Saturday, April 27, 2013

What Does a Consular Officer Do?

So, having escaped with my life and career prospects intact from Indonesian language training, I have moved on to professional training at FSI, specifically consular work.

Many of my friends, upon hearing I had chosen the consular cone for my new job, took me aside and told me that while they valued my steady friendship, they were very worried that my personality type (INTJ) wasn't very well suited to counseling people, what with me being introverted and cold and all.

When I explained that instead I would be at a visa window interviewing dozens of potential immigrants and visitors to the US every day and deciding whether or not they were eligible based on the law, the facts and my judgment their concerns for me were reduced on the personality scale, but they then decided my new job was well, the DMV but for Indonesians.

But as I already knew (and my training has made even MORE clear), consular work is a lot more than that. We live in a global economy, and the US depends on international trade and tourism to a huge and growing degree every year. So you can imagine the interest our government, private companies and people overseas have in consular types facilitating legitimate travel as much as possible.

There are also people out there who want to hurt us, and they also very badly want to get into the US. As consular officials, we are the first of many lines of defense against those kinds of people. Whenever something bad happens in the US now, one of my early thoughts is "who was at the visa window, and how did they make their decision on that visa application?"

Then finally by our history, heritage, and character the US welcomes immigrants and visitors from around the world. This diversity is a tremendous source of strength for our country, and something that sets us apart from many others. We always have to apply the law fairly but with an eye towards who we are.

So, with these important and sometimes competing goals, we now have to add the element of speed. In many places around the world, non-immigrant visas are given 5 minutes or less to be determined. So, the job at the visa window comes down to "let the right ones in, keep the wrong ones out, as quickly as possible." It isn't the job for everyone. But as I continue with training, I am coming to realize more and more that it IS the job for me.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

It's Always the Best Ones- Rest In Peace Anne Smedinghoff

A young woman joins the Foreign Service in her mid-20's. Having just entered the service myself last year, let me tell you, that is YOUNG. Most FSO's have an advanced degree (or more), time in the Peace Corps, etc. For someone to pass through the filters and join the Foreign Service, she must have shown the examiners something special. After A-100, her first tour is in Venezuela. Interesting times to be in that country, to be sure.

After her first tour, she volunteers (you HAVE to volunteer) for a tour in Afghanistan as a public diplomacy (PD) officer. Tours in the A-I-P (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) are not like regular tours. Security concerns are high, and restrictions on travel are tight. For a PD officer, whose job is to make contacts with the host country media and people and help explain America, it is a particularly challenging environment. You want to be safe, so you can't travel around and meet with people a lot.  If you are going to present America in the best light and be a good PD officer, you have to travel around and meet with people a lot. Many people have a really hard time with this, and for a young officer on her second tour, it could be even harder. How well did she meet the challenge? Well enough that when newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry came to Afghanistan, she was the Control Officer. What does that mean? It meant she was entrusted with figuring out all the details and needs of a visit at that level and working with all the different sections and divisions that have responsibilities and making sure everything is covered. This is a big deal, and she did it well.

So yesterday she and some other State and Defense Department personnel are going to deliver books to some schoolchildren. This is a quintessential PD activity. We buy books and deliver them to needy schoolchildren, and take pictures of the event. And on the way to do her job, her convoy is attacked by the Taliban and she is killed along with a Defense contractor and many others are wounded. Just like that, she is gone.

It gets me thinking about Ambassador Stevens and the others killed last year. You know, the ones that volunteer and go outside the walls because they know they have to. And we send them because we know they have to go. And then they get killed and I think that the people they were trying to serve didn't deserve them. Why should we lose the best and brightest like this?

But then I remember my A-100 class, and how many people rated the dangerous places on our bid list the highest. I hear from them, and how they were able to report directly about when the fighting stopped because they no longer heard the shooting outside their window, etc. And I worry because even though they don't have ships or planes or guns, they are going to leave the embassy and go out and do their jobs. Not because it is safe, but because it has to be done. I can guarantee you someone soon will post to Afghanistan and fill Anne Smedinghoff's job, even if they can't fill her shoes. 

It is not safe. It needs to be done. We will do it, because that is what we do. We are Foreign Service Officers.