U.S. diplomats at odds over having to serve in Iraq
The growing pressure on State Department personnel to serve in Iraq, which culminated in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to resort to forced assignments, has polarized the Foreign Service to a level not seen in decades, American diplomats say.
Some of them said the Bush administration is straining the world’s largest diplomatic corps in support of an almost impossible mission. Others accuse their colleagues of whining and not living up to the oath they took to serve their country.
“We are concerned that directed assignments of Foreign Service civilians into a war zone would be detrimental to the individual, to the post and to the Foreign Service as a whole,” Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a cable to the union’s members.
Iraq service was taking its toll long before the announcement two weeks ago that Miss Rice would “direct” diplomats to serve in Iraq, State Department employees said.
Assignments in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and other hardship posts, last only a year, and more than 1,500 of all 6,500 Foreign Service officers already have worked in Iraq. So the department’s human resources bureau has been spending most of its time on Iraq staffing.
Last year, in an attempt to keep Iraq service voluntary, Miss Rice changed the bidding and assignment system of the Foreign Service. No assignments were allowed elsewhere in the world until those “high-priority” positions were filled.
The secretary also tried incentives, offering better pay and other benefits, higherchancesofpromotionandeven guaranteed onward assignments. That tactic, however, attracted some officers who were concerned more about money and career advancement.
Several Foreign Service officers who have worked in Iraq said that attitude creates a major burden.
The Washington Times reported more than a year ago that Miss Rice had raised concerns about the quality of some diplomats at the embassy in Baghdad. But it was not until Ryan C. Crocker, the current ambassador, arrived in late March that the problem began to be addressed.
Mr. Crocker asked Patrick Kennedy, the incoming undersecretary of state for management, to visit Baghdad and take a serious look at staffing. Both Mr. Crocker and Mr. Kennedy recommended that Miss Rice create about 80 more positions in Iraq.
Of about 250 positions opening next summer — both at the embassy and on the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams — about 48 could not be filled with volunteers.
About 200 officers have been identified as “prime candidates” and given until Nov. 13 to present medical or other compelling reasons that could spare them an Iraq assignment. Those who refuse to go without such reasons could be expelled from the Foreign Service.
Duringastormytown-hallmeeting two weeks ago with the service’s director-general, Harry Thomas, some members questioned the need for such a big embassy in Baghdad. Others accused the State Department of not providing enough training before diplomats head to Iraq.
Miss Rice urged those who have not been to Iraq to “think about their obligation not just to the country, but their obligation to those who have already served.”
The controversy exposed a conflict that has been boiling in the Foreign Service for years. Mr. Kashkett wrote in the Foreign Service Journal in June that “a great and widening gap” was threatening the “once tightly knit professional community.”
“On the one hand, there are the people (a vocal minority) who feel they have unfairly spent a disproportionate amount of their careers in hardship assignments, often going from one dusty Third World country to another while nursing a simmering resentment of those who they see as slackers interested only in Washington, Western Europe and a few other cushy posts,” he wrote.
“On the other hand, there are the people (a slight majority) who feel equally strongly that the Foreign Service needs to preserve some balance between the demands of hardship service and the demands of familyfriendliness and career planning,” Mr. Kashkett said.
Tough town: Iraqis pass by a Bradley armored vehicle in Baghdad’s Amariyah neighborhood on Nov. 6.