Iraq, the Foreign Service, and Duty
Many of us older Foreign Service veterans have been dismayed, and, yes, made ashamed of an institution we love, by recent press reports of a revolt in the Foreign Service over the prospect of directed assignments to Iraq. Calling service in Iraq a potential death sentence, one FSO at an October 31 town hall meeting in the State Department, attended by several hundred of his colleagues, drew sustained applause when he asked Who will take care of our children? and called for the closure of the Embassy in Baghdad.
As should have been expected, these sentiments do not play well with most Americans, even those who oppose the war. Here are some comments from a blog on the National Public Radio website (not exactly a bastion of right wing opinion):
At best, this is a public relations disaster for the Foreign Service. I fear it may be worse than that.
While more than 1200 Foreign Service personnel, out of 11,500 total, have already served in Iraq on a voluntary basis, growing requirements for staffing the Baghdad embassy and an increased number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) outside the capital have led to a shortfall of 48 people needed to fill 250 positions in the summer of 2008. The State Department's plan to assign non-volunteer FSOs to fill these slots was the immediate occasion of the town hall meeting and the vehement, widespread opposition to assignment in Iraq that it revealed.
Culmination of Systemic Changes
Well, probably not. But in some important ways, the directed assignments to a war zone and other changes may be pointing the Foreign Service back toward an organizational culture that might be more compatible, at least in spirit, with the culture and conditions of service understood by the professional grandparents of today's young FSOs.
One of the recent changes was what Naland described as a move to dramatically re-engineer the Open Assignments System to address State's chronic inability to fully staff hardship posts.
When I entered the Foreign Service in 1962, it was with the full understanding that I was to be available for service worldwide, wherever the Department in its wisdom decided to send me. There was no Open Assignments System. You could talk to a personnel officer about your general desires, but the list of assignments to be filled was closely held within the personnel office. Except at very senior levels, there was little or no negotiation involved in the assignment process.
The Open Assignments System was a major improvement, helping get the round pegs placed in round holes; and in fact I was among those who agitated for this reform. However, the subsequent loss of discipline that has produced this chronic inability to fully staff hardship posts is deplorable. A professional Foreign Service that is truly professional must be able to implement the President's foreign policies and execute the nation's foreign relations on a worldwide basis, even if this involves sacrifices and danger. While personal preferences should certainly be considered, and respected whenever possible, ultimately FSOs must go where they are sent. If they are unwilling to do so, whether the reasons are ideological or personal, then the honorable course of action is resignation.
In the 1960s and earlier, the principle of universal availability for service was not seriously questioned. It was a given, a condition of employment, part of our professional duty and tradition, and a point of pride some would say snobbishness that made us different from the Civil Service and akin to the military.
The Vietnam Experience
I was by no means unusual in this regard. Hundreds of FSOs served in Vietnam during the war, many for multiple tours and most in dangerous, non-traditional jobs. Some were killed or taken prisoner. Most of them served willingly, and even as domestic opposition to the war grew, Vietnam service was never made optional for FSOs.
My Foreign Service heroes were people like Joseph Grew and Robert Murphy, who served in critical, dangerous roles during World War II, and the China Hands who served so ably during the Chinese civil war under stressful, hazardous conditions. My more immediate role models, the mid-level and senior officers who were my bosses, had almost all served in the military in World War II. None of them would have questioned the propriety of sending FSOs on difficult and dangerous assignments when necessary, or would have resisted going themselves.
The American Foreign Service Association, the union and professional organization that represents Foreign Service Officers, has questioned the relevance of the Vietnam experience as a precedent for sending non-volunteer FSOs to Iraq. In an article in the November 2007 Foreign Service Journal (Caution: Iraq Is Not Vietnam http://www.afsa.org/fsj/nov07/speaking_out.pdf), AFSA Governing Board member David Passage, a retired FSO who served with CORDS in Vietnam from 1969-70, writes that civilians assigned to Vietnam generally did not face the sorts of severe security problems that constrain the operations of most PRTs in Afghanistan and Iraq. He concludes that sending FSOs to such posts today needlessly endangers (and in a worst-case scenario costs) lives under conditions in which there can be no reasonable expectation of positive gain.
I disagree profoundly with these assertions.
As with all complex wartime situations, the degree of danger is related to the specific times and places under consideration. In Vietnam, danger was generally greater, and casualty rates higher, in the 1965-68 period than in 1969 and thereafter, when the pacification program began to be successful; and some provinces were always more dangerous than others. Likewise in Iraq, some areas have been relatively tranquil since the end of major combat operations in 2003; and others that were once highly dangerous, such as Anbar province, have recently become much less so.
Our military personnel and the FSOs that have been deployed with them in Iraq have demonstrated that they can implement effective counterinsurgency operations, especially since we have finally (under General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker) got the strategy right. There is no reason the Foreign Service should be exempt from this duty, even if it remains dangerous.
Finally, the issue for FSOs now facing assignment to Iraq is not whether the Bush administration was right or wrong to go to war there in 2003, nor how poorly that war was planned and implemented. Now, the issue is what happens to Iraq, the Middle East, and associated U.S. national interests as we move forward from where we are today. Are they willing to be a part of determining those outcomes, or not?
Any FSO who is so opposed to current operations in Iraq that he or she cannot conscientiously participate in them should resign and speak out publicly if assigned to Iraq. Others who simply fear danger and hardships are in the wrong profession, and they should also resign. They can do so with honor.
Many FSOs have already volunteered for Iraq. A few have physical or legitimate family reasons for not going. The rest should stop whining and do their duty.