On my recent lecture tour in Pakistan, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Karachi with Dr. Elizabeth Colton, a 65-year-old ex-journalist who has made her second career in the State Department working on public diplomacy for the United States.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve encountered Dr. Colton. Over the last eight years I’ve run into her in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. In Algeria during a particularly violent time, in Sudan, twice in Pakistan, and in Baghdad back when life there was even more dangerous than it is now, Dr. Colton has been working to win friends and makeAmerica’s case out in places where that is a difficult and dangerous thing to do. I’d never met Liz before I made a State Department sponsored lecture tour in Algeria where she managed things brilliantly. Since then I’ve come to see her as one of America’s most effective and brilliant (if often unconventional) diplomats and developed tremendous respect for who she is and what she does.
She does an incredible job, using contacts and connections she built during a lifetime in journalism to bring people into contact with the US who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with us. I’ve seen her work doggedly through the resistance of stiff anti-American bureaucrats to get American diplomats and speakers onto university campuses for free-wheeling debates in places where free speech isn’t normally allowed. I’ve seen her build circles of loyal friends in countries where too many American diplomats never get outside the security bubble. She’s responsible for reaching out to hundreds of journalists and students and persuading them to apply for programs that bring them to the US to see us for themselves — and to take those perceptions back home.
Colton is not your typical foreign service officer. In fact she’s a lousy bureaucrat who sometimes has a hard time working within the State Department system. Entering the foreign service as late as she did, she’s had less seniority than colleagues half her age — but it hasn’t fazed her. She’s taken some of the most dangerous and challenging assignments the government has: in Riyadh, Khartoum, Islamabad, Baghdad and Karachi. She had a long career in journalism before joining the State Department’s public diplomacy program late in life. Her doctorate comes from the London School of Economics; she was an Emmy Award winning producer at ABC News, she’s been Newsweek’s Cairo bureau chief, the Washington diplomatic correspondent for NPR, and covered Desert Storm for NBC radio. She’s edited a group of ten local newspapers in Virginia and covered the Middle East for ABC radio. Her Karachi connections run particularly deep; she’s known the Bhutto family from her time in London when she helped the newly exiled Bhuttos following the military coup that deposed, arrested and ultimately hanged Benazir Bhutto’s father. Given that the Bhutto’s party is now running the country (to the extent that anyone is), her connections, her journalistic skills and her deep knowledge of some of the key figures in Pakistani politics make her an invaluable public servant in a critical time in one of the world’s most important and troubled countries.
There’s more. Given the dangers and hardships of many diplomatic posts these days, some of the most crucial hotspots in the world are staffed by State Department officers on one-year tours. This makes sense from a human resources point of view: diplomats in countries like Pakistan, Iraq and many other places are threatened by the bad guys and their families cannot come with them. To ask foreign service officers to leave spouses and children for two and three years at a time is too much.
But for US diplomacy, it’s bad news. It means that our diplomatic presence in the most volatile and dangerous countries is much weaker than it should be. The embassy staff is always in transition as one-year veterans ship out and newbies step in. Add vacation schedules to that, and you have a recipe for steady chaos — in just those places where the United States most urgently needs people with intimate knowledge of local conditions and plenty of hands on experience. While it’s easy to understand why the State Department runs things this way, there’s no getting around the fact that our diplomatic presence is often the least effective where it’s most needed.
Dr. Colton is an exception to this rule. She not only volunteers for the most dangerous assignments in the hardest cases; she’s willing to extend her tours and serve double and triple terms in places where diplomats face constant, unremitting danger from well organized and well funded terror groups.
And so, naturally, the State Department bureaucracy wants to put her out to pasture — and to do it in the most inefficient and expensive way possible.
There’s a mandatory retirement age for State Department foreign service officers of 65. It’s a hangover from the time when arbitrary retirement ages were common in the American economy; it may well be unconstitutional age discrimination. The policy only applies to career officials; political appointees (who usually hold the most powerful and best paid State Department jobs) are exempt. Exceptions to this shortsighted and inane policy can be made on a case by case basis, but the State Department, possibly because Dr. Colton has challenged the law in court, is refusing to extend her time in Karachi. (You can read about the story in this NPR account. There are more details and some additional references in this blogpost from Diplopundit.) The Near Eastern bureau has asked for Colton to be assigned to the Cairo embassy for a three year tour, but for obscure bureaucratic reasons the State Department is limiting the extension to one year.
Yes, friends. We have an experienced, savvy and dedicated diplomat in Karachi, Pakistan, the intellectual and media capital of the country on the front line of whatever this global conflict that we’re fighting is called who was willing to stay a second year in a post that most diplomats leave after one. And what does the State Department want to do? Take her out of Karachi where she’s built an extraordinary network and send her nonsensically on an artificially shortened one year assignment to Cairo (Diplopundit suspects the goal is to avoid trouble for the State Department from the judge hearing the age discrimination case). Dr. Colton will go to Cairo, I’m sure, and do a good job for the year that she’s there — but it’s a waste of human potential that the State Department can ill afford. If the State Department really hungers and thirsts to take this uniquely qualified diplomat out of Karachi at a critical time, it should at least send her to Egypt on a three year tour that would let her get something done.
Nobody has more respect for America’s diplomats and our State Department than I do. Over the last fifteen years I’ve visited US embassies all over the world and spent time with the remarkable people who represent this country in good times and bad, often at the daily risk of their lives.
But treating Dr. Colton in this thoughtless and cavalier way is insane. We do not have a surplus of well-connected, seasoned public diplomats who are as Colton was, ready, willing and able to spend years building relationships in the world’s most dangerous places. When we find people like this, we should honor and treasure them, not dump them when they pass an arbitrary age limit.
I can see some sense in an age limit. Older diplomats acquire a lot of seniority giving them advantages in bidding for posts, and human nature being what it is, I suspect that a good many boomer diplomats would like to go on pushing cookies and swanning around stately capital cities as long as they physically can. But that’s not what Colton wants: she wants to stay in a grim hardship post where her life is at risk every day. When officers are willing to remain in hardship posts for a second and third year, and when they are clearly willing and able to do the job, the State Department should routinely let them stay on. The advantage of having greater continuity and experience in difficult places is immense.
The Colton case points to some broader problems with State Department personnel policies. The State Department is a fiendishly difficult place to manage well. The Washington bureaucracy is large and is organized like other bureaucratic agencies. But the embassies overseas are much smaller, and the environments in which they operate are very different. Developing ways to manage hundreds of posts (embassies, consulates and representative offices working with international organizations) is hard — especially when many of the key officials in the system are political appointees who come and go without ever really understanding the institution in which they’ve been placed.
To make matters worse, the State Department’s personnel policies by and large reflect the realities of an earlier era: the rigid State Department system struggles with two career families and with people like Liz Colton who change careers. The shift in America’s diplomatic focus away from Europe towards sometimes more challenging Asian, African and Middle Eastern environments — not to mention the wars, security threats and strains associated with the War That Must Not Be Named — will ultimately have to transform the way the United States recruits, trains and manages its diplomats. The bureaucracy is going to have to get better at attracting talent from outside the system and develop much more flexible management methods. That would be tough in any case; since Congress takes a direct hand in State Department oversight, and writes many of its personnel policies into law, this is going to be hard and its going to take time.
But in the meantime, if Dr. Colton wanted a second or even a third year in Karachi — they should have let her stay there. We need more patriots like her making long-term commitments to hardship posts. That the Near Eastern bureau wants her in Cairo is a tribute to their judgment; she is looking forward to the assignment, and I’ve spent enough time in Egypt to know we can use her there. But that we have procedures that automatically rotate people out of critical assignments for which they are ideally suited is not a good thing. The system is broken and it needs to be fixed.
The Obama administration promised to give us ‘smart diplomacy’. Smart diplomats would keep Dr. Colton on a job she does brilliantly, especially when times are as critical as they are.
Readers who agree can do three things.
First, you can send an email to Dr. Colton thanking her for her service and telling her that the folks back home appreciate and honor Americans willing to put their lives on the line to represent our country abroad. You can reach her at email@example.com. Wish her a happy birthday and let her know she’s not alone.
Second, you tell the State Department what you think. You can send an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to make sure Dr. Colton gets a three year tour in Cairo and that procedures are changed to make it easier for people like her to extend on hardship posts past 65; make yourself heard on the State Department’s Twitter and Facebook page. Let them know that American diplomats willing to stay on past retirement age in hardship posts deserve the country’s thanks and support — and if you think the retirement age should be the same for career officers as for political appointees, tell them that also.
Third, you can contact your elected senators and congresspeople to ask them to take an interest in this case. The State Department cares what Congress thinks. Senators and representatives care what you think — especially in the run up to elections.
It now seems inevitable that Dr. Colton will be ending her tour in Karachi on August 31, the end of the month in which she celebrated her 65th birthday. That will be a slap in the face to a real American hero, and a totally unnecessary blow to America’s front line diplomatic presence. But she’s going to do a great job in Cairo and, hopefully, the State Department will relent and allow her to stay long enough to learn the job and do it with her customary enthusiasm and skill.
I’ll keep you posted.