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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.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    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.

    Why are you even bringing up a comparison between the danger faced by State Department people and the military in Iraq?

    It is irrelevant.

    The FSO problem is with the “other matter.” They didn’t sign up to be in the military–they are civilians. So they have a right to be pissed at being forced to work in a “hot” war zone.

    In Serbia, for example, the embassy didn’t re-open until Dec. 2000–once the security situation was stable.

    The only reason we are sending State people into Iraq is to build up Bush’s fiction that an Iraqi state actually exists. You can’t have diplomatic relations with a government that doesn’t actually govern. Until the situation stabilizes, having diplomats there is a waste of time–and, potentially, lives.

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  2. Steve Plunk says:

    If they don’t like the assignment they can quit. This is an employer-employee relationship. It’s a voluntary relationship that either side can terminate. I guess we should stop calling it foreign service.

    It’s also good to see there are still people willing to hang every problem around the neck of the President. Why must they do that?

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  3. Triumph says:

    It’s also good to see there are still people willing to hang every problem around the neck of the President. Why must they do that?

    uhh…because Bush’s policies CREATED the instability in Iraq and he is the person who wants to send the FSOs into the middle of an active military conflict.

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  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    So we have had 1200 our of 11,500 have served in Iraq (no indication how many pre-2003 and how many post 2003). They need another 48 next year. And the odds of the highly likely picks (aka those who have only been on the wine and brie circuit, no hardship postings) is somewhere between 1 and 4 to 1 and 6. Isn’t this a bit of a tempest in a tea cup?

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  5. John Burgess says:

    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.

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  6. Dadmanly says:

    I can’t improve on what John Burgess said above, but to remark that in any organization there are those of low integrity and ethics, who will sign an oath, agree to terms, and then try to have the rules not apply to them.

    The FSOs who are playing politics with this issue should be ashamed of themselves. They discredit their service and their nation.

    The reality of Foreign Service is that many other FS postings are MORE dangerous than Iraq, as Burgess aludes to above. This few of many are merely using this as a way of advancing a political goal against a President and an Administration they despise. You would not be able to convince me otherwise; the complaints of these few FSOs are hypocritical and false.

    The media is only too happy to play up these trouble-makers — there are at least as many FSOs who object just as strenuously to serving in Tijuana, one of those other “Hell no I won’t go there” FSO postings.

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  7. John Burgess says:

    There were certainly posts I hoped I’d never be assigned to. Haiti? No thanks. Mogadishu? Rather not, thanks all the same.

    Latin America was do-able, but held no intellectual interest for me… same with sub-Saharan Africa. I just don’t swing that way. I wasn’t thrilled with New Delhi, having spent time in India before. But that’s where I got sent, so I went.

    I asked to be excused from one assignment. In 1993, I was asked to go to Riyadh as Information Officer. My parents were ill (they were both to die later that year). I’d just come back two years earlier from 11 years in the Middle East and my wife and child needed a break.

    I explained my reasoning to Personnel in a letter. I closed the letter with the acknowledgment that I knew what ‘worldwide available’ meant and was prepared to go if assigned. I also promised that I would, at a future date, go to Riyadh as Public Affairs Officer.

    Personnel–and the Embassy in Riyadh–liked the letter. They liked it so much that I got London as an assignment in 1994.

    On 9/12/2001, I got a call in New Delhi telling me that I was being assigned to Riyadh as PAO. It took me two weeks to pack up and close out the assignment in India (I was running the PD section at the time during the PAO’s absence), but by 9/23, I was in Riyadh for the next two years. That two years included the bombings of residential compounds in Riyadh, the car bomb killings of three Westerners, and the sidewalk bomb killing of another American.

    Every post has its downsides. The work in London was exactly the kind I hated: VIP visitor support. And my place was burgled three times. Damascus, great as it is for one who likes history, was exceptionally unhealthy (I nearly died there, saved only by a USAF medivac flight); everybody was carrying parasites, too. It also had car bombs going off randomly downtown, trains being blown up; conflict between the government and Kurds and the Muslim Brotherhood. There was also the ever-present threat of either Israel or the US bombing the city–my apartment was only a couple of blocks from the President’s house and the Ba’ath Party VP lived two doors down. I did not expect a telegram telling me to get out of Dodge.

    You either accept the job and the risks it entails or you don’t. It’s not a job for pussies, even if it sometimes includes tea parties and wearing tuxedos.

    I was never issued a firearm or body armor. After the start of the Iraq war, I got anthrax vaccine and my smallpox vaccination was updated. I did, though, get my own epinephrine injector in case of a nerve gas attack! And a plastic whistle to blow to help rescuers find me in the rubble of a bombed building. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to use either.

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  8. graywolf says:

    No surprise here.
    It appears that most of the Foreign “Service” signs up for free/susidized housing, free travel to foreign places, subsidized education for children, PX privileges and a cushy retirement.

    Then, the US is attacked and a response (including Iraq) happens and it upsets the applecart. AAwwwwwww…….

    Maybe some of them will try to get real jobs; although I doubt it. They will prpbably just slide into another bureaucratic sinecure where they can continue their undercover campaign against the evil Republicans.

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  9. Everybody’s read the articles based on the same AP article by Matthew Lee.

    Clearly there’s no media agenda in making it appear as though the nation’s diplomatic cadre doesn’t support the administration’s Iraq policy.

    What should have been news every day since the Iraq War started was that all the Foreign Service jobs had been filled by volunteers. More than 2,000 of them, out of a total corps of 6,500. Not one directed assignment in the lot, for a period of years, during wartime.

    When a “Town Hall” meeting is called, anybody at the Harry S Truman building (i.e., “Main State”, a.ka. “Foggy Bottom”) can attend.

    Thousands of federal employees, including civil service, foreign service officers, foreign service specialists, and contractors, can attend.

    Most people stay at their desks and get on with their work.

    Only those disgruntled enough to leave their offices attend these things in the first place.

    Some numbers: there are reports that around 300 people attended the meeting. To put that in perspective, there around 11,500 people in the Foreign Service. That includes 6,500 Foreign Service officers, also known as “generalists,” and another 5,000 Foreign Service specialists (such as couriers, security agents, nurses, office managers, &tc.). Roughly a little more than two-thirds of the Foreign Service is serving overseas at any given time, so perhaps 2,000 or so FS generalists were in the U.S. at the time of the meeting. Which starts to put that audience of 300 into perspective, nicht wahr?

    There are about 252 FS generalist vacancies that have to be filled in Baghdad and on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). All but 48 of the Iraq vacancies have already been filled with qualified FS volunteers.

    There’s no way to tell how many of the 300 present at the Town Hall meeting were actually FS generalists, although one of those quoted is identified as being a “senior foreign service officer.” So that’s one.

    State’s personnel assignment process is too complicated to go into in a short comment here. However I can safely say that “directed assignments” haven’t been used generally since the Vietnam War (there were some made in the 80’s and 90’s in West Africa and elsewhere, but it’s very exceptional).

    Also note that the Foreign Service is shrinking. New hiring is falling behind natural (retirements, &tc.) attrition. So new positions, new requirements, are coming out of hide, not out of any surplus embassy staffs being held in readiness at bases in the U.S. It’s a completely different force paradigm from the military, the majority of whose overseas military assignments are indeed in places like Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K. Only a relative handful of Foreign Service assignments are at the dozen or so posts (out of 267 total) in countries like that.

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  10. […] James Joyner has a reasonable assessment (of the situation, not Cole), if you’re into the whole even-handedness thing. Drew M at […]

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  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose State has to send somebody.
    It would be just as well if that somebody were extremely reluctant.
    It would keep him from messing up the great work done by the troops.

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  12. Wizbang says:

    Foreign Matters…

    Over the last 24 hours or so, I have learned something remarkable about myself. First, I learned that I was woefully ignorant about the Foreign Service part of the Department……

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  13. CHICKENDIPLOMATS…

    The irony of this is pretty amusing, Iraq is doing so much better now even papers like the Washington Post and New York Times are admitting it (granted, buried on page A14, but it’s there). Civilian and military deaths are plummeting in numbers, viole…

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  14. O'Shea says:

    FSOs are getting a raw deal here — it’s easy to beat up on them, but why is no one asking the right questions about this, such as:

    – If most of our diplomats are not able to leave the Green Zone, why are we sending so many of them there?

    – Should Baghdad be our largest Embasssy?

    – Does the high number of Congressional visits to Iraq have something to do with staffing levels there?

    -Do we really want our country’s best Arabic-speakers there, instead of say, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc., preventing potential problems — rather than trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube in Iraq?

    I guess I think of our American diplomats’ jobs to prevent wars and settle them after the fact — not be active participants in them. I’m offended that people are questioning our diplomats’ patriotism — they’ve got a valid point about the value of shipping them out to a place where they can’t actually do their jobs at huge personal risk, at the detriment of their other key places where we need to be engaged diplomatically.

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  15. SFC SKI says:

    Yesterday morning I heard a news story regaring FSO’s refusing to do their jobs. Apparently, Duncan Hunter is proposing that former military members, especially those who servedin Iraq and Afghanistan, be considered for these jobs. Sounds like a plan to me, I have been over there twice, I speak Arabic, and have spent a good amount of time outside the wire dealing with the Iraqis.

    It’s not only the embassy where these FSO will work, their real job is out on the reconstruction teams, assisting in infrastructure problems, and where they really are needed is assisting in building strong, capable and fair civil governments at various levels.

    If these FSO’s don’t want to do their jobs, let them resign, or fire them. Dedicated professional will live by their oaths and do their jobs, not whine and play word games.

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  16. John Burgess says:

    O’Shea: Your comment is based on several erroneous assumptions. First is that the FSOs will work only within the Embassy or the Green Zone. That’s not the case, nor has it ever been. As early as the summer of 2003, officers were being sent to various cities to work in what has now become PRTs. I had officers in my office in Riyadh being ‘borrowed’ to work in places like Baquba.

    Second, those officers being sent to Iraq mostly don’t have any Arabic language skills. That’s lamentable, but true. The Arabic speakers have mostly already had tours there. They’re in a position to hold out for the more senior jobs now, both in Iraq and in places like Jordan and Syria. The sad fact is that even without Iraq, there aren’t enough Arabic-speaking FSOs in State.

    Not being able to do one’s job at an optimal level is par for the course. There’s always some damn thing that interferes. VIP visits compromise the ability to do work in posts like London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Beijing. High crime rates in Bogota or Manila make it hard to work while you’re worrying about your family and your possessions. Poor hygiene make it hard to work in India or Syria–one spends an inordinate amount of time expelling stomach contents from either end of the alimentary canal. Do you think the people in the embassies in Port au Prince or Kingston spend their time mulling over policy and going to tea parties?

    There’s rumored to be a ‘perfect post’ for the Foreign Service. I was never able to find it, though I heard good things about details to Antarctica….

    I’m not questioning the patriotism of FSOs who demure from going to Iraq. I question their integrity. Foreign Service posts are not as portrayed by Hollywood; they mostly have unpleasant things about them. Some, of course, are far more unpleasant than others. For me, the grinding poverty of certain posts is a hardship I’d rather avoid, when possible. Other people have different criteria, but every post has a downside. A few have no upside other than professional accomplishment.

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