot of fun. One of the highlights of the trip was the Follies (where a handful of classmates performed skits and songs they had written poking fun at our class and our training staff). i was one of the personalities most parodied, which i suppose is a good thing? i choose to think that it means i'm distinctive and good-natured enough to bear sustained satire, not that i'm annoying and clueless. The other highlight of the trip was seeing my colleagues, especially those over 45, get a little overserved at the post-Follies party. Suffice it to say that we all feel a little more camaraderie among the class now!

And now, it is time for a new project here at the Slow Move East. As you all know, i'm thrilled to be living in DC, but i haven't gotten much opportunity to get out and to explore my new home. i have acquired a local expert or two, a few guidebooks to the city, and a three-day weekend fit for exploring the city. So, is there anything in DC of which you want to see a photo? Perhaps it's a crazy sculpture at the National Gallery of Art. There's also any number of festivals coming up Maybe you want me to infiltrate a demonstration on the Mall? Or maybe you want me to find a friend or loved one on the Vietnam Wall. Whatever it is, leave it in a comment or an email, and i'll go photograph it. i think that exploring with a camera is one of the best ways to find the quirkiness in any city, and DC is more saturated with photo opportunities than most places. i'll be exploring a lot this weekend, and i'll post requested photos as well as some fun ones i found on my own in the next few days.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Weekly Humor, slightly early

So i'll be in West Virginia for two days doing some leadership retreat thingie, so the Weekly Humor is coming in tonight (although it's more of a statement on what a heartless bitch i am). i should be asleep, yes... but ah well, these things happen.

So yes. State is big on using the Myers-Briggs test to determine how to focus its training programs (i'm an ISTJ, in the interest of full disclosure). Today, we were given a lecture explaining the various bits and pieces of the test and the dichotomies, but we were also given examples. A few people who scored particularly strongly on either side of a dichotomy were sent out of the room while the coordinator explained to the rest of the class what her demonstration would show and what behaviors to look for. Now, i was sent out of the room on the Thinking/Feeling axis, and perhaps it's not difficult to guess where i fell. So i and the two guys in my group come in, and we were given the question, "You are the coach of a Little League team invited to play in the regional finals in San Francisco. There are 22 people on the team but only enough money for 15 people to go. What do you do?" All three of us responded in unison, "Take the best players." No thought needed, right? The next group (all women, not coincidentally) actually recoils in horror at the need for reduction of numbers, and they all come to the conclusion that a fund raiser must be held. The really sad part is that the possibility a fund raiser didn't even cross my mind. Let this be a lesson to you: never let me care for your children if you want to prevent them from getting permanent damage to their egos.

Oh, and since i forgot a Bilking of America post a few weeks ago, i'll quickly link to this. Thanks, Uncle Sam! May i say that i won't be in a position to do this for quite some time? Let's be clear about that. For all that we're touted as the cream of the crop, i am fully aware that i will be little more than bureaucratic cannon fodder for my first few tours. Paying dues, etc.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Final Bid List!

It's submitted, and now my life is in someone else's hands. Oh god... The day of reckoning is 25 October. i have to stay distracted until then!

HIGH (8 countries, 9 cities, 10 spots)
Baku, Bogota, Colombo, Ho Chi Minh City, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jeddah, Riyadh, Santo Domingo

MEDIUM (25 countries, 40 cities, 54 spots)
Abuja, Asmara, Beijing, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Chengdu, Ciudad Juarez, Dubai, Geneva, Guadalajara, Guangzhou, Guatamala City, Guayaquil, Hermosillo, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Kingston, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos, Lima, Manila, Matamoros, Mexico City, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Paris, Port au Prince, Port Moresby, Port of Spain, Pretoria, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, San Salvador, Seoul, Shanghai, Tegucigalpa, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Warsaw

LOW (2 countries, 3 cities, 3 spots)
Baghdad, Iraq (provincial position outside Baghdad), Jerusalem

History, Bilking, Other Fun

Whew, i'm back. It's been a busy week. i had a house guest from Monday to yesterday, which was actually quite nice but interrupted a lot of my normal routines. We've done some very interesting things in class in dealing with diplomatic history, but i won't bore you with the details. Instead, i'll turn to the discussion of themes. We discussed the conflict between idealism and realism in early foreign policy - the difference between wanting to create a new economic system that wasn't dependent on the British and working within the mercantile system, between supporting democratic revolutions around the world and dealing with monarchies in Europe. While the exact issues have changed, we still face this choice. Do we more overtly support the protesters in Burma in what appears to be another fizzled uprising, or do we save our influence for something with more direct impact on us and not piss off India and China?

We were asked to write a maxim that describes our personal take on diplomacy, its goals and rationales. Some examples given were things like Roosevelt's paraphrased "Speak softly and carry a big stick," as well as some from previous A-100 classes. Before i share mine, i'd like to ask you what you would write. We were directed to keep the maxims to one sentence, although it could be a rather long sentence. What do you think should guide our policy?

In other news, it's time for another story of government waste. This isn't so much wasteful as just really cool for me and unfortunate for everyone else. So there's a library in the main State building in DC. At the back, tucked into a corner, is a small room that is literally full to bursting with stacks of wall maps - political, resource, topographical, economic, regional, national, global, you name it. The best part? i get them for free! i have found a very cheap way to get rid of the terrible artwork my landlord provided (Paul Klee, etc) and coat my walls with something i love much more. i currently have a 4'X3' map of oil resources and pipelines in the Caspian basin and a 4'X4' map of the Middle East (Egypt to Iran, Yemen to Turkey). Holy crap, i am excited. If you're very lucky, i will obtain maps and a flag for you of wherever i go for my first tour. Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Okay, time to return to my experiment on the stove... some Egyptian meaty stew that i think i have horribly interpreted. We'll see. Be thinking about places in DC of which you'd want to see crazy photos... it's time i got to know our capitol better!