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May 2009

Foreign Service benefits for gay partners

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will soon announce that the partners of gay U.S. diplomats are eligible for many benefits currently denied them and allowed to spouses of heterosexual diplomats, according to lawmakers and others advocating the change.

The Bush administration had resisted efforts to treat same-sex partners the same as spouses. Thus those partners were denied a wide array of benefits, such as paid travel to and from overseas posts, shipments of household effects, visas and diplomatic passports, emergency travel to visit ill or injured partners, and evacuation in case of a security emergency or medical necessity.

Those benefits will be extended to all unmarried domestic partners -- both same-sex and heterosexual -- under the policy shift to be announced by Clinton in the coming days, according to a draft memo prepared for Clinton's signature. The draft was provided to The Washington Post by an official with the organization Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies.

Click here to read the full story

State Department's language deficiencies


By Ken Dilanian, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Complicating the Obama administration's plan to ramp up civilian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the State Department employs just 18 foreign service officers who can speak the language of the region where the Taliban insurgency rages, according to records and interviews.

Two of them work in Afghanistan, both in the capital,


, according to the State Department's Bureau of Human Resources. Five are in

Peshawar, Pakistan


"It's a grim illustration of two problems," said

Ronald Neumann

, a veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. "First, there is no money, and second, there are no people."

The Pashto language is the main tongue of the mountainous Pashtun region that straddles the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda recruit and operate. Afghan President

Hamid Karzai

is among the estimated 35 million Pashtuns in both countries.

The State Department has long failed to meet its language needs. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that nearly 30% of State Department employees based overseas in "language-designated positions" could not speak and write the local language well enough to meet basic requirements.

The language deficit is one reason the

United States

has turned to contractors to deliver foreign aid, a practice that Secretary of State

Hillary Rodham Clinton

says she wants to curb.


is asking for billions in the coming budget to hire 1,226 additional diplomats, but it will take time to train them.

After the

9/11 terrorist attacks

, the U.S. military and the State Department boosted their training in Afghan languages, but the military commands vastly more resources. Seven years into the Afghanistan war, the

Defense Department

says it has trained 200 people in Pashto and 300 in Dari, the primary language of the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

The California-based Defense Language Institute has given 10,000 people some basic exposure to Pashto through mobile training units, spokesman Brian


said. The Defense Department gave a half-million-dollar grant to


University to train ROTC candidates in Pashto.

The State Department's efforts have been more modest. In addition to the 18 foreign service officers who are proficient in Pashto, 82 speak Dari, State's Bureau of Human Resources said in an e-mail. It said 20 Dari speakers are in Afghanistan.

Those figures will improve, said Ruth Whiteside, who directs State's Foreign Service Institute, which is training 13 diplomats in Pashto and 37 in Dari. A larger 2010 budget will expand those numbers, she said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, responsible for billions of dollars in aid programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was unable to say, despite repeated requests, how many of its employees speak Afghan languages.

In addition to the ROTC program, Indiana University trains military members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are an integral part of the Afghan counterinsurgency, said Paul Foster, who runs the program. The teams include State Department and USAID personnel, but "those people have never come to us," he said.

We're famous in Germany

Picture 1

The Two Crabs are famous in Germany, Switzerland and Austria! A photo that Mr. Crab shot of Mrs. Crab floating on the Dead Sea will be featured in a two-year German-language print and online campaign for the Israeli and Jordanian tourism ministries. For the record, this photo was taken on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. The mountains in the background are on the Palestinian West Bank.

Greetings from the Big Apple

The New York Times, originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

Mr. Crab is back from a long weekend trip to New York City, where I traipsed around Manhattan, drank at the historic McSorley's pub and caught a Yankees game at their new stadium (they beat the Twins). Nice stadium but, sorry, I'm still not a Yankees fan!

Lonely Planet IRAQ!

Picture 2  I am pleased to announce that my Lonely Planet travel guide to IRAQ is going on sale today. This is the first real travel guide to Iraq in nearly 20 years!  It's part of the Lonely Planet Middle East guidebook (6th edition, May 2009).  My chapter covers the entire country but is particularly focused on Iraqi Kurdistan -- the safe, peaceful, pro-American northern provinces known as "The Other Iraq."

Inside you'll find detailed guides to Kurdish regions of Zahko, Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, Lalish, The Hamilton Road, Amadiya, Halabja and beyond, instructions for getting into and out of Iraq safely, information on history, culture, food, transportation, and much much more!

Please click here to purchase this book from!  It's currently listed on the website as "not yet available" but it should be shipping any minute now. 

The road to the Foreign Service, update #3

From Mr. Crab:  Last week, I completed my State Dept. medical clearance in Washington. I received a Class 1 medical clearance, which means I can now serve anywhere in the world. Lucky me. Kazakhstan, here I come!  :o)

Meanwhile, my State security background check is now well underway. I had my first interview with a security agent on Sunday, Mother's Day. We spent 3 hours talking about every little facet of my past life. Now it sitting here in "hurry up & wait" mode. 

A recap of my FS history to date:

12/2007: Took and passed the FSOT (without studying!)
4/2008: Passed QEP
6/2008: Flunked FSOA with 5.0 score
11/2008: Retook FSOT (studied for two weeks). Passed again.
2/2009: Passed QEP
4/15: Passed FSOA with a score of 5.40
5/1: Veterans bonus points added to OA score. New score 5.575
5/5: First medical exam at State Medical Clinic in Washington
5/7: Second medical exam. Class 1 Medical Clearance issued
5/10: First DSS interview.

So far, none of my references have been contacted. Updates to follow! 

Incidentally, based on the questions asked, the biggest security concern seems to be financial history. You are considered a major security risk if you have bankruptcy, bad credit, debt, unpaid student loans, unpaid child support, unpaid taxes, etc. Bad credit is considered way more serious offense than past youthful indiscretions like, say, toking up in college or underage drinking. If your credit history is a mess, start repairing it now! 

Foreign Service grows again!

State_Department_Seal  WASHINGTON (AP) --President Barack Obama's proposed foreign affairs budget calls for a massive hiring drive at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to staff a dramatic shift from military to civilian operations abroad.

The spending plan submitted to Congress on Friday calls for adding 1,226 new foreign and civil service diplomatic positions at the two agencies in the budget year that starts in October. It projects a 25 percent boost in the total number of foreign service officers by 2013 and doubling the number at USAID by 2012.

There are currently 6,600 foreign service officers at the State Department and another 1,000 at USAID.

"Smart power starts with people," said Jacob Lew, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources who detailed the specifics of the $53.9 billion budget proposal for reporters on Friday. "We want to be able to pursue the policies that we're calling smart power and we don't have the troops to do it without this buildup."

The budget puts the Obama administration on track to double America's foreign aid by 2015 and Lew and other senior officials said neither the State Department nor USAID now has the manpower to handle that.

"We find ourselves today with simply not the resources that you need to have the foreign policy program that we want and need to have," said Lew. "We want to have the capacity to put resources in the field."

Personal postscript:

So how hard is it to become a Foreign Service Officer? A couple of recent statistics, based on the 2009 first quarter testing cycle: only 40% of test-takers pass the first hurdle, the Foreign Service Officers Test, better known as the Written Exam.  That number is cut in half during the second phase, the Qualifications Evaluation Panel, or QEP.  Finally comes the OA, which currently also with a 40% pass rate. It should be noted that the pass rate has improved significantly from previous years. In 2009, the State Department plans to hire 750 new FSOs, more than double the rate for 2008. Source: Diplomat in Residence OA prep course, April 2009.).

Contrary to popular belief, there is no educational or foreign experience required to join the Foreign Service. On my OA day, the 11 people in my test group had a variety of backgrounds. Some had PHDs, Masters and law degrees. Other people had never set foot beyond Mexico or Canada. Some were in their early 20s, others in early 40s. The average age was probably 30. For my own background: I am 38, a career journalist with 17 years of professional experience. I am a US Army veteran. I have lived in London for the past four years, and have worked or traveled in 53 countries. I am a first-generation Mexican-American and speak fluent Spanish. My formal education is limited to a BA degree in Communications.

Mr. Crab's Two Cents on Passing the FSOA

(Note & update: This is a shorter and less technical version of my full recap I originally posted on the Yahoo FSOA group. After passing the OA on 4/14/09, it took six months to receive my security clearance and a few additional weeks of waiting for placement on the Consular register. In January 2010, I received and accepted an invitation to the 152nd A-100 class, beginning in late March 2010).

Departmentseal2  On 14 April 2009 -- after two and a half years of testing, trying and re-testing -- I finally passed final hurdle of the US Foreign Service Exam: the dreaded Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), or OA for short.  The OA is part role-playing exercise, part job interview...and part psychological battery thrown in for good measure. This was, without a doubt, the hardest and most grueling test I have ever taken. I would rather go through Army basic training course again than retake the OA. It's a mind game for sure!

Since posting my original recap, a few folks have written me asking for tips & suggestions. So here's my two cents on passing the FSOA:

1. Everything you need to know to pass the OA is in the State Department's "Letter from the Director of Board of Examiners." Download it, read it, re-read it, digest it, memorize it. It tells you EXACTLY how to pass, from the play-by-play schedule of the OA to the basis for scoring - the infamous 13 Dimensions. Now all you need to do is put it into practice.

2. Join a kick-ass study group. I was a member of two Skype study groups and organized an in-person study group with other expats in London. In the month before my test, my main Skype study group probably met online 3 or 4 times a week, mainly going over SI questions. For GE practice, nothing beats an in-person study group.

3. Memorize the 13 Dimensions. Live them. Breath them. Eat them. Dream them. Apply them and recognize them in your everyday life. That said, don't let them overwhelm or consume you; you are not going to be asked to define the dimensions. But whenever you speak during the OA, bear in mind what dimension you are expressing.

4. For each of the 13 Ds, come up with several good stories from your past for each dimension. Ask your friends, family and coworkers if they have story suggestions. Some of my best stories came from third parties. Memorize your stories forward and backward. For the Situational Interview (SI) subsections of Experience & Motivation (E&M) and Past Behavior (PB), I came up with six "super stories" that fit multiple dimensions, and 3 or 4 secondary stories that only fit one or two other dimensions. I began by typing my stories, then reading them over and over to my Skype study group, family and friends. Most importantly, each of my stories was flexible enough that I could reword it slightly to fit the question. (I spent most of my time studying for the SI because, IMHO, the SI is the only portion of the FSOA in which you are almost completely in control).

5. Join the Yahoo FSOA group.  Chances are, your question has been answered there before; the search tool is your friend!  That said, treat everything on there with suspicion; there's a lot of rumor-mongering, speculation and flat-out wrong information.

6. The best book I recommend is "Career Diplomacy" by Kopp & Gillespie. I probably read that book three times cover to cover. Check out the companion website,  I also bought "Getting to Yes" for the GE and "The Case Study Handbook" for the CM, but only skimmed the latter two books.

7. For the Case Management (CM), remember that you are writing a government memo. This is not the time to demonstrate your creative writing or journalism skills. I'm a career journalist, so at my first OA I wrote a full two-page memo that read like a Pulitzer Prize-winning news-feature story. I flunked, badly. At my second OA, my CM memo was clear, succinct, only 1.3 pages long, just the facts ma'am in a rather dry and boring government tone and style. I passed. 

8. During the OA, listen and read all instructions carefully. If you're not sure, ask for clarification. You would not believe how many people flunk a section simply because they failed to read or listen to instructions. This is especially important on the CM. The CM instructions will tell you exactly what they want in your memo. 

9.  Wear a suit, even if you're not a suit person. If you've never worn a suit, go buy or borrow one. Men, wear a dark suit with a crisp new white shirt and new tie; that 5-year-old tie in the back of your closet is probably out of style. Shine your shoes. Women have a lot more fashion choices, i.e. pant-suit vs. skirt suit, hair down vs. hair up, heels vs. flats, etc.  Use common sense. Remember, Washington is a very conservative dress town. What flies in NYC, LA or even US Embassy Baghdad won't necessarily fly in DC.  

10. Above all, HAVE FUN!  I love board and card games, so I went into the OA with the mindset that this was going to be an all-day game...only with a much bigger prize for the winners than just collecting $200 after passing Go. 

Best of luck!