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January 2008

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The Rigors of Foreign Service

By Michael W. Cotter
Associate Publisher, American Diplomacy

Some commentators have taken Foreign Service personnel to task for objecting to forced assignments to Iraq. Now that the Iraq posts have been filled by volunteers, it's time to put the issue into some context. There are about 11,500 people in the Foreign Service, 6,500 commissioned officers and 5,000 support staff such as security personnel and IT staff. The military has more full colonels/Navy captains and more band members than the State Department has diplomats.

To make matters worse, various studies estimate the staffing shortfall in the Foreign Service — a result of under funding not lack of interest — to be as large as 1,000 to 2,000 positions. In 2007 the entire U.S. foreign affairs budget was $30 billion, of which only $5 billion was for operating expenses of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Compare that with a 2007 budget for defense-related activities of $935 billion.

And compared with the military, most Foreign Service people are “forward deployed”: 68 percent are currently stationed abroad at 267 posts in 162 countries around the world. Even with Iraq and Afghanistan, only 21 percent of active-duty military are stationed abroad.

The typical foreign service member spends 2/3 of his career abroad. Nor are posts such as Paris, London or Tokyo typical. Many more are serving in Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, the Congo, or other extraordinarily difficult places. In fact, nearly 60 percent are at posts categorized by the U.S. government as “hardship” due to difficult living conditions (for example, violent crime, harsh climate, and/or terrorist threats).

But what about Iraq?
According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, more than 20 percent, i.e., over 2,000, of Foreign Service people have served since 2003, or are serving currently in Iraq. Given the Foreign Service's worldwide staffing responsibilities in 161 other countries, of the 80 percent of Foreign Service members who have not (yet) served in Iraq, most are now at, or have recently returned from, a hardship assignment.

There are currently approximately 200 Foreign Service positions at Embassy Baghdad, to be increased to 250, and another 70 or so at the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). While this is a relatively small percentage of the total staffing at the embassy (1,000) and PRTs (600), there are good reasons for it. As Rice has repeatedly explained, no country's diplomatic corps has people with many of the skills now needed in Iraq: oil and gas engineers, electrical grid managers, urban planners, city managers and transportation planners.

Obviously, if they wanted to do so, the president and Congress could staff up civilian agencies to take responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction. But they have not done so.

Some other factors to consider
Most Foreign Service members serve one-year tours in Iraq with only a relative few going for shorter temporary-duty assignments. A small but growing number of Foreign Service members have served more than one tour in Iraq. None, except perhaps for Diplomatic Security Special Agents, are permitted to carry a weapon.

Foreign Service members also receive little preparation before deploying to Iraq — less than two-weeks of special training to serve in a combat zone. Contrast that to their predecessors 40 years ago who received five to ten months of training before deploying to South Vietnam. While Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq do receive added pay and other incentives (not tax-free like military combat pay), surveys show that most Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq have been motivated by patriotism and a professional desire to try to advance the Administration's top foreign policy objective.

Until now every one of the over 2,000 career Foreign Service members who has served in Baghdad and on Provincial Reconstruction Teams has been a volunteer. Unfortunately, in late October the State Department announced to the news media (and only later directly to employees) that the well of volunteers had finally run dry and declared that, if volunteers could not be found for 48 remaining positions by mid-November, then forced assignments would begin.

Obviously, some Foreign Service people, as news reports emphasized, objected to such forced assignments. They noted that diplomats can seldom leave the Green Zone without large security details (which have created their own problems), are forced to work by phone through interpreters, and so cannot effectively carry out the functions they have been trained to do. Nonetheless, all Foreign Service employees accept the terms of their employment which include willingness to serve wherever assigned. The alternative is to resign from the service.

This essay originally appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer, November 22, 2007.


Michael W. Cotter is Associate Publisher of American Diplomacy. He is a retired Foreign Service officer who worked for the Department of State from 1966 to 1998. He began his duties in South Vietnam; his final posting was as U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan. He now lives in Pittsboro, NC.

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