Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan…

November has been a surreal and packed month, and as it winds down, I’m reflecting on some of its twists and turns.

At the beginning of the month, our embassy had a visit from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon. Ambassador Shannon was extremely busy during his limited time in Tashkent, but a group of first and second tour (FAST) officers enjoyed a delicious traditional Uzbek lunch and conversation with him at Tashkent’s new Hyatt Regency hotel.

I was the site officer, and had the duty of organizing the menu and logistics. It was that duty that found me the night before tucking name tents into metal card holders, and fretting about everything from parking to food temperature.

Staking out the Hyatt prior to the event and doing my advance walk-throughs brought back fond reminders of my years as a logistics officer and a special assistant; me pacing or lurking in stairways, doorways, and hallways holding multiple phones and a leather pendaflex stopped surprising anyone years ago.

The Under Secretary is currently the top career diplomat in the State Department. Career Foreign Service Officers at high levels in the Department play a special role during transitions between presidential administrations. They provide institutional know-how, recommendations on priorities, and continuity of operations as the political appointees from the outgoing administration are replaced by the incoming administration’s picks.  Since Ambassador Shannon joined the Foreign Service in the 1980s, he has seen his share of presidential transitions.

Our lunch occurred the weekend before the U.S. election, so we didn’t yet know its outcome. However, it was still a good opportunity for us to hear his perspective on how a transition of presidential administration affects work at posts, and to capitalize on the chance to hear career advice from someone so accomplished.  One of the things he said that resonated with me was a reminder that when you’re bidding, always pursue work that is interesting to you, rather than a pre-planned and rigid career trajectory. Great advice that I will keep in mind when I go into mid-level bidding in 2018.

A few days later, the U.S. election happened. Tashkent is ten hours ahead of Washington, DC at this time of year, and thirteen hours ahead of the west coast, so I was already on the non-immigrant visa line the next morning as the popular vote and electoral college returns were coming in. Like everyone else, I stared at the live cable news coverage, read the flood of social media posts, and reflected on the deep divisions in our society with sadness and disbelief. My own family, friends, and colleagues have been (and remain) very split on the candidates, and the issues.

As a U.S. diplomat, I’ve gone to some lengths to avoid making statements of a political nature, even privately, that could be conflated with (or in conflict to) U.S. policy, current or future. I know that many of my colleagues feel differently, as evidenced by the unrestrained statements made on public blogs and across social media. I don’t think the Hatch Act expressly prohibits this. However, I have to do what’s comfortable for me. That generally means caution: quietly reflecting, considering my obligations under the Hatch Act and familiarizing myself with the proper dissent procedures within the State Department, planning for my next tour in which I will be a political reporting officer (which includes giving policy démarches), waiting for the next administration to pick its cabinet including Secretary of State, and just generally occupying myself with the day to day tasks of applying immigration law to my work. Also: I am cognizant of the fact that any analysis or commentary I could provide on the subject would be vastly inelegant and inferior to what has already been said and what will be said.

I want to emphasize one point, though. When I joined the Foreign Service, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of my office. I swore that same oath as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and as a federal employee at two different agencies before I came to the State Department. It brought me to the edge of tears each time I said the words.

I have been upholding that oath, which I have taken five times, and have already served more than 11 years under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. I will continue to serve and offer my best work no matter who is president, because as a career diplomat (rather than a political appointee), my personal and professional commitment to public service supersedes politics. I also think that now more than ever, we need to find better ways to show the world what being in a participatory democracy truly means. Elevating the level of discourse and extending understanding to people who think differently than you is a good start. It’s a key tenet of diplomacy, too.

Meanwhile during November, my husband and I also celebrated dinners at home and out with our colleagues and friends…

…saw the Uzbekistan National Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 at Turkiston Palace…

…and attended the 241st annual United States Marine Corps birthday ball!

So many props to my hair stylist, Ruslan!

This month our embassy also welcomed a visit from Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs (PDAS) William E. Todd.

Additionally, I took not one, not two, but THREE trips: one to Khiva, in the western part of Uzbekistan; another impromptu trip to Bangkok, Thailand; and a third across the land border to Kazakhstan, and I’ll talk about those adventures in my upcoming posts. No wonder this month went so fast!

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Sarah W Gaer

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