Love & Sex in the U.S. Foreign Service -Lust, Loneliness, Bombs & Bureaucrats & other writings by retired diplomat and best selling author James Bruno
By Nate Thayer
November 7, 2013
You can access the writings and book of James Bruno at http://jameslbruno.blogspot.com/
This morning, James Bruno, an old friend and now a best-selling author, who for 23 years served his country with distinction, skill and principle as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State, sent me a message.
Jim Bruno, served, amongst many places around the world, in Cambodia as deputy chief of the U.S. embassy, where he saved my sorry ass more than once intervening with the Cambodian government when the embassy received intelligence that I had been ordered assassinated or expelled or otherwise officially the target of government harassment for some spot on, dead accurate, but decidedly not serving the authorities public relations objectives, article or another I wrote and published.
I recall him personally demanding an urgent meeting with current Prime Minister Hun Sen after one of his top military officers decided I was overly pesky and ordered me killed.
Bruno made it clear to the Prime Minister, in no uncertain terms, that this would be very much against the rules and the full weight of the U.S. government would be employed to express the gravity of the dim view they took of tin pot dictatorships killing any American citizen, and particularly U.S journalists carrying out the essential functions of a free press, something the U.S. government valued and promotes as a key tenet of its foreign policy as vital to healthy societies.
Mr. Bruno, met officially with the Cambodian leader, in his official capacity as the representative of the President of the United States of America in Cambodia, and skillfully and politely, but equally forcefully and without qualification, explained to the Cambodian Prime Minister, a free press was a central tenet of American political ideology and a top priority of U.S. government policy.
Not to mention there is no higher priority for any U.S. embassy in the world than to protect the safety and interests of its citizens residing or visiting that country.
Essentially diplomat Bruno told the Prime Minister, if you fuck with Nate Thayer, or any American journalist carrying out their legitimate job of bringing information of import for a well informed citizenry and the common good to free people, you are fucking with the government of the United States of America and the essential principles for which it stands.
Or more concisely, if you fuck with Nate Thayer carrying out his job as an American representative of the free press in Cambodia, you are fucking with Jim Bruno. It was not a wise thing to violate principles of which Bruno determined important.
Jim Bruno used the power of words and civil dialogue to address issues of international discord between nations. When I think of the adage “War is the failure of diplomacy,” I think of, and wish there were more Mr. Bruno’s, and a number of his specific colleagues, representing several U.S. agencies, who have performed with great skill and distinction, and not infrequently, heroically, but almost always behind the scenes and seldom recognized.
The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia at the time, on the other hand, in my opinion and that of much of the staff of diplomats and U.S officials working for other agencies attached to embassy Phnom Penh, was, a knucklehead.
The Ambassador had also concluded that I had demonstrated the potential to become a long term pain in the ass for him.
I recall chit chatting with the U.S. Ambassador, immediately after one assassination plot against me, hatched by a provincial governor and regional army commander that the embassy got wind of and quelled by quietly intervening, using formidable verbal diplomatic skills, and smacked some sense into the highest levels of the Cambodian government.
The American Ambassador and I were discussing the incident at a cocktail party—held to celebrate British National Day by the embassy of the United Kingdom, if I recall—and the Ambassador was clearly annoyed.
Not at the Cambodian government for ordering the assassination of an American citizen–that would be me–for performing credibly my job as a free man, a citizen of a free society excersizing the U.S. constitutionally protected right of free speech and a free press.
But rather the Ambassador was annoyed at me for forcing him to engage in the unpleasantry of having to confront the leaders of a rapacious, murderous, corrupt, thuggish, incompetent government inclined to murder those who engaged in the dissemination of accurate information that revealed them to the citizenry as exactly the aforementioned.
He was trying to build a good relationship with the tattered, second string remnants of one of the most egregious governments to seize control of a state in modern history who had now devolved to a group of Consiglieres in charge of a mafia state.
“Nate, why don’t you just leave the country and go somewhere else to work. Don’t you think that would be for the best for everyone,” the U.S. ambassador said, with more than a hint of a muted sneer.
I replied: “Well, Mr. Ambassador, for the same reason you wouldn’t close down the U.S. embassy because some ten cent thug in power of an irrelevant backwater of a country didn’t like the principles that the U.S. government stands for, promotes, and defends and threatened to kill you unless you ceased supporting those tenets of freedom which is your job, as my employee, as a U.S. citizen.”
It was a brief conversation.
I don’t think I ever thanked Jim Bruno personally for intervening on my behalf. In fact, I am quite sure I was not supposed to have known he did, little less have been privy to the details.
So I am and will thank him now.
Bruno is now a best-selling novelist. His books and blog site, largely based on his experience as a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer, are gripping must reads, full of behind the scenes details, including the un-redacted successes, failures, buffoonery, drudgery, intrigue, heroics, and personal foibles of the men and women who represent the U.S. government abroad, and my government’s proud and vital record defending important principles and it’s, often, equally clueless tactics and misguided implementation and policies that have crashed and burned, not infrequently, but rarely without good intentions or motivated by malice.
James Bruno sent me a message today: “I blogged about Son Sen a couple of years ago. Thought you might find it interesting. http://jameslbruno.blogspot.com/2011/04/people-ive-known-who-died-violent.html.”
“Son Sen was the Heinrich Himmler of Cambodia. He was head of the communist Khmer Rouge regime’s own Gestapo, the Santebal, and oversaw that short-lived regime’s death factory, Tuol Sleng Prison. I sat across Son Sen at UN-sponsored peace negotiations for a year-and-a-half. He was the most chilling human being I’ve ever encountered.
It is estimated that 17,000-20,000 were brutally tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng….Son Sen played a direct role in designing its torture chambers and overall operations. … Son Sen had the face of a merciless killer, stone cold and utterly devoid of humanity. His few attempts to smile came off as evil sneers. His eyes appeared dead. His body language was reptilian. I once included in one of my regular cables to Washington reporting on these meetings a paragraph on how Son Sen spent the entire time methodically picking apart a caviar hors d’ouevre with a toothpick, carefully separating each part and then crushing them into a blotchy mess. I thought that small act spoke a lot about this man. On June 10, 1997, Son Sen and thirteen members of this family, including women and children, were shot to death on orders from Pol Pot….”
I replied: “Great piece, Jim. Son Sen was a very cold man. His brother, not without irony, was not only the KR ambassador to North Korea throughout the 1970, 80’s, and 90’s, well after the Khmer Rouge did what they did, and still a loyal senior Khmer Rouge official but serving the governments run by King Sihanouk, Ranarridh and later Hun Sen, while you served in Phnom Penh as deputy chief of the U.S. embassy. In the late 1990’s, Son Sen’s brother then defected to live in Phnom Penh to Hun Sen’s politcal party, where he now lives freely and holds the title of “senior adviser” to Prime Minister Hun Sen. His daughter married a relative of Hun Sen. When I asked Pol Pot if and why he ordered the killing of Son Sen, he freely and in detail admitted he did, and justified it. “For the babies, I am sorry about that. It was a mistake in implementation.” Pol Pot then paused and said “His niece married a relative of the one eyed puppet lackey, the contemptible Hun Sen.” Pol Pot looked me straight in the eye, holding my gaze in silence for a long time, seemingly perplexed why I didn’t understand this logic and its corollary–the necessity to order his long time comrade murdered.
Pol Pot then became animated, visibly angry at me, and he wagged his finger in my face and said: “Don’t you see! The connection had been established! I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
I wrote James Bruno back saying “Jim: I am posting a story on my blog about you and your career and writing. I would like to send it to you to have you see whether my remembrances are correct and the extensive excerpt from some of your blog posts are ok with you.”
He replied: “Nate, I’d be honored — Note: I alluded to you recently that I also had been a prisoner, albeit briefly, of the KR. When I was chief of our consulate in Udorn in 1985, I was on one of my regular border runs in Sisaket collecting info from contacts on the latest on the war in Cambodia. We took a turn on a jungle trail. Like you, I had a reputation for pushing my luck. I told the driver to continue. Well, lo and behold, we run smack into a KR supply convoy coming down the trail right toward us. KR soldiers ordered us out of the car, asked who we were. I told him I was a U.S. diplomat and that they needed to get a Thai 838 (A Thai military intelligence unit that coordinated interaction with Cambodian guerrilla’s and their covert military supplies along the two nations borders) officer there pronto. The KR were actually polite, signaling with their AK’s for us to go to a small bunker where we were kept under armed guard. After an hour, I requested permission to take a piss. A young guard signaled for me to pee in a very specific area. OK. No problem. So, as I’m pissing, the guard pointed to an area just a couple of feet away covered in landmines. He wanted to make sure I didn’t go and do my business in the minefield. Nice guy. I engaged him is a conversation in Thai for insights on life in the KR. An 838 officer and two aides showed up not long thereafter and extricated us. I rewarded them with bottles of Johnny Walker. Word of this incident quickly got back to embassy Bangkok, which called me in for a dressing down. The State Dept. followed suit. It wasn’t the first time. I had that reputation. A few years earlier, an identical episode happened with the Lao commie militia seizing me at gunpoint and holding me prisoner for the better part of a day. The State Dept. chewed me out and ordered the Charge to deliver a protest. It was unreal. I accompanied the Charge to translate our protest as well as the Lao counterprotest against me. I ended up getting in an argument in Lao with the MFA officials. That’s the closest I ever came to being PNG’d. A few weeks after the KR incident, I was back snooping along the border for info on Ta Mok. Walking along a trail interviewing recent refugees, PAVN 110’s opened fire from the mountain range. I ran to take cover and landed real hard on my sacroliliac. Paralysis started taking hold not long thereafter. I medevacced myself to Bangkok where I underwent immediate surgery to remove a crushed lower disk and two vertebrae laminae. State Dept’s Medical Unit grounded me for five years in DC before clearing me to serve as DCM in Phnom Penh, though I did do TDY’s in Peshawar, following the Afghan war against the Soviets. After Cambodia, I served inside Cuba and at GTMO. More minefield fun.”
I replied: “Jim: Great stuff, Jim. None of which surprised me. You know how people talk behind ones back often? But it is not always cowardly, negative gossip. I remember in your case, while to a man, I found virtually no affection from within embassy PP for (the then Ambassador), I found equal respect and affection as universal from among your colleagues–all of them from xxx, to xxx, to xxxx to xxxxx and so forth, for you. As well as from me. It remains unclear to me how you get much of your stuff (in his four best selling novels and blog posts) in print past the USG censors who, i presume, require you to have ur writings vetted. Your blog is excellent. I would like to insert the anecdotes in this email from you into the story. With your permission. let me now. Let me know if I have misrepresented your work or anything else inaccurate in my posting. The anecdote I mentioned regarding you intervening when the Cambodian government ordered me assassinated came from very good sources among your colleagues at the time. I hope you are, and remain, well.”
James Bruno replied: “Geez, Nate. You oughta write fiction! Wow. I feel honored and humbled. And your recollections revived events I had pushed way back into the deepest synapses. Thanks for bringing them back. I don’t know if any of us saved your life. Being devout, you might just conclude it was your Lord and Savior who pulled your ass out of all those fixes. Yes, do feel free to draw from my last email. It’s open material. As for USG censorship of my writing — they almost always make me take stuff out, but they’re nice about it. I’ve established a healthy working relationship with my censors, including those at the CIA and NSA. They’ve even asked for autographed copies of my books. My upcoming nonfiction book (essays drawn from my blog posts) was pretty seriously redacted. I’m publishing it with blacked out text included, so some pages look like a zebra.”
James Bruno was a Foreign Service officer for twenty-three years, having worked previously in military intelligence and journalism. He remains a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve, subject to worldwide duty on short notice.
He is now a bestselling author.
He began his career as a journalist, having acquired an MA degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. He also has an MA from the U.S. Naval War College. His diplomatic postings have included, amongst other countries, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia. He has worked in a Secret Service presidential protection detail overseas, and has spent much of his career being a liaison with colleagues from the Pentagon, CIA and other foreign affairs agencies. His spy thrillers include PERMANENT INTERESTS and CHASM, have been bestsellers, including #1 in Political Fiction and #1 in Spy Stories. His book TRIBE, a political thriller centers on Afghanistan. His latest book is HAVANA QUEEN, an espionage thriller set in Cuba.
His blog posts are particularly vivid, raw in their authenticity and detail, entertaining and full of details based on firsthand experience.
The one he sent me today is titled: “People I’ve Known Who Died Violent Deaths, and Deserved It: Part I”
Another blog entry is titled: Life after the Foreign Service.
Below are excerpts from it and several others.
“Our clueless ambassador in a war-torn country where guerrillas were targeting and killing foreigners ordered the embassy staff to travel into the lawless interior to monitor people’s attitudes toward UN-sponsored free elections (Why I Write), an irresponsible order the staff refused to obey. My wife experienced a complicated and life-threatening pregnancy after MED — the State Department’s medical unit — refused to authorize business class travel to the destination where she would give birth (Love, Romance and Sex in the U.S. Foreign Service – Part III: Making Babies). My boss in a communist country violated security rules in his emails, resulting in the host government’s harassment of one of our best sources. The promotion and assignments processes were becoming an even more uneven playing field. . . .Time to leave the Foreign Service. There is nothing like a Foreign Service career: getting paid to travel the world and live in foreign countries representing one’s country; dealing with Big Picture issues; working with some of the smartest people on the planet; a variety in work content virtually unmatched in any other career. Twenty-three years in the U.S. Foreign Service gave me no end of challenges and adventures and opportunity to apply my brainpower toward history-making events and to meet presidents, kings and high-caliber intellectuals. I had the time of my life. But too many shortcomings in the system compelled me to make the decision to leave my government career early and to find reward in greener pastures.
As one advances in the ranks, one hears the refrain, “Is there life after the Foreign Service?” — accompanied by much wringing of the hands. Contemplating the end of one’s diplomatic career is akin to those 15th century folk who saw monsters and oblivion at the edge of world’s end. It’s understandable. After decades of working in a profession, what else does one know? And how do you apply airy-fairy statecraft skills to making money on the outside? Many turn to academia, think tanks, independent consulting, NGOs and international organizations. Logical fits.
Sorry. Not for this free spirit. Determined, against the counsel of family and friends, never to hold down another job again, never again to don suit and tie for work, never again to answer to a boss, never again to commute to an office, I made the wild and crazy decision to return to my roots: work on the family farm. Oops! Nope! The family farm was sold years ago. I mean my later roots: being a writer and making a living off of it. I turned down a lovely offer from a college president to be a “diplomat-in-residence,” teaching a couple of courses and assisting in setting up a nascent international relations program. Then I declined a nice offer from a London-based political consulting company to take on assignments from them. The reason? I was too preoccupied with selling my spy-mob thriller, Permanent Interests and my war criminal thriller, CHASM. And my literary agent was expecting much more of me after the 2011 release of my Afghanistan thriller, Tribe. Teaching college and political consulting, simply put, would interfere in the marketing of my twisted fantasies.
Rather than doing the “right thing,” this ex-FSO decided to follow his dream: fiction writing. I sit in my armchair at home or in my favorite cafe dreaming up and writing down plots involving Machiavellian politicians, lustful doyennes, mad generals, ruthless spies, flawed heroes and world-threatening events — drawing from my rich mother lode of Foreign Service experiences (see Inspired Insomniac: Voices in the Night).
And it’s worked! ….winding up my fourth novel, a spy tale set in Cuba. I’m actually making a living doing this. Of course, it ain’t easy when you lack full first amendment rights (Why I’m Censored).
The lesson? “Do the right thing” doesn’t necessarily apply. You’ve done that for years as a buttoned-down, team-playing, don’t-rock-the-boat bureaucrat. Try something new. Listen to your heart and follow your dreams. I did.”
Another blog excerpt gives a flavor of how he weaves real life behind the scenes experience into his writing:
My Forrest Gump Moment
“On November 12, 1986, I was in the West Wing of the White House on official business. After a long meeting, I made a pit stop at the downstairs men’s room. While standing doing my business, the door swung open and in streamed several men. At the urinal on my left was Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger. On my right was Secretary of State George Shultz. At the toilet stood CIA Director Bill Casey. They obviously had just come out of a lengthy meeting of their own. All were stonily silent. None acknowledged any of the others. They studiously avoided eye contact at the sink, the towel dispenser and as they sought to exit the room. I sensed a definite chill between them and couldn’t wait myself to get out of there. In the outside foyer, a suck-up White House flunkie greeted Shultz in a fawning voice. The Secretary stopped in his tracks and, red-faced, glowered at the man, then stormed off.
Next day headlines broke open the Iran-Contra scandal. The Washington Post reported on a stormy meeting between Pres. Reagan and his national security officials. For me it was truly a Forrest Gump moment.”
An excerpt from another of Bruno’s blogs:
Ambassadors-at-Large for Incompetence . . .
“In 1992, as the Khmer Rouge were targeting foreigners for assassination in the countryside, our ambassador in Cambodia ordered his staff to travel into the lawless interior to ascertain people’s attitudes about upcoming UN-sponsored elections for that country. The staff refused such an irresponsible order, confronting the ambassador with passive resistance bordering on insubordination. The State Dept. countermanded the order.
When working on U.S. policy on Cambodia in the UN in the early ’80s, my State Dept. boss asked me: “Are the Khmer Rouge the good guys or the bad guys?” As most of the world knows, the Khmer Rouge killed at least a million Cambodian citizens in the 1970s, a genocide second only to the Holocaust.
Having just arrived as a young diplomat at an isolated Asian post, my bosses, the Chargé d’Affaires and his deputy, had me accompany them to the home of a wealthy Sino-Thai businessman for luxurious repasts which included delicacies such as shark fin soup, fish maw and barbecued bear paw. This man, however, led a surreptitious life. His entertainment facilities were hidden behind an office bathroom and he dodged all questions about his business and personal life. Suspicious, I sent his name to several U.S. agencies for a database check. The Drug Enforcement Agency promptly replied that our charming dinner host was on their Most Wanted List; he had earlier dropped out of sight, one step ahead of the law. The U.S. Chargé d’Affaires and his staff had been hobnobbing unawares with a notorious narcotrafficker. Who was dumber: the crook, for entertaining American officials? Or, the clueless officials themselves?”
. . . and Embassies for Sale!
In the late 1980s, our ambassador to Italy was an Italian-American lumber baron from Minnesota. Having donated generously to his party, the man got the job, though he possessed no diplomatic or related experience. An otherwise gregarious sort, he was at sea in Rome. He used one of the most sensitive communications channels, normally reserved for matters of high policy, to update the Secretary of State on his project to remodel Villa Taverna, the U.S. ambassador’s residence, including one lengthy cable on his selection of curtains. He was also fond of telling demeaning Italian jokes before crowds of host country officials and journalists, an act that endeared neither him nor the United States to the Italian public.
Fact Stranger Than Fiction
If you had any illusions that your government is manned with competent, bright, judicious officials who have your best interests at heart, you’re wrong. Twenty-five years in the federal government showed me otherwise. Regularly, I faced situations which made me say, “Fiction can’t rival this.” Our debacle in Iraq, the Mark Foley affair, the Valerie Plame case and the Abramoff scandal only reconfirm my sentiment.
So, I cut short my diplomatic career to have more fun writing stories which encompass the chicanery and fecklessness of government. If you thought Washington was out of control, then don’t read my books. They’ll only confirm your worst fears about how things are done in our nation’s capital.
Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Singapore, a former South Dakota state legislator, walked off with the ambassadorial china upon completion of his unremarkable assignment. Upon being asked to return the expensive, eagle-embossed dinnerware, our ambassador refused, stating it was his just reward for having been an ambassador.
Faux pas by non-career ambassadors include cocaine smuggling using diplomatic pouches, drunken imbroglios at embassy functions, embarrassing adulterous affairs, and simple ineptitude. We used to sell military flag officer ranks to political hacks until the end of the Civil War, when the extent of the slaughter revealed the tragic consequences of such practices. U.S. ambassadorships and other senior diplomatic positions, however, remain on the auction block for the highest bidders. Fully a third of ambassadorships, in fact, go to non-career people.
Another blog post is titled:
How to Get Ahead in the U.S. Foreign Service: Walk, Don’t Run
Ambition is the last refuge of failure. ~ Oscar Wilde
(Note: The following is a personal essay. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.)
We Still Need Kremlinologists
After twenty-three years working for the Department of State, I left with little more understanding on how to get ahead in that opaque and byzantine system than I had upon entering. Yet, using my past Kremlinologist skills as well as drawing from a long career of trying to decipher other closed regimes such as North Korea, Cuba and Chicago, I’ve come away with some pointers for those just entering the Department as well as those still inside the belly of the beast. Following are some broad type categorizations for success in the U.S. Foreign Service:
· The Operator: Ratko Mladic, the Serbian war criminal now in custody, was an Operator. He embraced three keys for being a highly successful executive: (a) effective networking; (b) sucking up to his superiors; and (c) amorality and ruthlessness. So is it in the Foreign Service. The effective Operator spreads his tentacles out the minute he completes his oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Think of the kiss-ass schmoozer we all knew in school. The brown-nose apple polisher who was at his teachers’ feet and his classmates’ throats. Like Mladic, such people are able to advance quickly, even if it’s over a mountain of their victims’ skulls. Definition of success per the Operator: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women and children!
· The Female Emasculator: Why is it that four decades on in the feminist movement, many women feel they must out-testosterone their male competition? Everyone is familiar with this ilk: the “barracuda” who devours her young if it will lead to advancement. The alpha-female who, if she sacrifices any time at all to romance, weds an emasculated Caspar Milquetoast –another pelt on the barn door. Most, however, don’t marry. After all, matrimony and children only get in the way on the ladder-climb to victory. These women are the first to launch class action lawsuits claiming “discrimination” as a vehicle to win court-ordered promotions or plum assignments. Give them a wide berth; otherwise, find a fine surgeon to extricate the daggers and high-heel marks from your back and to reaffix your testicles.
- Boobs Struck by Lightning: Think of the dumb-ass who can’t organize his breakfast, constantly loses his keys, comes to work with one brown shoe and one black. Yet karmic lightning strikes and next thing you know he’s in the fast lane, screwing up one assignment after another, yet continually rewarded as others pick up the pieces. A variation on this species is the “Being There” type, patterned after the eponymous Peter Sellers movie. The protagonist, named Chance, is a simpleton who, because he dresses like an aristocrat and says little, is fawned over and rewarded by pompous social climbers who are blind to his vacuosness. Form trumps substance.
- The Anointed One: Similar to Boobs Struck by Lightning minus the dumbassedness. This is the individual who is visited by Jesus while in A-100 junior officer training and thereafter put on the super fast track despite never having an original idea, being devoid of personality and showing all the risk-taking of a Swiss accountant. The Old Boys just like him/her and coddle the haloed Anointed One through unremarkable ambassadorships and snoozer sinecures up to the Undersecretary level.
- The Wagon-Hitcher: A bevy of these often capable FSO’s rode on the coattails of Henry Kissinger to the pinnacles of the foreign policy establishment. Finding oneself attached to such a shooting star is as often as not a factor of dumb luck, being at the right place at the right time with the right senior official on the way to megastar status. These Wagon-Hitchers become luminaries in their own right and enjoy highly successful careers. There but for the grace of God go I. . .
- Get Along to Go Along: Those with severe CDD (Charisma Deficit Disorder), a face in the crowd and a harmless, nonthreatening disposition who do their time in the bowels of the bureaucracy accomplishing little more but staying in place and offending no one often are rewarded in their 50s with an ambassadorship to a malarial backwater capital shunned by the parvenu political appointees (see The American Diplomatic Spoils System: Embassies for Sale). It’s the State Department’s version of the gold watch.
- Lateral (No Exam Required) Entry: This means of advancement, which exempts its beneficiaries from such inconveniences as the Foreign Service exam, is reserved for cronies and affirmative action entrants.
- Legacy: Just as the Ivy League traditionally reserves admission spaces for the offspring of distinguished alumni (remember Pres. W?), the Foreign Service takes special care to coddle and promote the careers of the children of distinguished Foreign Service officers. If you are a Foreign Service brat, your odds at finding yourself on the fast track are greater than the peons, particularly if dad was an ambassador.
Caution and Incompetence
In my first Department posting, as I rushed down one of the long gray corridors with a draft cable in hand to seek an urgent clearance at another office, a stooped, pasty-faced FSO admonished me, “Walk, don’t run!” I think the last person to scold me thus was Miss Nall, my sixth grade teacher. But over the years I found it to be emblematic of the careful, cautious, compromising Foreign Service culture; of waiting one’s turn, not rocking the boat, staying in lock-step, all keys to that ambassadorial posting to Lower Slobovia.
After my first overseas tour, I went to pay an obligatory call on my “Career Development Officer.” As I sat silently, this man thumbed through my file, brows scrunched, grave demeanor. As he read on, he began to shake his head. Then he looked up at me and said, “Let’s face it, Jim. You’re going to have to hit the ground running in your next assignment.” I was stunned. I had gotten nothing but sterling evaluations. I said, “What do you mean?” The CDO shrugged and frowned. “Well, you didn’t do so well in your first tour, did you?” I stood up and requested to have a look at my file. He reluctantly handed it to me. While the folder had my name on it, the contents belonged to another officer. My personnel papers had been misfiled. Steaming, I demanded that the CDO straighten it out and call me as soon as he did. It was an early lesson in the fallibilities of the personnel system.
From another blog post by James Bruno:
Love, Romance & Sex in the U.S. Foreign Service – Part I: Of Lust & Loneliness
“Never play cards with a man named ‘Doc.’ Never eat at a place called ‘Mom’s.’ And never sleep with someone who has troubles worse than your own.”
Diplomats have a justifiable reputation for being impeccably proper, bloodless figures whose passions get stirred by a good concerto, a stimulating dinner party, a good book. But diplomats are human too. After all, they do procreate just like real people; though, perhaps they have fewer progeny.
The U.S. State Department has a well deserved reputation for being manned by people who are morally irreproachable, temperamentally self-controlled and emotionally repressed. .. Conformity is the creed. Norman Rockwell on steroids. Like nonconforming meerkats, the wild in behavior, the over-the-top eccentrics, the loners, the terminably weak, the wildcatters, the truly innovative and those who are too New York menschlich are either driven off the reservation or insidiously sidelined until their career comes to a premature end.
But sex is a fact of life. And, like it or not, Foreign Service folk can’t escape it. The peccadilloes keep State’s security cadre very busy indeed. First, let’s categorize the broad rubrics of sexual behavior in the American Foreign Service:
- Midlife Adolescence: the married middle-aged male who suddenly finds himself in a sexual playground like Bangkok or Manila and loses it.
- The Poor Soul: the man or woman whom love has passed by and plunges into a marriage with a Third Worlder who recognizes a free ticket out of misery when s/he sees it.
- The Political Appointee Who Mistakes ‘Diplomatic Immunity’ for Diplomatic Impunity: When to mischief we bend our will, how soon we find the instruments of ill.
- The Gays: (a) those open about their sexuality (tending to be younger), and (b) those firmly in the closet (tending to be older).
- Sleeping With the Enemy: violators of the “non-frat” policy who have affairs with the nationals of hostile powers.
- The Nut Cases: exhibitionists, predators, the morally unhinged.
Middle-aged Adolescents: While in diplomatic training after just entering the Foreign Service, a middle-aged woman offered me a ride home from the Foreign Service Institute in her van with three young children. She had just returned from Bangkok where her husband was posted. “Oh, Bangkok. That must be very interesting,” I said, making conversation. She harrumphed. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she said. She went on to relate how, after a few months at post, her husband took up with an assortment of Thai bar girls and abruptly ended their marriage. She came home with their kids to pick up the pieces of her life and deal with lawyers and State Department bureaucrats on the red tape surrounding divorce. Even one of our married career ambassadors carried on with local honies. The Thai have a strong sense of joie de vivre about such things, but most Americans don’t want Hugh Hefner representing their country overseas.
And there was the notorious case of a colleague who was sent packing from another Asian post because he had decided to divorce his generic American wife for a young Chinese woman with whom he had fathered babies. But the wife hung on and both women lived with him at the same time. This harem chief confided that what ticked him off was that the ambassador who made him depart was himself living with a local mistress.
It’s a sad yet all too familiar tale. Middle-aged men tossed into overseas sexual playgrounds where any Western gentleman is a catch by dint of his income and passport. I lost count early on as to how many male colleagues I knew who dumped June Cleaver for Suzie Wong….In my experience, most are smarter and sharper than the Caspar Milquetoasts they marry. …
A place like Thailand is great for self-deluded studs, but a hellhole for foreign women. Frustrated in love, many of the latter hit on the available bachelors within the embassy community. Being the target of such approaches over the years by both married and single Western ladies, I speak from personal experience.
The Poor Soul: How often one encounters the frumpy plain Jane with her new hubby — an Ethiopian rock star half her age, the Paul Giamatti look-alike wed to buxom 22-year old Miss Ukraine. I recall the 40-something Foreign Service secretary who married a tattooed Fijian Hell’s Angels Harley aficionado. A match made in heaven. The face-in-the-crowd mid-life consul, trained as a classical pianist, biggest suck-up in the Service, who fell deeply in love with a smashing young college-educated Korean girl. Like teen love birds, they were. Until she got her American passport. The first thing Miss Korean Beauty did upon landing at LAX was to file divorce papers. Another common scenario. You see, foreign spouses are entitled to almost instant U.S. citizenship upon marrying an American diplomat. Too many have discovered this Get Out of Teeming Developing World Free card. The ones with a trace of moral conscience might wait a year or two before ditching Mr. or Ms. Meal Ticket. Others, like the Korean babe, have it all scammed out and ditch their new mate as soon as the ink is dry on their shiny new eagle-embossed passport.
Political Appointees: Someone needs to collect 200-years of lore and write a book about the idiots who are allowed to buy United States ambassadorships. No banana republic rivals our diplomatic spoils system, a topic to which I plan to devote a special entry soon. But here are just two examples of political appointee ambassadors who were caught in sexual misconduct:
Former U.S. Ambassador to Norway Mark Evans Austad, an outspoken former Mormon missionary who hurled verbal attacks against a variety of Norwegian liberal institutions as well as the press was taken by police at a house where he was bellowing loudly and banging on a woman’s door at 3 a.m. Austad claimed that, after hosting a cocktail party, he headed to a friend’s house “to plan a salmon fishing trip,” and the taxi had taken him to the wrong address. The police returned Austad to his residence.
Joseph Zappala, a wealthy Florida developer and fundraiser for President George H.W. Bush, was appointed ambassador to Spain despite his inability to speak Spanish. Zappala’s tour in Madrid was marred when he took up with another woman, ending his 30-year marriage. “This guy’s roaming eye for the Spanish ladies became very embarrassing for us in the career Foreign Service,” said someone who served in Madrid with Zappala.
Gays: A senior protocol official was nabbed in a raid on a Washington gay brothel years ago. He faced a dual dilemma at that time: the shame and security implications of being outed as gay when it was not condoned, and the legal issues of being arrested as a john in a pay-for-sex situation.
Prior to the 1990s, homosexuality was grounds for exclusion from the Foreign Service. Enforcement, however, was spotty at best. Everybody had friends and colleagues known to be gay. It was no big deal. But the gays themselves were forced to remain in the closet. When the ban was lifted, gays organized themselves into their own Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. While younger FS members are open about their gayness, many of the older ones remain closeted, whether out of habit or whatever. The bottom line is the Foreign Service is a much friendlier institution for gays than in previous years, particularly since Secretary Clinton initiated some reforms to accommodate partners.
Sleeping With the Enemy: the national security agencies have what is called a “Criteria Countries List” comprising those nations whose intelligence services target our personnel (see “On Spies, Counterspies, Would-be Spies and Just Plain Losers – Part I”). A “non-frat” policy applies. Think: Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, etc. It is verboten to have romantic relationships with the citizens of such countries. Nonetheless. . .
There was the junior FSO who fell in love with an East German woman while posted in another communist country. The young female FSO who had a torrid romance with a Cuban man while serving in Havana. The embassy communicator who up and married another country’s army officer while serving at a communist post. Diplomatic Security pulled their clearances, yanked them from their postings and placed them in dead-end nonprofessional jobs back in D.C. At least two were assigned to the Department’s mail room. They got the message and quit. BTW, the guy with the East German lady and the woman who married the foreign officer enjoyed happy marriages outside of the Foreign Service.
Nut Cases: There was the USAID official who had a penchant for displaying his private parts to females who entered his office (yes, he was dismissed). And the admin staff sleazebag in one of our large embassies who coerced his local national female employees into sex acts with him in his office (got off scot-free; an all-too familiar crime in our embassies). The married, sixtyish political appointee Under Secretary of State who preyed sexually upon his female secretary (who filed a grievance action leading to his quiet dismissal). And there is at least one confirmed case of incest.
The U.S. Foreign Service consists of America’s best in terms of brains, abilities and relevant knowledge. But its members are all too human just like the rest of us. No, Foreign Service personnel are not a bunch of kinky perverts lusting after the people with whom they work and associate. But funny things do happen in life. And the system is pretty good about policing itself. Messy adulterous affairs overseas often end up with the involved parties being sent back home, with a cloud over their careers. Our diplomats are held to high standards which are taken seriously.
Love, Romance and Sex in the U.S. Foreign Service – Part II: Bombs & Bureaucrats
The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border? ~ Pablo Casals
Six Tips on Courtship in a War Zone
(Cosmo Mag — are you paying attention?)
- When your love interest calls via military radio phone from a jungle redoubt asking for advice on what to do as mortar rounds slam into her encampment, counsel her as follows: “Hit the ground!”
- When dating via helicopter over enemy terrain, become a Believer and pray to God often — even if you aren’t a Believer, it’s best to hedge your bets when your life is on the line.
- 24/7 armed guards who accompany you wherever you go can put a crimp on your dating as well as the rest of your social life. Stay at home until the danger passes.
- Kevlar trumps Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana: don’t fret about making a fashion statement in a place where olive drab dominates the runways. There’s something to be said about bullet-stopping Kevlar even if it does suppress the fine lines of your figure.
- When the local fare moves on your plate, or all those around you are retching their guts out, a dinner date centered on Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) is an acceptable fallback.
- When traveling over jungle cover in which wild-eyed, drug-crazed freedom fighters love to take pot shots at low-flying aircraft just for the hell of it, do anything possible to protect your private parts, as these may come in handy as your romance progresses to the next stage. Helmets, flak jackets and medical kits are just some of the items you can use for this purpose.
Is This a Date, or Apocalypse Now?
A fetching young Dutch UN peacekeeper caught my eye when I was serving at our new embassy in war-torn Cambodia in the early ’90s. There was something about the blue beret, the gouda-infused enthusiasm to bring Freedom and Democracy to the benighted Cambodians, her sacrificing her wooden shoes for jungle boots, her patriotic profile in a black one-piece swimsuit at the only pool in the country.
We hit it off. Then she was posted to the country’s far northeast, an area so remote that no roads led to it, a backwater in which we stumbled upon anti-communist Vietnamese guerrillas who didn’t know Hanoi had won in ’75, a region dominated by exotic minority peoples speaking languages unknown to linguists, an ecological wonderland with animal species thought to be extinct. The only way to get there was by chopper. The UN contracted transportation out to a Russian company operating rickety Soviet-era helicopters piloted by Red Army veterans, many of whom made their bones in Afghanistan. It wasn’t unusual for Khmer Rouge guerrillas to shoot at these choppers; bullet holes occasionally were found in the fuselages after landing.
When in D.C. on a date, one needs only to hop into one’s shiny new Miata, pick up one’s date and zip over to Marcel’s for filet of Dorade and foie gras mousse, to be followed by drinks at Veritas and maybe a late showing of Woody Allen’s latest. When dating in Stung Treng, however, one must lower one’s standards a notch or two. With alcohol-sodden, joyriding Russians at the stick, I flew too many times than I care to remember between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng. I got a break when our own POW/MIA search team flew Blackhawks to that region to excavate the remains of our Vietnam War missing-in-action. Otherwise, we kept in touch via Australian military radiophone. Indeed, she did call me one afternoon asking what to do as mortar rounds fell into her encampment (I could hear the explosions over the receiver). And I shouted, “Hit the ground!”
Something like sixty percent of Foreign Service personnel take on foreign-born spouses. This, of course, is to be expected when most enter the Service at a fairly young age and spend much of their working lives overseas. But love and statecraft often don’t follow in parallel paths and bumps are encountered along the way. Mother State becomes a mutant Junior Prom chaperone when it comes to one’s love life and family affairs. You thought you shed parental oversight of your personal affairs once you hit your late teens. But once you take the oath and sign your soul away for that security clearance, be prepared to have your most intimate affairs become the business of Mother State.
Once my relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper became a steady one, the embassy’s Regional Security Officer informed me that she needed to be “cleared,” i.e., investigated and deemed not a security threat to the United States. “Fill out this Form SF-86 and all these other forms,” he told her. She looked at me and asked, “Is this for real?” I said, “Yes, dear. It’s only a formality.” “I’ve never dated anyone before whose employer required that I be investigated,” she replied, not pleased. The 21-page SF-86 asks such questions as:
“Have you ever knowingly engaged in activities designed to overthrow the U.S. Government by force?”
“Have you ever knowingly engaged in any acts of terrorism?”
The RSO then interviewed her at length. Sheepishly and with unsteady nerves, she confessed to having demonstrated against short-range nuclear missiles in Europe when she was at the University of Leiden. The RSO gave her a pass for this crazy youthful act of anarchistic nihilism. He generously informed us that we could continue to see each other pending a background investigation of her life in the Netherlands.
Now, security investigations have a way of throwing a damper on romance. In the eyes of the foreign ladies, you go from being an eligible bachelor to radioactive waste. Fortunately, I was able to assuage and sweet-talk my foreign lady into going along with what for her was a low-level inquisition. She was “cleared” not long afterward.
Fast forward: Our Engagement. According to the regs. 3 FAM 4191, “an employee intending to marry a foreign national must provide notice 90 days prior to the marriage date.” More red tape to complete. The regs further warn, “Failure of an employee to provide the required notification/approval of cohabitation with or marriage to a foreign national may result in the initiation of an appropriate investigation, immediate suspension (which may result in a proposal for revocation) of the employee’s security clearance, and/or disciplinary action.” Pretty heady stuff. More assuaging and sweet-talking needed.
We put in all the paperwork and made arrangements to wed at a small castle in a fairytale setting in Nijmegen. The entire Dutch extended clan was invited. Everything was on track. All we needed was the actual green light from Mother State. As time drew down, we continued to wait for that green light. And waited. Finally, I got on the phone and called State. “What gives?” I asked. “It’s been months now.” I was told to wait some more. Still nothing. My mind started going off in strange directions. Was she indeed a bomb-throwing anarchist? I wondered. Maybe a card carrying member of the Gouda Workers of the World? Nope. Mother State lost our paperwork. Advance directly to Go and start anew, I was told. “But we have a whole castle lined up. Half of Brabant province has been invited.” “Sorry. No wedding without us saying it’s ok,” Mother State replied with heartfelt empathy. Desperate, I called a buddy who entered the Service with me who worked in that office. Miraculously, he made things happen. We got the green light to marry.
If you work for Wal-Mart or GEICO or JetBlue, you may live with or marry whomever you want whenever you want. But for those who labor in the twilight reaches of national security, Uncle Sam’s cold, boney hand keeps a tight grip. Like some medieval lord, his blessing must be gotten to enter a steady relationship or to take the hand of a beloved in matrimony. Amor vincit omnia.
Read more of James Bruno’s excellent and prolific blog, Diplomatic Denizan, at jameslbruno.blogspot.com. You can also buy his books through the same site.