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American troops suffer hardships - American diplomats have inconveniences

Post-Script to the March 1, 2010, Article
Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)
Sunday 14 March 2010

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Since the publication of the article “American Diplomats Shun ‘Hardship Posts’ in the Third World,” this author has received some amazing feedback from former and current members of the American diplomatic community. They complain that they face real hardships living in diplomatic posts outside of Europe. Some of the comments are shocking, some are petty and silly, and some offers a window into a host of problems within the U.S. Department of State. Overall, the comments provide an unflattering insight into the usually secret world of American diplomats. We feel we have an obligation to share this information with our readers.

All the comments except one were sent anonymously to the author. The diplomats refused to disclose their identities apparently due to a fear of retaliation from the State Department for their dismal portrayals of life in the diplomatic service, or due to fear of negative public opinion due to the lack of respect some diplomats have for many foreign countries.

The first comments were posted on the American diplomatic blog: www.lifeafterjerusalem.blogspot.com. The writer claims to have been an American diplomat assigned to Jerusalem. He asserts that it was a true hardship to be posted in Jerusalem. He writes:

“The people who live in Jerusalem are not the secular Jews and Arabs of Tel Aviv.”

The idea that there are two kinds of Jews and Arabs, and that one kind lives in Tel Aviv and the other kind lives in Jerusalem is absurd. Also this particular diplomat apparently believes that there are good Jews and bad Jews. Apparently a “good Jew” is secular and non-religious. Likewise the writer apparently considers a “good Arab” to be secular and someone who should be living in Tel Aviv.

The refusal of the American diplomatic community to criticize comments such as this fosters a continuing perception that is a strong anti-Israel, anti-Islam viewpoint within the State Department. This author, as a former State Department official, can attest that there is an anti-religious viewpoint held by some within the State Department. They view religion as a barrier to business deals and political settlements, rather than recognizing religion for its core and fundamental importance to many people. These diplomats feel that if they relegate a country’s religion to the status of a sideline distraction, they do not have to study and understand that religion; they only have to pay lip service to it in occasional speeches.

This author received comments from an American diplomat who had been posted to Guinea. He agreed that his family lived better than “99.9% of the people of Guinea” but he still considered it a hardship to live in Guinea.

One diplomat’s wife wrote of how dangerous it was to live in Moscow during the phase when Chechen rebels were setting off bombs. This author does not doubt that danger, but again it has nothing to do with why Moscow is a hardship post. The State Department separately determines countries to be (1) dangerous (2) overly expensive and (3) hardship. This author’s article dealt only with the last category. He agrees with the premise that the first two categories may be legitimate.

Another diplomat wrote of the dangers of his posting in Nepal. As Nepal is a favorite vacation spot for many people, the dangers may have been exaggerated. Regardless, whether a particular country is dangerous and merits dispensing danger pay, has nothing to do with whether the country is a hardship post which merits hardship pay. None of these diplomats seem to understand the difference between danger pay and hardship pay.

Generally, diplomat wives wrote about the disruptive effects of having to uproot their families every two years. They considered this to be a generic hardship, despite the fact that it is part of the job they signed on for. One commented that every two years she has to learn how to shop for groceries in a different language. She fails to understand that such shopping should be fun, not a hardship. This author has campaigned for the United State to reduce its rotations and keep diplomats in each country 3-4 years at least. It is expensive and counter-productive to move tens of thousands of diplomats and their families every 1-2 years to a new country.

One diplomat did have a very moving story about his dog who had contracted a parasitic skin infection and could not get any treatment in the host country. The United States barred the pet from returning to America for treatment so it died a long and painful death overseas. That story is not a hardship. The U.S. Ambassador should have called whomever he or she had to, up to and including the President of the United States and gotten a waiver from the Department of Agriculture so that the dog could be returned to the United States for treatment. That dog died due to bureaucratic incompetence and that death should never have happened. That diplomat should convey all the facts to the Kabul Press and should include the name of the Ambassador and anyone else who refused to help the dog. This author would be happy to publicize their misconduct and push for the State Department to adopt rules to protect diplomatic pets.

Daniel Hirsch is the Vice-President of the State Department’s American Foreign Service Association. He commented on the Kabul Press article but his comments were disappointing because he failed to address the core elements of the story, which are:

(1) Repeated government audits have found that many American diplomats do not have the language skills that they need for the countries in which they are posted; and

(2) Many diplomatic posts in U.S. Embassies in the developing world are not being filled as diplomats refuse to volunteer for them.

The conclusion drawn from these two findings is that American foreign policy and therefore American national security is being negatively impacted by these diplomatic shortcomings.

In addition, Mr. Hirsch did not explain why most non-European, non-white countries have been designated as “hardship posts” for American diplomats. While it is undisputed that some countries are more difficult to live in than others; all of the countries which the State Department has designated as a hardship, are not. It is offensive to label them all as such.

Mr. Hirsch did not comment on our prior articles where we criticized the American Embassies in Baghdad and Kabul for obtaining an exemption so that their diplomats can drink alcohol and party. As he knows, the American military has banned the consumption of alcohol for all military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the U.S. State Department insists that its diplomats are in hardship posts and they need the crutch of alcohol to get them through the day. If anyone should be entitled to have a beer at the end of the day it is the troops in combat, not the diplomats sitting in their offices.

The U.S. Veterans Administration has treated more than 400,000 veterans over the past nine years for traumatic brain injuries, battle fatigue, permanent hearing damage, back injuries, diseases and other problems, in addition to those wounded due to ballistic or blast injuries as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American troops in the field are enduring hardships; State Department diplomats, for the most part, simply have some inconveniences.

If Mr. Hirsch wants to help diplomatic families in some countries, he should lobby Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put off her lavish new $1 billion embassy in London and spend that money to improve housing and commissary facilities at diplomatic posts.

If he believes that diplomats still need extra money, he should push to have such funds re-designated. He should make up a vague label for the funds, perhaps calling them “X-37b allotments,” instead of “hardship pay.” We should not be designating any country as a hardship. The first rule of diplomacy is: Try not to offend anyone if you do not have to.

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