by Benjamin Collinger
Angie Bryan is a Senior Foreign Service officer with nearly 25 years of global experiences representing the U.S. abroad. Her first tour was in Kuwait in 1992, followed by Damascus and Algiers. She then returned to the Department as the Staff Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs before heading to Lahore as Deputy Principal Officer. On 9/11, she was serving in Islamabad as the Afghan watcher. From Islamabad she moved to Kabul and later served as Acting Principal Officer in Peshawar before returning to Islamabad as Refugee Coordinator. She then headed to France as Principal Officer at the American Presence Post in Lyon; she also did brief stints as Acting Principal Officer in both Strasbourg and Marseille. After three years in Yemen as DCM and a tour in Stockholm as the Political-Economic Counselor, she returned to the United States in August 2014 to serve as an Assessor with the Board of Examiners. Benjamin Collinger spoke to Ms. Bryan about her career, how foreign service officers shape U.S. foreign policy and several other topics.
How did you originally decide to apply to the U.S. Foreign Service?
I had won a scholarship before I came to Trinity by the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations, the Kerr Scholarship, and I went to Jordan when I was 18 before I started college. I just fell in love with the region, the language, and had never heard of the foreign service before. I had heard of diplomats, but I would have assumed that was male, ivy league, wealthy, all of the things that it used to be, in fact. I never thought that I could have become one. When I met the ambassador that summer and people from the embassy, I realized that it was a career that I could pursue, and the thought of getting paid to live and work overseas and learn languages, I just thought that was too good to be true. In 25 years, I still think it’s too good to be true. I was lucky I knew what I wanted to do with absolute clarity before I set foot on campus at Trinity, which was not the norm.
Your first tour was in Kuwait shortly after the Gulf War. What were your initial impressions when you first started working?
In Kuwait specifically, I will say it was surreal because the Kuwaitis were so grateful to us for having liberated them. I got there right after that had happened, and I used to joke that it was the only American embassy in the world that had pro-American graffiti sprayed on it. A Kuwaiti had actually spray painted “Thank you, Bush” on the side of the embassy wall. You would go places and see photos of President Bush and the Crown Prince, and the Emir. That was very weird, you would be in the grocery store, and people would come up to you and be crying. They would say “Thank you so much, you saved us, you saved our country.” That really is the only time in my career that I’ve ever had that sort of outpouring of appreciation and gratitude for what America did for another country.
I served in France many years later, and was there for the 60th anniversary of liberation, and then we got some of that, which was interesting because at the time I was there in France, it was right as we were building up to the war in Iraq in 2003. There was a huge disconnect between France and the U.S. on the war in Iraq and we had a tough time in our foreign relations on the political side. You would get this great hostility when it came to American foreign policy, but then grown men crying and telling you how much they appreciated you when you went to these military services.
When 9/11 occurred, you were serving in Islamabad as the Afghan watcher. What did that role consist of, and how did it change after 9/11?
Before 9/11, we did not have an embassy in Afghanistan. That had been closed about 12 years earlier when our ambassador had been assassinated there. So because we had no embassy there, we needed some way to report on what was going on in Afghanistan.
Most of those figures were operating out of Pakistan, so we assigned one person in the political section in Islamabad to be what we called the Afghan watcher.
It was that person’s job to meet with all of the Afghan exiles, talk to as many NGOs as you could who were going in and out of Afghanistan, and business people and anyone you could think of who knew things about what was happening. You would also meet with as many Afghans as you could. It was a fascinating job regardless of Sept. 11. It was really interesting because you had to be very creative, it wasn’t stereotypical diplomacy.
At the time, Pakistan was also one of three countries in the world that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. I was the person who would meet with the Taliban Ambassador, because they had an actual embassy. And because the U.S. didn’t recognize them, our ambassador couldn’t meet them at that level. But we needed to know what they were saying, so we had a representative: me. I’m sure you can imagine the Taliban Ambassador really didn’t like having to meet with me. I remember one photo [of us] sitting on a sofa discussing something where he had very carefully put a Qur’an on the sofa between him and me.
There were two major changes [after Sept. 11]. One with our relationship with Pakistan: they used to be very tied to the Taliban and after Sept. 11, they had a choice to make about where they were going to stand and who they were going to stand with. They ended up choosing to work with us and we had a huge military presence in Pakistan as a result of that. Our relationship with Pakistan went from this tense, difficult, suspicious relationship to a much closer relationship where we were giving them a lot of aid money and we had a closer military relationship. That was literally overnight, that was a very hard mental switch for a lot of people to make, both on the Pakistani side and the American side. With regard to my specific job, my job went away very quickly because all of the Afghans with whom I’d been working with almost all went into Afghanistan to fight, to help out with the effort. When the fighting subsided, [they went back to] take a leadership role in the country.
One of my main contacts before Sept. 11 had been an Afghan exile named Hamid Karzai.
Our embassy in Afghanistan opened that Dec. 2001, and once it re-opened, there was very little for me to do left in Pakistan. Pretty much everyone was in Afghanistan and we had an embassy there. Then the opportunity came for me to go to Afghanistan and work out of the embassy there, so I did. I worked with all of the same people, but now they were in positions of authority rather than being exiles. It was a fascinating once in a career type of switch.
How do leadership transitions in foreign countries change the way that foreign service officers approach their jobs?
It really depends on not only the country, but what that specific leadership transition is. I’ve been in very stable ally countries where they’ve had a switch from one political party to another diametrically opposed political party, and the thing that is always the biggest challenge, is re-establishing–or establishing–the same kind of contacts with the new leadership that you had with the old leadership.
If you’re a good political officer, what you should have been doing all along is developing and maintaining contacts from across the spectrum so that no matter who takes over, you’ve got an inroads.
Realistically, some people aren’t as good at doing that and you get lazy. There could be [situations] where a party or leader takes over that has very different views of America than whoever was in charge before, but normally, it is much more about the rank and file and contacts.
What role do individual officers have in shaping policy at higher levels?
A lot more of that is happening in Washington than out in the field. The purpose of making contacts is not just that you want to gather information and know stuff–you do want to be able to inform Washington about what impact certain decisions or events could have on a country’s relationship with the U.S.–but also to help the people in that country in those leadership positions better understand the United States. When an individual officer, including up to the ambassadorial level, would really try to actively change something or make something happen, it was very hard to have an impact that way. What you could do was make sure they had the best possible information and that the folks in Washington came to you when they had questions. But a lot of the time in Washington, it really was the people, whether it was at the NSC or other high up positions in the State Department, they were the ones making the policy rather than the people out in the field. it is disappointing to some people, I had really been more interested in the interpersonal relationship part of the foreign service and helping on an individual level to help people understand how we think and why we do things in a certain way. You can, absolutely, as a foreign service officer, have an impact on policy. It’s just usually while you’re in Washington at a higher level.
How has the foreign service changed over the course of your career?
It’s not the same foreign service that I [originally joined], but it’s also not the same world. I have been impressed that the foreign service has been able to adapt, maybe not always as quickly as it should have. There’s always an old school that doesn’t quite get the new challenges. I have seen a lot of shifts that I [didn’t expect that] the foreign service could have made. A non-military one would be in the realm of social media. We used to have super strict rules about [talking to media, clearance] and then the internet happened, there were blogs and Facebook. For awhile I was afraid that they were going to crack down and try to silence people from showing that they had a personal opinion. They’ve done a good job of letting people be individuals and be able to adapt and use social media in a way that can advance foreign policy. There have been a few embassies that have done a good job engaging host countries’ leadership on Twitter and other ways.
There’s been a huge shift when it comes to gay and lesbian employees. Now, people are married and bring their partners to post and it’s just like any other relationship. We have six openly gay ambassadors, it’s been a really big adaptation. Females are not doing as well, but better [than before]. It used to be that if you got married as a Female, you would have to quit. That was as recently as 1972. There are still problems in terms of gender [equity] and in leadership but the difference now is that people talk about it. They’re doing better.
You’ve been in so many different positions over your career; what are the two that were the most different from each other?
One that was the most different out of everything I’ve done was my second time in Islamabad as the refugee coordinator, the person who runs our refugee assistance program. To this day, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in the foreign service.
Being the refugee coordinator had tangible results and you were helping real people every day.
You traveled to places that other people didn’t get to go, you visited refugee camps, you met with people who lived in refugee camps, whether they lived in refugee camps or were refugees themselves, you heard their stories, found out how these camps were run and what the NGOs were doing for them. Through monitoring and evaluating these programs that the U.S. government gives money to, you can see how much the U.S. was doing to help, but also on an individual basis to go in and help to clear out problems and help things go better. It was really one of the most rewarding jobs I had ever had. They were amazing people who were super passionate about helping refugees. I’d like to do something involving refugees when I retire.
For the other one, I would say in Lyon. It was incredibly fun in an incredible city, and I got to use skills that I’d never been able to use. I worked with American citizen services, helping American businesses to sell their products to the French, and media. Tons of speeches, constant being the face of America. You were recognized everywhere in town. It was almost like being a mini-celebrity which, again, was fun but came with a lot of challenges in figuring out how to have such a public role where you were always on and could never do anything without people recognizing you and realizing that was the American consul.
Is there anything that you wish people knew about your career?
I wish more people understood what the foreign service is. I get a lot of people who think I’m saying forestry service, they think it’s part of the military, part of the civil service, they just don’t really understand what it entails. I don’t mind explaining it, but I feel like part of the problem we run into with some of the legislation that comes from congress is that a lot of members of congress don’t necessarily think the foreign service matters because it’s not important to their constituents. Maybe they’re from a state where the constituents don’t really know anything about the foreign service, so if something comes up about funding us or something that would have a major impact on us, they’re not really thinking that [their constituents would react strongly]. Through the union, we’re trying to get a better outreach program. The State Department now has a diplomats in residence program where they have 16 positions where active duty foreign service officers are based at universities around the U.S. and spend all their time recruiting and talking about the foreign service to any group that will listen so that people understand what it is and why it’s important, as well as why we need to have actual people in other countries representing the U.S. and finding out what’s going on.
I’ve been in five terrorist attacks now, five, and I’ve had colleagues killed. I’ve had all sorts of threats against me at different points in my career, and I don’t think a lot of the American people understand that.
What did you learn during your time in college that prepared you for the field?
My political science professors hate this answer, but I stand by it. The most useful thing I did at Trinity that prepared me for this job was sorority rush. You walk into a room of people you don’t know and your goal is to meet as many of those people as possible, get to know something about them, to make them like and remember you, and then when you see them walking on campus the next day, to be able to close the loop. That was a skill that a lot of people in college don’t have but you have to learn quickly. I can’t tell you how helpful that has been in the foreign service, when I, as a junior officer felt comfortable walking around and meeting people, introducing myself, inserting myself into conversations. I saw colleagues who had never done that before and had really struggled. They didn’t understand the importance of remembering something about people, and how you could connect the next time that you saw that person. Being in a sorority, that had nothing to do with it. It was simply rush. You don’t have to join a fraternity or sorority, just go to the parties. Practice, because if being a political officer is what you want, you need to be able to work a room efficiently and successfully. It really tests your ability to remember what you learned from people.
Do you have any recommendations for students who are considering careers in international affairs?
I definitely think that internships are fantastic. Great way to get to know the different options that are out there. Let’s say you get an internship in D.C., you’re going to meet interns from organizations [all around that might interest you]. Meeting people in those kinds of jobs is great. Over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t have too much of a plan. There’s going to be all sorts of doors that open to you and opportunities that come up. You may think that’s not the direction that you want to go, but maybe it’s the direction that you need to go.
What books would you recommend that everyone should read?
I’ve always been a junkie for autobiographies and biographies, especially of strong leaders. I think that’s my favorite category of non-fiction. I know he’s been a controversial figure in some ways, but Rudy Giuliani’s book on leadership was fascinating. He talked about how although he didn’t publish the book until after Sept. 11, he did a lot of the writing beforehand. As a result, when the crisis hit, he had already crystallized a lot of those thoughts [about how to handle crises] ahead of time and they became second nature. That really stuck with me, having been through a lot of crisis situations, the importance of muscle memory and really having thought through how you react in a situation. I though it should be applied to so many situations. I loved Colin Powell’s biography, and Norman Schwarzkopf’s as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Angie Bryan.