Article By: Amanda Stein
With a mix of nostalgia and pride, retired Admiral Timothy Keating, former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), addressed a room full of PACOM Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) as part of the Joint FAO Skill Sustainment Pilot Program’s (JFSSPP) Asia-focused courses in June. Keating’s long and successful Navy career includes tours as Director, Joint Staff, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as well as the first Navy officer to lead the United States Northern Command. In his final assignment, he assumed command of PACOM on March 23, 2007 where he served until his recent retirement in December 2009.
“I’m out of uniform for the first time in my adult life, and it’s different. You will find that out. It’s great and life goes on, but I miss you guys a whole lot, more than I thought I would,” Keating noted. “[Being Commander of PACOM] was the greatest job in the world, it is impossible to describe. Working in that capacity, working in that part of the world, I came to know, as much as if not more than any officer in uniform, how important the Foreign Area Officer is and must remain to … our major combatant commands, the Department of Defense and the Department of State.”
The PACOM Area of Responsibility (AOR) is the largest of all the unified Combatant Commands, covering almost half of the earth’s surface and including major global economic and political players. With such a vast area of coverage, PACOM FAOs are experts in a very broad range of regions, and are regularly called upon to provide quick, efficient briefings for U.S. officials visiting with foreign dignitaries and military leaders.
Attending officers noted the value of understanding the priorities and needs of the principle officials they assist, especially at the highest levels of leadership. “We read a lot on paper about what our commanders at this level do,” noted Northeast Asia Specialist, Air Force Maj. Jacqueline Chang. “We seldom ever know the details of what happens – those nuances and those details will only increase our experience and knowledge in our regions.”
Providing an overview of the most pressing expectations of visiting officials, Keating stressed the importance of compiling a ‘cheat sheet’ of sorts, containing the most concise and relevant details of the country the official will be visiting, including information like language basics to know, cultural notes and regionally-specific protocol details.
“Perhaps the most important things are: What don’t you want to say? What don’t you want to do? What shouldn’t you address, and what are the issues?” Keating explained. “Your skill in language, your understanding of the culture, and your grasp of the issues is of paramount importance to the guy or girl who gets off the airplane to visit. Figure out a way to get the information to [the principle]; to get that to the visitor to whom it matters most.”
Another important duty of a FAO is making sure that the right information is being portrayed to senior U.S. officials while they are in the PACOM regions. Keating urged the FAOs to get themselves into the pre-briefings with foreign media outlets to ensure that accurate information is being delivered from both sides. If there are inaccuracies, or things that probably shouldn’t be said in a particular way, the role of the FAO is to find a way to tell the principle before they go on record with something they may not completely understand.
“Public affairs is a huge deal. Your work in helping the principle to deal with issues of public affairs is of surpassing importance,” explained Keating. “The embassy will provide translators … but who really matters in my opinion is the Foreign Area Officer.“
Prudence, Keating noted, is not only necessary when dealing with foreign media, but with any audience in a public place. With his lecture coming on the day immediately following Rolling Stone magazine’s controversial interview that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Keating stressed the importance of representing the United States at all times in a manner befitting a soldier with respect for his country and his role as a FAO.
“You are now the face of the United States of America,” noted Keating. “It’s even more prominent when you wear the uniform of the United States Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army. You’ve got to find a way to discipline yourself. Think about how you conduct yourself when you are ‘at ease’ and remember what you say could end up on the front page of the Washington Post.”
Addressing the officers, Keating recognized the benefits of having exceptionally trained regional experts in the Armed Forces. During his time as Commander of PACOM, he spent extensive time in the regions in which many of the JFSSPP attendees are proficient, giving him an understanding of the kinds of challenges and difficulties they face as FAOs.
“Obviously from his previous position he has a very good picture of what goes on in the region. And what he deems as being important and priority is very important for us to know because his priorities would also be our priorities,” explained Chang. “And listening to his experience and his reflections on those kinds of experiences, I think, gives us a good perspective and help us as we go on to build our own experiences within the region. Listening to his experiences gives us added perspectives and helps our own professional development in our region.”
Keating’s lecture was one of many highlights of the two-week series of courses, offering decades of insight into the Pacific Command AOR as a way for JFSSPP attendees to best understand their roles as PACOM FAOs. The JFSSPP provides quarterly, regionally-specific and intensive educational programs that provide critical continuing education and training for the rapidly expanding FAO community.
The PACOM JFSSPP course began with a week of lectures and discussions about various issues related to the students’ roles as Asia Pacific FAOs. The second week of the program took the students in country for additional cultural and regionally specific training. FAOs focused in the south/southeast Asia spent the week in Cambodia, while the East Asian FAOs traveled to South Korea. The in country portion of the program allows the officers to meet with national leaders and officials to gain greater insight and understanding of the regions they study.
“You guys are world class. No one else has you, but we do,” Keating noted, commending the officers for their dedication to his former command and to their country. “The difference each of you makes on a daily basis can’t be measured.”