The Foreign Service isn’t a normal, 9-5 occupation, where one can check out after leaving the office each day. The benefits outweigh the negatives for most, but almost every Foreign Service Officer (FSO) faces moments when they’re forced to decide if they want to prioritize their career at the expense of their personal life.
Most who want to become an Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission at an overseas post or high ranking officer in Washington, end up having to do damage control on the family side at one time or another as they pursue their careers. Others who are content to muddle through and pick up a steady paycheck can sometimes, but not always, keep the after hours duties to a minimum.
I faced my first real career crossroads in the Foreign Service several years ago as the State Department’s Desk Officer for Chad & The Central African Republic, when Chadian rebels rudely staged a coup attempt just as I was about to leave Washington for a well deserved vacation in Sicily with my wife, Jen.Coup attempts in Chad are about as predictable as a “Love Boat” episode, so I wasn’t immediately panicked when I heard the news from Kathleen, our political officer in N’Djamena early one morning, less than 48 hours before our departure for Sicily. But my boss, whom I’ll call Cleopatra, just for fun, acted like the love of her life had just told her she was a one-night-stand when I reminded her of my impending trip later that day.
“You’re not going to Sicily,” she commanded. “Humpty Dumpty’s about to fall and I need you here.”
It should be said here that my boss had an unhealthy obsession with Chad’s President, Idriss Deby. Cleopatra was responsible for overseeing well over a dozen countries in Africa, but she was fixated on Chad. President Deby’s rule was more or less a model for bad governance, so she was right to hope that he’d go, but my view was a bit more nuanced.
There are plenty of heavy hitters in and out of government in Washington who believe that, as the world’s lone superpower, the United States can influence and direct developments in every corner of the globe. I don’t subscribe to that theory and I think that we get ourselves in trouble too often by meddling in the affairs of other countries. I agreed that Deby needed to go, but felt that it was up to the Chadians, and not us, to find a way to get rid of him.
I promised Cleopatra that I’d look into postponing my trip but made no promises, as I knew that it would be complicated and possibly expensive. Also, the situation in Chad was so unstable that there was no real way to safely reschedule the trip, since we had no idea when or if the situation would stabilize.
I looked into changing our airline tickets and hotel reservations but discovered that it would cost a bundle to change the airline tickets and some of the hotel reservations couldn’t be cancelled with so little notice. My wife thought that there was no way in hell we should cancel the trip and I agreed, though I dreaded telling Cleopatra the following day.
To pre-empt her concerns, I found a veteran Chad expert from S/CRS, the State Department’s Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction who had recently made trips to Chad and was well versed on the situation to cover for me. She was eager to get a taste for the work of a desk officer – which is kind of like being a middleman who coordinates policy between Washington and the post – and her boss graciously allowed her to assume my role while I’d be gone.
Cleopatra had an unhealthy habit of screaming my name out when she wanted to speak to me, rather than picking up her telephone and calling me, and, after I heard her yell out, “DAVVVVVVVVID!” for the first time on my last day before the trip, I knew it was time to break the news to her.
I told her about the replacement and promised that I’d check in every day via email in case any issues arose, but still, she pouted and acted like a jilted lover. In the span of 24 hours, I’d gone from being her favorite person in the office to a pariah.
After the uncomfortable conversation was over, I went back to my tiny little windowless office and took stock of the situation. I felt bad about proceeding with the trip, but knew that the situation in Chad was going to proceed apace no matter where I was. We had a fully functional embassy in Chad and I was leaving them with a more than competent replacement.
The preceding year had been the worst of my life, as I had spent months struggling with a serious illness that was hard to diagnose. I had been looking forward to visiting Sicily because I wanted to trace my ancestry and because I needed a break.
I decided to go on the trip, but in order to please Cleopatra, I brought my suitcase in to work and planned to work up until the time I needed to head to Dulles for my flight that evening. I spent the afternoon with my replacement and when it came time to leave the office at the end of the day, I ducked into Cleopatra’s office to say goodbye.
“You aren’t really going are you?” she asked, despite the fact that I was carrying a rolling suitcase.
I reminded her that I’d be checking in every day via email but she just sat at her desk, looking at me in disbelief. She asked me to draft a paper about one of the rebel leaders whom we knew nothing about and looked inconsolable when I told her I had a flight to catch. She was single with no kids and I wondered if there was anything in the world she cared about other than her job.
“Cleopatra,” I said. “This is just another false alarm in Chad. Believe me, Deby’s still going to be in office long after you and I aren’t working here any more.”
History proved me to be correct. That coup attempt and others fizzled and Deby is still in office, longer after both Cleopatra and I left the State Department. But my relationship with my boss was never the same and my next evaluation from her was good but not great. (And in the Foreign Service, only complete reprobates get bad evaluations, so good, not great ones don’t take you very far.)
My wife and I had a great time in Sicily, though, hitchhiking to the villages my grandparents came from, enjoying the food and wine as though it was our job, and trying hard to forget about Chad and Cleo, despite daily missives from her to my gmail account. When I was asked to choose between travel and work, I chose travel, but I don’t think many other FSO’s would have done the same.