FSO’s Rebel Over Iraq Assignment Policy
Foreign Service Officers are in open rebellion over an announcement that some will be ordered to go to Iraq if enough volunteers are not found.
At a town hall meeting in the department’s main auditorium attended by hundreds of Foreign Service officers, some of them criticized fundamental aspects of State’s personnel policies in Iraq. They took issue with the size of the embassy — the biggest in U.S. history — and the inadequate training they received before being sent to serve in a war zone. One woman said she returned from a tour in Basra with post-traumatic stress disorder only to find that the State Department would not authorize medical treatment.
Service in Iraq is “a potential death sentence,” said one man who identified himself as a 46-year Foreign Service veteran. “Any other embassy in the world would be closed by now,” he said to sustained applause. Harry K. Thomas Jr., the director general of the Foreign Service, who called the meeting, responded curtly. “Okay, thanks for your comment,” he said, declaring the town hall meeting over.
Foreign Service officers swear an oath to serve wherever the secretary of state sends them, but no directed assignments have been ordered since the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. More than 1,200 of 11,500 eligible State Department personnel have already served in Iraq, but the growth of the embassy has led to an ever-increasing demand.
Thomas told the diplomats that in the future, “everyone in the Foreign Service is going to have to do one out of three tours in a hardship post.” Those who have not served in hardship assignments in the past will not be punished, but they all have to realize that there are “different conditions” now than in the past, he said. New training programs for those serving in hardship and dangerous posts are being developed, he said.
So long as that’s understood to be the nature of a Foreign Service commission — as it is for military officers — that strikes me as reasonable enough. Still, an incentive-driven system would be preferable to a draft mindset.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is trying to assuage their fears but isn’t getting anywhere. The dismissive tone of Thompson and others isn’t helping.
“This is an obligation we must do,” [Foreign Service Director General Harry]Thomas said. “We cannot shrink from that duty.”
Under the new order, 200 to 300 diplomats have been identified as “prime candidates” to fill 48 vacancies that will open next year at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and in Iraqi provinces. Those notified have 10 days to accept or reject the position. If not enough say yes, some will be ordered to go.
Only those with compelling reasons, such as a medical condition or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action. Diplomats forced into service in Iraq will receive the same extra hardship pay, vacation time and choice of future assignments as those who have volunteered.
In 1969, an entire class of entry-level diplomats was sent to Vietnam. On a smaller scale, diplomats were required to work at various embassies in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.
Juan Cole sees an easy fix: Close the embassy in Baghdad.
It is not safe for the personnel there. Some sort of rump mission of hardy volunteers could be maintained. But kidnapping our most capable diplomats and putting them in front of a fire squad is morally wrong and is administratively stupid, since many of these intrepid individuals will simply resign.
The danger level for FSOs in Iraq pales in comparison with that of military personnel. Various reports, including the above-linked AP story, say that no American diplomats have been killed in Iraq but at least one State Department employee, James Mollen, has died in the line of duty.
Certainly, we need the talents of FSOs and other State Department experts if we’re going to continue a counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Iraq. Whether we need to have the largest oversees embassy in American history in the middle of a war zone, though, is another matter.
UPDATE: Retired FSO John Burgess has extensive commentary below. An extensive excerpt:
When I joined the Foreign Service, the words ‘worldwide availability’ sort of jumped out at me. That was reinforced by the training officer who spelled out that those words meant exactly what they said: available to serve anywhere in the world at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. The option was to not sign the contract.
Once the papers were signed, it was very clearly explained, we had limited options if we didn’t like our jobs anymore. That dislike may have arisen through policy differences, assignments, or other officers at a given post. We could suck it up and outlast the assignment; we could try to change it through channels; we could resign our commissions.
There can be situations in which officers simply cannot morally be assigned to a particular post. Sometimes it’s a health problem–those with lung diseases don’t fare well in La Paz or Sanaa, so they don’t get sent there. Sometimes, humanitarian concerns prevail: an FSO parent with a handicapped child is likely to be assigned to posts that have the right kind of schooling and medical care required. Those with AIDS get sent to places with adequate medical support. And yes, this engenders both unfairness and complaints within the system.
Sometimes a disability will lead to the FSO being given a choice of resigning his FS commission and joining the General Service, usually within State. This happened in my entry class, when a germophobic got sent to India, had a bad reaction to medications to treat the inevitable parasites he encountered, and was deemed unfit to serve overseas. (BTW, he had asked for that assignment in an attempt to overcome his problem.)
It has never been (nor should it ever be) the policy of State to excuse an officer from an assignment because it’s against his policy preferences.
As an officer, one takes leadership from superiors, ultimately the SecState and the President of the US. If one disagrees with the leadership on policy, on procedures, and in deciding whether or not a post is ‘safe enough’, then there are two choices: suck it up or resign. A Foreign Service commission does not grant the right to second guess political leadership, right or wrong. Triumph: that answers your remark.
Perhaps State officers do not sign up to go into combat. That is in fact arguable, as recent history (e.g., Vietnam) demonstrates quite clearly that FSOs can be sent to war torn areas. Ignorance of history is no excuse for an FSO to suddenly wake up and realize what ‘worldwide available’ means. It’s no different than the soldier who has an awakening when he gets orders to ship out to a war zone. The ‘reality based community’ takes a long, hard look at the world before agreeing to worldwide availability.
Every assignment carries with it a risk of death, whether it’s in Washington, DC or Baghdad. The cause may differ, but the results are the same.
More FSOs have died in Egypt–road accidents, accidental poisoning, malaria–than have died in Iraq. More have died in London, for crying out loud. An FS commission isn’t some guarantee against death.
When I finished my last assignment, I had volunteered to go to Iraq. I was given an assignment in Tikrit, for Nov. 2003. State Medical Dept. shot that assignment down due to past medical history. I tried to get their decision rescinded, but they wouldn’t budge. They simply didn’t want to deal with having to handle a medical emergency in those circumstances. The same thing happened for an earlier assignment to Beirut.
I fought within the system to get an assignment changed. I lost. I then decided that 25 years was long enough for a career anyway.
Current FSO Consul-at-Arms also weighs in.