In this fictionalized account of real incidents, a retired FSO recounts his well-meaning but futile attempts to influence Washington’s decision-making on personnel matters. In this story, the names and some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, and the writer!
by Larry Lesser
As Deputy Chief of Mission of the American Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the mid-’80s, one of my responsibilities was to act as mentor for the several untenured junior officers assigned to the embassy. It was one of my favorite duties. Every couple of months I invited the four or five of them for dinner, prepared and served by my capable cook and cook’s assistant at the spacious home the government provided for me. Maybe invite another experienced embassy officer to participate in the discussion of the concerns junior officers have in the early stages of what they hope will be a long and rewarding career in diplomacy. In between these dinners I met with each junior officer one-on-one to hear their concerns and to dispense good advice about how to do the work and manage their Foreign Service careers.
One of the junior officers – Arabella Montanez by name – was in the embassy’s political section. Her basic portfolio was the civilian political parties. At that time Bangladesh had a military-led government; representative institutions and elections had been suspended, but the political parties were allowed to function and were pretty active and pressing for the army to return to the barracks and restore legitimate civilian rule. Arabella’s supervisor was Jon Gibson; his background was in political-military affairs, and he covered the military element of the national government and foreign relations. A mid-level officer named Alicia Miller handled the rest of the political reporting and representation work: labor unions, academia, religious leaders, youth…
Arabella Montanez was charismatic. She wasn’t physically imposing or beautiful – good-looking but not glamorous: she gave off a sense of tremendous positive energy. She had a radiant smile and a resonant voice. She looked people straight in the eye. She was single. Although I generally avoid ethnic stereotypes, I must note that people said Arabella had a fiery Latin temperament. Bangladeshi politicians and bureaucrats were drawn to her. She had become more fluent in Bengali than anyone else in the embassy. She dressed distinctively, wearing flouncy skirts in bold colors. She had a hearty and distinctive laugh in a low register and an irreverent style. When she entered a room people turned to look at her, and they smiled, glad to see that she was there. I observed it myself; Bangladeshi men gathered around her and joked with her and among themselves in her presence.
And not only men. Both of the major political parties (in the wilderness under the military government) were headed by women, and Arabella became friends with both of them. The two women had inherited their parties’ leadership after one’s father and the other’s husband had been assassinated. That is a gruesome fact about the history and politics of Bangladesh: seventh or eighth most populous country in the world (though only the size of Wisconsin) and one of the world’s ‘largest poorest’ countries. This low-lying riverine country had a history of almost unremitting conflict and sorrow.
The two female political party leaders did not get along with one another (to put it mildly), and in varying degrees they were both also suspicious of the United States and relatively inaccessible to our diplomatic representatives. But it was important that the embassy do what it could to establish and maintain a good relationship with them, considering their prominent positions in Bangladeshi society. (Each of them later became prime minister after the country returned to civilian rule.)
Because she was junior in rank Arabella couldn’t call on the party leaders herself, but when she encountered one of them (the two party leaders rarely attended the same event) on social occasions around Dhaka they gravitated to her. Either of them might guide Arabella to a corner of the room, where they would engage in animated conversation, punctuated by Arabella’s low-pitched resonant laughter.
Whenever Frank Bass, our ambassador, succeeded in setting up a meeting with one of the lady party leaders, he would have Arabella join him “as note-taker,” knowing that Arabella’s presence would lubricate the conversation and increase the degree of candor, leading to much more interesting reportage back to the State Department. Arabella performed admirably in developing Bangladeshi political contacts (that puts it crassly, but it’s how we professional diplomats talk), and Ambassador Bass burnished his own credentials by using Arabella’s representational skills effectively: a win-win proposition.
Our embassy earned a reputation for fine reporting. Ambassador Bass was a consummate reporting officer himself, and the embassy had excellent contacts practically everywhere in Bangladeshi government and society. We were no doubt assisted by the penchant of important and self-important Bangladeshis to cultivate relationships with American diplomats and make themselves all the more valued contacts by telling everything they knew … and more. It’s a pity that Bangladesh wasn’t more important strategically since we had access to practically every significant and insignificant development and tendency in the country simply by letting the Bangladeshis talk. They asked little or nothing in return. Occasionally a cosmopolitan Bangladeshi might joke that he looked forward to the day when Bangladesh would become the 51st state. Frankly it was delightful to be an American diplomat in Dhaka in those days … although not, apparently, for Arabella Montanez, as I came to learn.
In my own mentoring meetings with Arabella we talked primarily about career issues. She was well situated in a high-profile political reporting slot in Embassy Dhaka, but she faced a career problem. Arabella had entered the Foreign Service not as a political officer but as a consular officer; in Foreign Service parlance she was in the consular ‘cone’. Consular officers could be assigned to political slots, and vice versa, but for the long term their job would be issuing visas for foreigners who wanted to go to the U.S. and providing services for ordinary American citizens living or traveling abroad. They would compete for promotions against others who were doing that sort of work. There was a process for considering applications to change cone – Foreign Service wags called it ‘conal rectification’ – but very few transfers into the political cone were approved, because that was the most prestigious cone and there were always too many political officers and not enough qualified officers to cover administrative and consular requirements. Arabella had applied to transfer from consular to political, but the career development office back in the Department had turned her down, because the political cone was oversubscribed and the consular cone was undersubscribed. She was stuck and unhappy in her plight.
From my perspective it was clear that the good Lord intended for Arabella Montanez to be a political officer. It would be in the national interest. But large organizations like the State Department don’t always heed the good Lord or the national interest. They follow their own systems. I knew that, or should have known it, from my own experience.
When Arabella told me about her frustrated attempt to switch cones I expressed sympathy. I told her that although I was mostly a bystander I had seen enough to know that the good Lord meant for her to be a political officer, and that it would be in the national interest and in the interest of the Foreign Service. I told her I thought we’d be able to turn the decision around. We understand why the personnel system resists such a change, but if the ambassador and I help to make the case, I told her, I’m confident the central system will reconsider. I had arrived at post only recently and had worked previously in the Department’s human resources bureau and I thought I could be helpful in dealing with the internal system.
Arabella told me she had already discussed the matter with Ambassador Bass, and he had advised her to stay in the consular cone a while longer and ‘game the system’ instead of challenging it outright. Arabella understood what he meant, and she didn’t want to bang her head against a wall, but she was unhappy at the prospect of going to her next post and ‘stamping visas’ (which is the popular notion – and in many cases the reality – of what journeyman-level consular officers do) after the heady experience of befriending the political leadership of Bangladesh.
I told Arabella I’d discuss it with the ambassador and we’d figure something out. She thanked me, but I wasn’t sure she had much confidence in my judgment or my influence – with the ambassador or with the personnel system. There was a part of me that sensed that Arabella was not only a natural political officer but that she also had the not-altogether-attractive quality of snobbery about the higher prestige of political work as compared to the other Foreign Service cones. (Arabella knew that I was not a political cone officer; I was in the economic cone. I don’t think I had an inferiority complex, but I sensed that people sometimes considered me to be relatively ineffectual. And there was some evidence supporting that view. Arabella was quite a formidable and charismatic person, and I was – might as well put it out there – a little intimidated by her, even though I was nominally her mentor.)
I sat down with Ambassador Frank Bass (known behind his back as “The Bass’der”) a day or two later and brought up the question of Arabella Montanez’s effort to change cone. “Ambassador,” I said, “the good Lord intended that Arabella should be a political officer, and it’s in the national interest. The Service should do the right thing and give way and make the most effective use of this brilliant and promising young officer.”
“Let me tell you something, Stan,” the ambassador said. “She’s not that brilliant. She’s a lousy writer. I’ll grant that she’s very good at making contacts but she’s not so good at turning out political reporting. A lot of what she writes down – her drafts for reporting are no better than gossip about the goings-on in the Dhaka upper crust. I’m not sure she sees the big picture about why we ask Bangladeshis the questions we ask or what positions and attitudes we want to encourage them to take. She’s not a big-picture person. She drafts these long telegrams that throw in a lot of so-called information that’s of no conceivable interest to policy people or even to the intelligence community. Jon [her boss] or I – if Jon hasn’t fixed it up himself before it reaches me – have to do major rewriting before we can send Arabella’s reports out. So I don’t agree that she’s brilliant. I like her; I like her a lot. You know what I would do? I’d make her a public affairs officer, not a political officer or a consular officer. Public affairs would make use of her strengths as a people person. You know, Stan, she’s kind of charismatic; have you seen how the Bangladeshis – even some of the diplomats from other embassies – gravitate over to her at receptions? Female as well as male: the two party chiefs.”
“Yes, sir, I’ve noticed that myself.”
It seemed to me that Arabella’s skill at dealing with people was a rare asset for a political officer and that she could acquire better drafting and analysis skills with experience and good supervision. I told the ambassador I’d like to submit something to the career development folks in the Department in support of her application to change cones. I said it would be a pity if the Service were to lose a person as talented as she was because it tried to make her work in an area she didn’t like that wasted her strengths. The ambassador told me to go ahead and send a letter to the head of the career development office in my own name. I could say I had discussed the matter with Frank Bass but that I was making the request in my own name.
It was more or less what I had promised Arabella, but I was a little deflated by the Bass’der’s lack of enthusiasm for going to bat for a promising officer in his embassy. And of course it made me a little uneasy that he was putting it on me to make the approach to the personnel system. It might seem to people unfamiliar with the Foreign Service that Ambassador Bass was simply delegating authority to his second-in-command — that he was empowering me — but I interpreted the conclusion of our discussion as implying that I was proposing to do something unwise.
I wrote the letter right away, in time to get it into the next diplomatic pouch for delivery in Washington. I addressed it to Moses Krumpacker, the head of the career development and assignments office; I knew Ambassador Krumpacker from my previous assignment in Washington, so I could start the letter, “Dear Mo.” Krumpacker had actually been involved in my assignment to Dhaka, which had a couple of unconventional wrinkles since my personal grade was below the nominal grade of the position and, unlike most DCMs, I wasn’t a political cone officer. In my opinion, Krumpacker and I had a good professional relationship, so I thought my personal effort on behalf of Arabella Montanez would be received positively.
Letters sent through the pouch were carried by diplomatic couriers according to a fixed schedule. It would take several weeks to get a reply through the same route. (Telegrams were the standard medium for diplomatic reporting and administrative business, but a letter like mine represented only my personal view and was therefore labeled official-informal and relegated to the slow pouch.)
After I sent the letter I gave copies to Ambassador Bass and to Arabella. The ambassador told me it was fine. Arabella pretty much said the same. And we sat down together again for one of those sessions where she can talk about her career aspirations and I can pontificate. I opened the conversation by reiterating what an impressive gift she had for dealing with our contacts.
Arabella told me this time what she had not confided to me before — that she had taken this job in Bangladesh for one reason and one reason only: to engineer a switch from the consular cone to the political cone. Because Bangladesh is not considered an attractive post — compared to London or Tokyo or Rome — or a high-profile post like Moscow or Beirut, political cone officers aren’t eager to serve there and someone from another cone may be given the assignment. Arabella had calculated her best chance to switch to the political cone and requested the junior political slot in Dhaka. She had gamed the system to get this assignment. “But you know, Stan,” she said, “I’ve paid a price in terms of my health. I have never eaten a meal at a Bangladeshi home or restaurant without becoming violently ill for at least a couple of days.”
Do I believe my ears? For me one of the many pleasures of living in Bangladesh has been the food. “Arabella,” I say, “that’s terrible. It’s shocking. I had no idea.”
“The thing that’s gotten me through has been my determination to switch cones and become a political officer. I won’t let my gastro-intestinal frailty be the thing that stops me.”
(At some point in this narrative I should acknowledge that it might not be the healthiest thing in the world mentally that Arabella was so determined to be a political officer. And her determination doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as improving her qualifications. But there it was: she forced herself time and again to get out into the Bangladesh social whirl knowing that every time she ate the food it would make her sick.)
There was a short span of silence and then Arabella told me the next blockbuster revelation. “I get a lot of telephone calls from Bangladeshi politicians late at night, Stan. They tell me – I’m talking about no less than half a dozen different men – they have something they want to discuss with me and it’s confidential and they want to come over to my house immediately. Stan, it’s late when they call – eleven p.m., even after midnight. They appeal to my political officer responsibilities and they tell me they have important information that the U.S. government will be interested in. Not just politicians: a military officer with a senior position in the presidency; a high-ranking intelligence service guy. They want to come to my place late at night because, they tell me over the phone, what they’re going to tell me is too sensitive for a meeting at their offices or at our embassy in the daytime.
“But you know, Stan, they don’t have any interesting political news to tell me. They want to go to bed with me, Stan. I’m a single woman and an American and a diplomat. That’s what they want. They think I’ll do it. They’re delusional.
“When I leave this country I’ll have no regrets. Unless I’m still a consular officer, because in that case I’ll have gone through this hell for nothing.”
“Arabella, I’m so sorry,” I say. What can I say? (I’ll say this; there’s no way I myself am going to put a move on this young woman, terrific as she is, and vulnerable as she is in a certain way. Single-minded as she is, she’s not interested in me socially and it would be unethical for us to have a romantic relationship given our professional positions and responsibilities, and not to mention that I’ve been getting involved with someone else anyway. I mention these considerations because I know what goes through a reader’s mind as well as my own. That’s not where this story is going.)
“A couple of times at first I told them yes they can come over. So the guy gets to my little junior-officer house on a street where there are no other diplomats and as soon as I let him in the door, and close the door behind him, he grabs me and tells me he’s crazy about me and wants me. I have to fight the guy off, which I can do; I can take care of myself. But he’s an important embassy contact, for chris’sake. He’s embarrassed, I’m embarrassed in a way, and it’s just a lousy situation.”
It’s a great privilege to hear this kind of thing from a talented young woman. I don’t think she’s romantically involved with anyone in Dhaka, and it must be tough for her in such an exotic culture far from home. Arabella could handle it because she’s on a mission to establish a particular direction for her career and she can gird her loins for two years to accomplish it. But then she has to cope with seducers and potential rapists, which wouldn’t be the case if she were a man.
“A couple of times, one of these creeps has come to the house late at night without calling in advance, and knocked on the door to be let in so he can give me some juicy political gossip. I didn’t let him in. I thought about it, but I didn’t. He is an A-list embassy contact. He pleads with me from the other side of the door to let him in so he can give me valuable information. I was suffering from G.I. problems and worried about meeting a deadline for a big report the next day and I just found out that my cook-housekeeper was entertaining male visitors when I was away on R&R last month, and now I’ve got this important Bangladeshi politician wanting to be let into my house. I know why he’s there but there’s still a part of me that says maybe he also has information like he says and I wonder could I get the information and not have to fight off his advances. But I’d be kidding myself. I’ll do a lot to be a great political officer but this guy is behaving contemptibly and I won’t stand for it. I don’t let him in. And by the way, Stan, there are no repercussions; partly there’s not much he can do about it except maybe be uncooperative with me in the future. And I didn’t tell anyone in the embassy about it until now. And I’m hoping you won’t tell anyone either.”
“No, I’ll keep it to myself. Well, Arabella, let’s just hope the personnel system recognizes that you’re going to be a helluva political officer and lets you do it. It’ll be in the national interest.”
Around that time Alicia Miller asked me for advice. Alicia was the mid-level officer in the embassy’s three-person political section. She was a much less galvanizing person than Arabella. She worked quietly and competently under the supervision of our fine political counselor, Jon Gibson. Since Alicia was already tenured she wasn’t one of the people I normally counseled on career matters. But Alicia had heard from Arabella what I had done in Arabella’s situation (although we didn’t have a response from Washington yet) and she wondered whether I could help in her own.
Alicia’s problem was that she wanted one more overseas assignment before she would have to serve in the Department back in Washington. She was finishing up her two years in Bangladesh, and as a matter of general assignment policy it was time for her to be rotated to Washington. But she was a divorced single mom with a nine-year-old son, and it would be a hardship financially and logistically for her to go back to Washington just yet. She wanted to serve another two years at another hardship post where she could afford household help and could save some money, and then she’d be more than willing to return to Washington. There are lots of exceptions to the assignment policy, so it didn’t seem like very much to ask. But her request had been turned down and she had just been officially notified that she was to be assigned to a desk job in the Department after completing her tour of duty in Dhaka.
Could I help? Alicia knew it was not exactly a concern for Embassy Dhaka what her onward assignment would be. But she was willing to go just about anywhere in the world, especially a hardship post like the one she was leaving. She was willing to take a job that other officers eschewed. She wasn’t concerned about getting a ‘career-enhancing’ assignment.
This should be easy enough, I thought. The case is straightforward and consistent with the needs of the Service. And besides, if we went to bat for Arabella it was only fair to do the same for Alicia. And since I was the one who made the appeal in the Arabella matter, it made sense that I should be the one for this appeal as well.
I discussed the matter with Ambassador Bass and got his nominal approval. I discussed it also with political counselor Gibson and he agreed more ardently. This time I sent an official-informal telegram; it was going to the same official as the Montanez appeal – Moses Krumpacker – and it made sense to have it catch up with the other one. Besides, time was a factor because Alicia was due to depart post on home leave and transfer in just a few weeks.
Good. I saw myself as the soul of virtue in both of these matters. I had proposed compassionate solutions in both cases that fully reflected the needs of the Service and the national interest. Exactly what they pay us the big bucks for.
An official telegram came addressed to me by name – that is unusual – within a couple of days of our sending the Alicia Miller appeal: “For DCM Stanley Krantz from Director of Assignments Moses Krumpacker”. The telegram gave the system’s decisions on both appeals. It said, first, that the panel had considered Arabella Montanez’s application to change from the consular cone to the political cone and had turned it down because there were no vacancies in the political cone, and second, that the assignments panel had turned down Alicia Miller’s request for an exception to the assignment policy because there were no compelling reasons for her to serve an additional tour abroad. And the final sentence said it had not been helpful for me to question the decisions or indeed to raise the hopes of the two officers that the decisions would be reversed.
Sorry, Arabella. Sorry, Alicia.
They both handled their disappointment well. “You did your best, Stan.” The Bass’der was sympathetic too; he didn’t say I told you so.
A few months later, after both Arabella Montanez and Alicia Miller had departed Dhaka en route to their onward assignments, Embassy Dhaka was informed that it would soon be inspected by a team from the Office of Inspector General. The team leader would be Ambassador Moses Krumpacker; he had completed his assignment in the office of career development and assignments and moved to the office of inspector general. The Dhaka inspection would be his first in his new assignment.
As DCM, I was designated ‘control officer’ for the inspection team and coordinator of inspection preparations. These inspections are a big deal. There would be seven inspectors on the team, to look at every aspect of the embassy’s operations. The inspectors would be in Dhaka for two workweeks and three weekends.
The Bass’der was amused by the irony that Mo Krumpacker would be leading the inspection. He told me he was glad he had delegated the appeals of our two female political officers to me. He was glad Krumpacker had sent his sharply worded refusal to me by name.
I figured I had plenty to worry about. It’s difficult to advance your career through an inspection, but an inspection can surely damage it – and mine was on the brink of ‘involuntary retirement’ under the rigorous up-or-out competitive system that had recently gone into effect. Moreover, I had seriously miscalculated how my appeals for the two female political officers would be received, and now the guy responsible for those adverse decisions was leading the inspection of my post, where I was to be the primary point of contact for whatever they might find and for their personal arrangements.
On that latter point I had a little good luck. Mo Krumpacker liked to play golf, and so did I (and the Bass’der was not a golfer). The inspectors worked a six-day week but on the seventh day they rested; thus I went out with Krumpacker each of the three Sundays and we played the interesting and challenging Kurmitola golf course where there were water hazards on every hole. Krumpacker outplayed me badly the first round and beat me narrowly the second time, but in our third and final round together I sunk a knee-knocker four-foot putt on the final hole and had the satisfaction of beating him by a single stroke. I wasn’t playing ‘customer’ golf; I wanted to win.
Count up the hours I spent with Mo Krumpacker during those 2-plus weeks and you’d think I got to know him well. In a sense I did; a man’s character is on display when he’s playing golf. Krumpacker was methodical on the golf course. He smoked a pipe, and before every shot he placed the lit pipe on the grass behind where he would be standing. After the shot he would pick up the pipe and take a puff as he walked ahead for the next shot. He followed the same routine on the greens. But Mo Krumpacker was a very hard man to read. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say much. His facial expression and body language was practically the same whether he hit a good shot or a bad one. He had the right temperament for an inspector. He kept his eyes open and took in everything in his line of vision, but he kept his counsel. Were we making a good impression? Did our embassy come across as being well managed? Did the inspectors appreciate the special factors in conducting diplomatic business in Bangladesh? On the golf course I forbore to ask, and Mo Krumpacker did not volunteer a thing. Ambassador Bass quizzed me after each of my rounds on what I had gleaned about how the inspection was going, and I don’t think he was favorably impressed by my failure to come up with anything useful.
Not only that: in all the time that Moses Krumpacker was in Dhaka, never once did he indicate to me in any way that he and I had corresponded just a few months earlier, still less that he had turned my appeals down in brutal terms. It had bothered me that his rejection hadn’t included any politeness or consideration of circumstances. He hadn’t expressed any sympathy or understanding for the two women who were asking the system to be flexible with them nor towards me for going to bat for valued members of our embassy team. He hadn’t expressed any doubt whatsoever as to whether the Department’s cone-changing or domestic-assignment policy might be imperfect or might work hardship on individuals or might deprive the Service of deploying excellent officers in the most advantageous way for the national interest.
But none of that came up during the inspection. Neither Arabella Montanez’s nor Alicia Miller’s name was ever mentioned. Krumpacker acknowledged that he and I knew one another from Washington, but he never showed in any way that he and I had had that brief and regrettable correspondence.
Had he forgotten? Most unlikely; the man had a mind like a steel trap. No, the only explanation that made sense to me was that he was a man of iron discipline. Our exchange of official-informal correspondence took place in an earlier life, albeit just a few months earlier, when he was in a different job. It was irrelevant to his present task. He would not bring it up. And I knew better than to bring it up.
Before they left Dhaka the inspectors told the ambassador and me that they were favorably impressed by our embassy’s performance and management; their written report, issued a few months later, reflected that judgment.
Arabella Montanez soon left the Foreign Service and became a political activist and operative. She was a delegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2008 Democratic convention that nominated Barack Obama as President.
Alicia Miller stayed in the Foreign Service for many years.
Ambassador Bass retired from the Foreign Service and authored scholarly books. Ambassador Krumpacker also retired after a couple of years as an inspector.
And I also retired just a year later, having failed to get promoted in time under the new up-or-out system. I was informed that the annual selection board had recommended me for promotion to the Senior Foreign Service but there were only a few promotion opportunities and I didn’t make the cut. In the parlance of the system, I was ‘recommended but not reached’ for promotion. And it was my final year of eligibility. I could make a case that that was another example of the system not putting the national interest first but that’s a story for another occasion.
Larry Lesser, a retired FSO, served as DCM in Bangladesh and Rwanda and as deputy executive director of the Department’s NEA Bureau. Other overseas tours were in Belgium, Burkina Faso, India, and Nigeria – the latter as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since retiring he has been a re-employed annuitant, chiefly for the Office of Inspector General and as an editor of human rights reports for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). He was an appointed member of the Foreign Service Grievance Board 1997-2003, and an elected member of the American Foreign Service Association board of governors 2005-07.