Last Wednesday morning, I thought about the only other career I’ve come across that looks like it could have been as interesting and rewarding as writing about stuff has been.
I thought about it as I heard about the four tragic deaths at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
During my White House correspondent years, during foreign trips, I got to know some career foreign service folks in our embassies around the world.
At the top of embassy structure are ambassadors. Some are career foreign service officers and some are political appointees. Chris Stevens, the ambassador killed in Libya, was career foreign service.
As with many endeavors, embassies are only as good as their career foreign service worker bees. From Uruguay to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, and points elsewhere, I was impressed by the bees’ dedication and knowledge. And I found myself envying them as they told me their stories about the widely varying countries in which they had served. It sounded fascinating, though not, as we were reminded this week, without peril.
These are level-headed folks who must be way above the simplistic, knee-jerk, bad-idea thoughts that pop into some of our heads when bad things happen.
I fear I’m not the only one who periodically entertains this nonproductive notion about the Middle East: How about if we build a fence around it, let those folks fight amongst themselves and then deal with the survivors?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, aware of the frustration fostered by the slayings of Americans in Libya, said the incident in a country we helped liberate “reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.” Frustratingly so, which is why I respect the foreign service folks who helped me do my job around the world.
Assistance ranged from safety tips to restaurant ideas to bringing local vendors to the press center to make it easier for us to help the local economy. I have vivid memories of how embassy personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan, had local women on hand to offer jewelry and other goods.
This past week, after the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo, I dug into my garage archives to review materials provided to me by embassy personnel around the world. The packets included tips ranging from funny to frightening.
“The common American sign for ‘A-OK,’ using thumb and index finger, has a very vulgar connotation in Brazil and should be avoided.”
“Indians love to tell stories, but Indian or ethnic jokes are not common and bantering and raucous humor will not be understood.”
“Welcome to Colombia! Bogota is rated high for both indigenous terrorism and crime on the Department of State’s Security Environment Threat List. The threat facing Americans in Colombia is significant, and practicing good security awareness is a must.”
In New Delhi, India, a packet included this, aimed at State Department employees: “Relationships involving continuing romantic or sexual intimacy without cohabitation must be reported when the employee determines that it is in fact a continuing relationship. Employees are not required to report sporadic relationships with non-communist government/allied country nationals until such time as the employee contemplates marriage, cohabitation or a long-term relationship.”
Despite the danger (and restrictions on dating commies), foreign service looks fascinating. Because of the danger, I’m glad I didn’t think of this earlier in my life. And, also because of the danger and with last week’s tragedy in mind, I’m appreciative of our foreign service personnel, including the ones who offered me shopping tips in Mongolia and those who spend many days of their lives in harm’s way.Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail him at email@example.com.