Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why U.S. Consular Services Are So Shabby: A Theory

Sherman Oaks, California

Last week I blogged about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s criticisms of the U.S. State Department. Bourdain and his crew were stranded in Beirut during the 2006 Israeli bombing, and the U.S. was less than spry in arranging the evacuation of its citizens.

This is a common complaint among Americans abroad. When geopolitical thunderstorms threaten, the Royal Air Force is quickly shepherding Brits out of danger. The Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry is calling NGOs for assistance. Australian diplomats, in particular, are noted for their zeal in assisting fellow citizens overseas. Americans, meanwhile, are sitting by silent phones and refreshing useless web pages, wondering why the most powerful nation on earth can’t send in a few planes and airlift everybody to Germany.

Here’s my stab at why:

Weak Political Demand. Americans don’t travel much overseas, so there’s little political will to create an efficient system of consular services. Israelis and Australians routinely travel the world (or as much of the world as will have them), so those two countries have honed systems for helping and, if necessary, extracting their countrymen. But the unfortunate reality is that there is a strain of American opinion which equates the American expat with Benedict Arnold, and, in any event, funding for consular services isn't spent within any congressman’s district. Why bother?

It’s Your Own Damn Fault. One of the drawbacks of a meritocratic ethic is that you are deemed to be the author of your problems. Combine that with the fact that Americans rarely travel to “trouble spots,” and the result is a cultural attitude that Americans caught in the crossfire shouldn’t have been there in the first place and that taxpayers shouldn’t bail them out.

Consular Affairs Self Selects For Mediocrity. When a person applies to take the U.S. Foreign Service Examination, she has to select a career track, or “cone,” that effectively determines the trajectory of her career. The most glamorous -- and therefore popular – cone is always the political cone. The least popular is usually Consular Affairs, which includes American Citizen Services.

While there are many excellent Foreign Service Officers working in the consular cone, there are many who chose the cone because it was seen as the easiest way into cushy government employment. There is less competition for a Consular Affairs slot than for jobs in other cones, and the hours can be easy. The position lacks a private-sector equivalent, so deadwood hangs on for dear life (if that’s not mixing metaphors). Consular Affairs is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Service, generally looked down upon and having the worst long-term promotion prospects. The result is that many of the people who Americans abroad rely upon are not the can-do rocket scientists of the Service.

Consular Affairs Can Be Slow Off The Mark. At a macro level, decisions of any sensitivity involving U.S. citizens abroad are decided in Washington, not at the embassy or consulate. At the micro level, consular affairs is a field where action can hurt your career (e.g., granting a student visa to a person who later commits a crime) but inaction generally won't (e.g., denying tourist visas to a harmless but politically unconnected family). Together, these two qualities can slow the response to an emergency.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although only anecdotal, I was thoroughly impressed by the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul this past fall. While not as complicated as an evacuation, I had my passport stolen and the Consulate replaced it within four hours from the time I showed up at the compound. They were also able to replace my wife's green card in a day and a half - two and half days sooner than the Canadian Consulate was able to replace my wife's Canadian passport. While expecting the worst, I was surprised at how convenient it was to be an American abroad (at least when compared to being Canadian, and only with regards to government services).

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It’s Your Own Damn Fault."
Damn straight.
You want to take in the sights and sounds of Cote d'Ivorie? Sample the culture of Burma? Or even pick up some cheap perscription drugs in Tijuana? (Why else would someone go?) Then you'd better have a plan for getting your ass out when things go wrong.
Nobody told you to go to these places and there have been plenty of warnings over the years via the State Department and the media.
Or does everybody just expect a government "bailout"?
As for Bourdain, he's paid quite well to trot the globe and lob pithy remarks about local grub. Where was the Travel Channel — which makes millions in advertising on his show — when this self-styled "rebel" needed his hand held?

2:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous I.. in my experience the American consulates have been superior to their Canadian brethren.

While Canadians often travel abroad - not as often as the Australians, but a lot - the diplomats are often too spineless and afraid of that dork Prime Minister Stephen Harper to stand up for their citizens and be tough when needed.

Try adding extra pages to a Canadian passport - it's not possible, but for Americans, relatively convenient.

5:27 AM  

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