Realigning Foreign Service Assignments

Rice Orders Difficult Posts Filled First
New Rules Will Push Foreign Service Officers Toward More Dangerous Spots
Glenn Kessler

The State Department plans to implement sweeping changes in the way foreign service officers bid for new assignments in an effort to more quickly fill vacancies in Iraq and the growing number of dangerous hardship posts in the Middle East.

The new rules were outlined in a cable sent last week by Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples to department personnel that cited “increasing international turmoil.” They are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.

The WaPo runs this article today. As it’s a civilian department, not a military organization, State Dept. has always had a different set of issues to deal with in terms of “discipline”. One of the more difficult problems–over the past 15-or-so years–has been dealing with assignments.

I don’t want to say that FS Officers (FSOs) are less duty-bound than in the past–though some are. The major factor is that American life, expectations, and economic activity have changed over the years. In the past (until 1979, actually) spouses and children were practically negligible when it came to Foreign Service life. “Shut up and sit down” was the rule.

Today, of course, that’s impossible. Most American families have two income-earners. If one parent gets sent abroad, then the family faces some tough choices. Do they split up temporarily (for a period of 6-months to 4-years)? Does one resign him/herself to not working for that period? Do they all go overseas and hope that the non-FSO spouse can find a job in the local economy? How are career paths for the non-FSO affected? (They sure aren’t compensated by the government!)

And then there are kids… Will living overseas with good/bad/indifferent schools affect a child’s future education prospects, or even earning prospects later in life? How will this kind of move or not-move affect the child’s social development? Will a kid be academically, athletically, hell, even sexually competitive with the kids growing up back in the State? (While some expat kids find ways to compete athletically, in this case, there are no USG dependents permitted in Saudi Arabia.)

FSOs, like most people, also tend to map their career paths on lines similar to those of other executives: the higher up you get in the organization the better the benefits, living conditions, quality of life and work.

Here, though, Secretary of State Rice is telling them, “Wrong map!” FSOs need to go where their skills and abilities can be of the most use to America, and never mind their druthers. She’s saying that FSOs–who are fully commissioned officers of the USG–should be looking at the way the military handles assignments: you’re sent where you’re needed; your family obligations take second place; your personal preferences, while a factor, are not determinative.

In my 25-year career, I had one “non-hardship” assignment, to London, mid-career. I certainly bid on that position because of family responsibilities. My wife had already been in the Middle East for 12 years; I had a son who needed really good schools to take advantage of his innate abilities. But I knew that the real work of the Foreign Service was where the rubber hit the road. I’m not dissing FSOs assigned to London: work there is very important and complicated. Nor am I claiming any special virtue here; most FSOs saw the job the same way. But clearly, not enough do. And so, strict assignment discipline is being resurrected.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , ,
John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.


  1. DC Loser says:

    John, what’s the likelihood of becoming a FSO as a second career after retirement? Is this a realistic option? I’m just thinking after my retirement from civil service and the kids are off to college, it would be nice to do something I enjoy and see parts of the world I normally wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t mind being in a hardship location.

  2. John Burgess says:

    Absolutely! Even back when I came in (1979) the FS was looking to move away from recent college graduates. They wanted people with real-world experience, not just academic knowledge.

    As the FS has become less of a real career, more and more people are looking to it for work after they’ve left other careers. In my last assignment, I had two “Junior Officers” who were both in the 50s. One had been a print/TV/radio journalist for 20+ years; the other had been a practicing public defender for 20+ years.

    The cut-off age for new entrants is 59 as the FS has a mandatory retirement age of 65 and they want to get some real work out of new hires.

    The usual path in is through the FS Exam, given once a year. As a GS employee, you have some additional paths. Contact HR at State to enquire about that. Done the right way, you keep certain aspects of your current job (like a pay basement) if you “transfer”.

    There are tons of FSOs who in former lives were university or HS teachers, lawyers, cops, military, executives in private companies, doctors and nurses.

  3. I think the new movie about FSO being in the forefront of the fight on terror will help here. Of course, not everyone will like “Full dinner jacket”.

  4. DC Loser says:

    John, thanks for the info. I can retire at 55 so they can get at least 10 years out of me 🙂

  5. Tirumph says:

    In my 25-year career, I had one “non-hardship” assignment, to London

    Considering the notorious nature of British cuisine, I would hesitate to describe an assignment to London as “non-hardship”!

  6. DC Loser says:

    Yeah, but they make it up in the ales and lagers.

  7. John Burgess says:

    Actually, I think British beers and ales are overrated. Just not to my taste, I guess. A stellar exception, though, is McCaffrey’s Ale, out of N. Ireland. Man, I wish I could have gotten to be the US licensee for that…

    But I was lucky to be in the UK when I was–’94-’98–because good food was becoming important once again. There were a slew of top chefs who were updating traditional British foods to make them not only more appealing, but actually very delicious!

    And as far as “comfort food” goes, the Brits win that one almost with leaving the starting blocks. Okay, some of the stuff was approaching the “heart attack on a plate” level (e.g. “Full Breakfast”) but that’s the kind of food I like anyway.

    I do admit that some things were just too bland and unimaginative, but I was somewhat inured to that as my mother’s family was Irish! That’s a notable step down from British cuisine, though I hasten to add that the Irish, too, have upped their game.

  8. DC Loser says:

    On my TDYs to London I always look forward to good Chinese at Queensway and curry at Brick Lane. Food in England has changed a lot and it’s very international in its offering now.

  9. John Burgess says:

    True… the most popular food in the UK now is, in fact, curry. And not just at Indian restaurants, either. You can get curried “crisps” (potato chips), baked potato with some curry munge on top, curried just about any old thing.

    I do question the sanity and taste of those who go for prawn flavored crisps, or roasted chicken, or lager. But whatever. It just gets really weird (to me) when you can also buy condoms with the same flavors out of vending machines in the lobbies of movie theaters! (I had to try to explain what that was all about to my then 10-y/o son… thanks, you guys.)

  10. RM says:

    The state department has a really different view on hardship assignments than the military.

    Example: Bangkok Thailand was a state
    department “hardship” assignment when I was assigned to the embassy there with the military in the 1980s.

  11. DC Loser says:

    I can handle that hardship 🙂

  12. John Burgess says:

    I’m certainly not going to get into a pissing match over how State and DOD differentially define “hardship”. But it’s somewhat apples and oranges.

    DOD tends to base their ratings on dangers to the typical GI. State bases theirs on the total environment for a family, over a three- or four-year period. That includes health, social issues, political stability, crime, education, etc.

    I lived in Bangkok for three years in the mid-60s. It absolutely was not a hardship for an single 18-y/o male! Okay, maybe you got more than the median dose of certain antibiotics, but it wasn’t really hard to manage well, particularly if you could accommodate your lifestyle demands to what the local economy provided. I lived in a Thai house, no AC, sometimes electricity, sometimes flooding klongs, sometimes cobras or kraits under the front stairs. Military have to face those conditions at times, but it’s usually when their in the field. Military and dependents, when deployed overseas, generally walk into a turn-key environment. Many never leave the base once they get there. That’s not an option open to FSOs.

    Today, Bangkok is one of the really high crime areas (like the Philippines), where robbery and housebreaking are almost daily events. Violent rapes and drugs are serious issues as well. It’s also one of the most polluted cities in the world, unfortunately. And you don’t know what a traffic jam is until you’ve sat in a gridlock for eight hours just trying to get downtown, every time you try to get downtown.

    BKK gets a “hardship” rating mostly due to the crime and violence and the pollution.

    Saudi Arabia is a “greater hardship” post. But health and health care are non-issues. Food is abundant and cheap; no theft, no rapes, no burglary either. The social environment for women and families, however, make it barely tolerable, without even the possibility of going out and getting drunk to ease the misery. Terrorism threats, since 05/03, have made it very difficult to get officers assigned. No dependents are allowed at all. No one can leave the Diplomatic Quarter except in armored vehicles. You go grocery shopping en masse, to which ever market is deemed safe today. You can’t get unfiltered internet, except in the officer, where Uncle filters it.

    Danger pay (the equivalent to military combat pay) kicks in and out depending on just what’s going on over the past couple of months.

    Little stuff? Compared to being shot at, I guess. But a miserable life is still a miserable life. FSOs, unlike their private sector counterparts, don’t get any tax advantages (like out-of-country deductions). Depending on their state of residence, they may be paying state and local taxes while they’re abroad, too.

    They don’t have a right to use military medical facilities unless there’s a specific agreement or special arrangement is made, and DOD doctors are among the top in the world. FSOs usually get commisary and FPO/APO privileges, but not always. Whenever possible, avoiding the use of the diplomatic pouch for your mail is highly advisable. It won’t take insured shipments; it won’t take registered mail; stuff gets broken without recourse; stuff gets really, really lost. (I recall two dozen bags intended for Manama being found sitting on the tarmac in Panama, ‘cuz nobody knew what to do with them. Eight months later.

    But as I said, it’s mostly apples and oranges.

  13. DC Loser says:

    John, I happen to occasionally read the blog of a FSO who is on his second assignment in Taipei (first was in Chennai, India). From what I’ve read, his life, thus far, hardly qualifies as hardship. You can find this at

  14. John Burgess says:

    “Prince Roy” is very amusing. And useful, too. I wish State would encourage–rather than threaten to fire–officers who blog.

    Chennai is definitely a hardship post; Taipei is not.

    But there’s another thing about hardship posts: what’s hard for me might not be hard for you.

    The hardships of NEA posts, of SE Asia, of Eastern Europe, just don’t bother me that much. They do take getting used to and they do require trade-offs. In most NEA cities (at least until recently) you were safer on the streets after midnight than in any major US city. Violent crime and burglary were practically non-existent. That’s changed, unfortunately. In return, you put up with sub-standard public health in most places. You put up with limited Western social/entertainment activities. You went to a lot of “openings” for crap art exhibits. You lived with rationed water and electricity. All those can be done, if you want to put up with it.

    But the hardships of sub-Saharan Africa and S. Asia are real hardships to me. I just really, really, don’t like having to deal with cities with bonebreaking poverty, with 6-year-old prostitutes approaching you on the street, with lepers tugging at your sleeve for a handout.

    I realize that this is more about me than about the particular country, but I’m okay with that. There are just some things I’d rather avoid and I’ll avoid them if I can. I ended up in New Delhi (one of my least favorite places on earth) because that’s where I was asked to go. The job was a good one, the work important and challenging. Out of the office life was less than I’d have prefered. But it all ended on 9/12/01 anyway, when I got reassigned to Riyadh.

  15. Prince Roy says:

    As Georgie Jessel once famously remarked, ‘thanks for getting my name in the papers’. Well, in my own defense, I’ve never claimed my life is a hardship, though as John points out, Chennai is definitely a hardship in several ways, not ‘people shooting at you’ hardship, but a hardship nonetheless.

    Taiwan is certainly no hardship, but I think here the Department is utilizing my linguistic abilities. It costs the Department well over 200K to train someone to just a basic proficiency level in Chinese. Myself, I’d much rather be in the Mainland, but that is a topic for another time.

    There are several of us ‘diplobloggers’ now, and to my knowledge the Department has not threatened any of us. I know a couple of anonymous FS-themed blogs that ceased production (at least they claimed to be FS), but those guys were treading in dangerous waters: very partisan, very political, and commenting on matters of foreign policy.

  16. Great post! You covered how and why this impacts FSOs and their families quite thoroughly.

    I’ve linked to you here:

  17. John Burgess says:

    Prince Roy: Glad to hear that the Dept. isn’t quite so allergic to blogging these days. Post Riyadh, I tried to get them to see the wisdom of having the JOs they were sending to Iraq writing blogs about what they were doing on a day-to-day basis. Even suggested a group blog with some level of editorial supervision to ensure that private piques didn’t get in the way of the story. I believed then–and believe now–that this would have presented a much richer story of the realities on the ground than the major media was reporting. Also more truthful (through its wider and deeper perspective). It would have given some good PR to the Dept., too. That’s something it needs.

    When they said, “No,” I decided it was time to leave and do my own PD at Crossroads Arabia.