Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.
Even though he is considered a good officer in general, the young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic and has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant -- let alone $2 million of taxpayers' money. He has minimal knowledge of democracy promotion, institution-building, or grant-making, but he is expected to identify suitable NGOs in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.
Despite the diplomat's obvious inexperience, he is sent to his new post in Abu Dhabi without a day of training. The State Department expects him to learn how to do his job by osmosis -- to watch colleagues, figure things out on his own, improvise, and rely on luck.
There is no need to imagine this scenario -- it actually happened in 2004 to a U.S. Foreign Service officer named Hans Wechsel. Having completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education at Montana State University, Wechsel managed restaurants in Montana and Oregon before passing the difficult written and oral Foreign Service exams in 1999. He is the first to admit that his performance in Abu Dhabi suffered from lack of training.
According to Wechsel, his superiors in Washington provided "no guidelines" beyond "vague ideas about how this was supposed to work." In fact, he got the impression that they "hadn't really figured it out themselves, because they hadn't had a regional MEPI office before." Wechsel did quite well in Abu Dhabi given the circumstances, but he wishes he had arrived there with at least some of the knowledge and experience he acquired on the job.
Why did the State Department send a diplomat without the necessary skills -- and more importantly, without any training -- to a critical posting in the most volatile region in the world on the eve of the Arab uprisings? Could the U.S. response to those uprisings have been more effective had American diplomats there been better trained?
Wechsel's experience is actually very common in the Foreign Service, if not the norm. Many officers compare it to being thrown into the deep end and having to learn how to swim. Having good mentors helps greatly, they said, but that is largely a matter of luck; there are bad as well as good bosses in the Foreign Service. For decades, the State Department has considered training "a waste of time," said Grant Green, who was undersecretary of state for management during George W. Bush's administration.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was shocked when he took office in 2001 that the "concept of professional development, particularly with respect to leadership and management," didn't exist in the Foreign Service. "There were many people in senior positions who didn't have not only leadership skills but training, either. They didn't know basic things," he told me shortly before leaving office in 2005.