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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, November 02, 2007

CHICKENDIPLOMATS

"We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
-C.S. Lewis

The Unknown Diplomat
I studied three languages in high school, and was eying the possibility of a career as an interpreter or in intelligence in a vague way. I was good at languages, I pick them up fairly easily and had a flawless accent in them - at least that's what natives told me. That didn't pan out, but I understood that one of the risks was that I'd probably have to do things I didn't care for and go places I didn't want to go as part of the job. All jobs have drawbacks, and it takes a fool not to consider that before entering them.

In the US State Department, you sign a deal and take an oath that you'll serve your country wherever they need you to go upon taking the job. That's how it works when you take most jobs: you work where the employer puts you. Some of these places are pretty unsavory, like Syria, some of them are great, like the south of France. When you work for the foreign service, that's what you have to realize: you'll be stationed where you are needed, and sometimes that's going to suck.

We have word now that a group of people at the State Department are refusing to go serve in Iraq. They just don't want to go, and to my knowledge this is the first time that this has ever happened. In all of the horrific places that we have diplomats, of all the dangerous places in history, of all the pits that people have been sent to, this is the first time I'm aware of in over 200 years of US history that diplomats have decided they just don't want to do their job. Only Iraq.

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, violence is dropping, al`Qaeda is basically wiped out, the place is really doing rather well. Yet now the state department whose job is to go to troubled places to be diplomats are refusing to go. It started with a lack of volunteers - they don't want to go on their own, and has extended to outright refusal.

At MilBlogs, BadgerSix pointed out something to consider. The State Department complainants called it a "potential death sentence," claiming that in any other country the embassy "would be closed at this point." But since 2003, a grand total of non-military six federal government employees have been killed in Iraq, out of 1200 people. And that includes CIA workers, federal police, and Department of Defense civilians. In fact, on record there are only two state department employees that have died in Iraq, and in the unveiling of the plaque in their memories, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a special day for those of us in the Civil Service and in the Foreign Service of the United States. We understand when we enter the Diplomatic Corps that diplomacy has always been a hazardous occupation. We travel to all parts of the world, in times of war and peace, in times of civil discord and in disaster. We have two plaques in this State Department entry hall, at either end of the hall, and as John said, they testify to the very tragic fact that since the founding of our country, 218 Americans have died in service to the United States. In 1780, William Palfrey, an American diplomat, was lost at sea on a diplomatic mission.

And many others since then have given their lives, have lost their lives to disease, to natural disasters and to war. We remember them today and we honor them. And we also remember and honor all Americans who serve overseas on behalf of our country, often in very difficult and dangerous circumstances as our colleagues serve today in Baghdad, in Kabul, in Bogota and in dangerous places around the world.
None of the dead listed here were diplomats. I'm reminded of the UN who opened an office in Iraq after 2003 then immediately closed it and fled to Crete when a bomb went off nearby. The sacrifice and selfless desire to serve peace is breathtaking. The US has functioning embassies in such fun places as Haiti and Somalia, the Sudan and North Korea. Care to serve there? I guess they'd rather.

At Outside the Beltway a commenter named John Burgess claimed Foreign service experience and had this to say:
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.

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.
Another commenter there named Consul-at-Arms claiming experience pointed out some things about town hall meetings and government:
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.
Over at Protein Wisdom, a commenter claiming experience named Ex-Dip pointed this out:
I’m an ex-diplomat and I served in hardship posts with some courageous, dedicated FSOs. Some points to consider while you are trashing the motivations of 11,500 officers. First, not all officers are cleared for postings in hardship areas for health or other reasons (but I’m not sure of the percentage, but I know State doesn’t want to medevac sick people), so scratch them from the list. Some officers are coming off hardship postings where they’ve been separated from their families for years at time, where their spouses are at risk of dying everyday, or where they’ve watched their children get sick on tropical diseases or wilt in pollution. Naturally, they don’t want to be separated again for years or send the kids to boarding school. Many FSOs in the 11,500 have already done a tour (or two) in Baghdad or Afganistan and are waiting for others to step up and contribute. We’re seeing the cost of bleeding the foreign service for many years, too. State hiring for many years was not nearly adequate to maintain a pipeline of qualified, trained individuals. Rumor has it that Colin Powell was shocked at how training was sacrificed at State to get people out to post, seeing as he spent a good portion of his Army career at staff colleges and universities. Personally, I served in jobs two pay grades above my personal rank and without the training I needed to do the job, so stripped was the cabinent. Young, single and healthy officers are making the sacrifices and are probably tired of it.

Yes, there are FSOs who want their glamorous posting in Paris and London. Yes, there are offifcers who don’t like the Bush administration and it’s policies. But there are other factors to consider.
Other commenters shared their thoughts:
Think of it this way. There were 200 volunteers according to the WaPo, of 11,500 eligible people. They’re short about 50. If volunteering for Iraq were seen as a way to get ahead, there would be no shortage of volunteers. What State Department employees are afraid of is that volunteering for Iraq will be damaging to their careers. It will set them apart as people who aren’t with the program, perhaps ok people but decidedly in need of reeducation.

That’s what the deal is, and these are the people running our foreign affairs.
-by Happyfeet

If volunteering for Iraq were seen as a way to get ahead, there would be no shortage of volunteers. What State Department employees are afraid of is that volunteering for Iraq will be damaging to their careers. It will set them apart as people who aren’t with the program, perhaps ok people but decidedly in need of reeducation.
This, to me, is utterly ridiculous. In today’s environment any dip knows that the way to promotion and other glories is through hardship postings, regardless of the present political situation. My first mentor took a look at my bidsheet littered with nice places and told me I was looking at a short (but very nice) career. A career spent entirely in Europe leaves you on the sidelines. Trust me, when it’s time for promotion, all else being equal, them’s that done the time get the bennies.

Ric, I agree with you that some expats loathe the embassy, but it would also be the first place they would go if something serious went down. The first job of an embassy is to look after the affairs of Americans in country - but you would be amazed what people think the embassy can and should be doing for them. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell my war stories, but let’s just say that too many people think the embassy is some sort of magic wand that can solve life’s problems. However, if Americans abroad get ill, or in trouble, the embassy is still the first place you want to go.

Mickey - Spot on. 1) State has no natural constituency and suffers for it. In country Defense, Commerce, and Ag seem to have limitless resources. 2) There exists a breed of FSO smarter and more betterer at foreign stuff than you or me. In my experience they have remarkably similar backgrounds, which is why I supported the department’s diversity initiatives.

Political appointees are a fact of life, unfortunately. Some good, some bad, but nearly all sent to places where they can do the least amount of damage.

Notice that I am have not and am not defending Cole and the FSOs. I can’t and won’t and am embarrassed for some of my former colleagues. I am making arguements on why it can be hard to fill posts in places like Baghdad.

I’m also saying that neither republican or democrat has clean hands when it comes to the state of State. Senator Helms and others wanted to reduce our footprint abroad and tried to force State to do so by restricting funding. That, combined with a general neglect of our diplomatic corps for many years by both parties gives us the State Department we asked for.

Happyfeet, I’m appaled at your statement. I expect that type of invective and broad generalization from Kos, not here. Replace “FSO” with “soldier” and “snot” with any number of pejoratives and you’ll fit right in.

I took an oath and fufilled it. I served in some nasty places where people wanted to kill me, and I won’t apologize for it.
-by Ex-Dip
I expect there are some great people working in the State Department, but on the whole I find their approach to life and foreign policy to be grossly naive and silly. Iran, for example, will negotiate until the end of time while doing exactly what it wants to do and laughing at diplomats as weak and effeminate. There's a time and place for everything, and just as many Air Force types think airstrikes are the answer to everything, most diplomats and state department guys in the US (and worldwide I expect) think that diplomacy is the answer to everything.

This whole debacle shows up one of the places I'm very critical of President Bush. He was so interested in reaching out to his opponents and creating a new tone that he didn't bother replacing almost anyone when he took office. The Clinton administration replaced almost everyone when they took power, replacing Regan and Bush appointments and workers with people who shared their ideology and perspective on work and government. Almost every one of those people are still in those jobs to this day. And the results can be felt almost every week. Stonewalling, leaking to the press, refusals to do what they're told, delays on work, and foot dragging.

They disagree with President Bush on almost everything, these are the kinds of people who are marching and crying "impeach Bush" and they're infesting the executive department at all levels. How, exactly, the president thought he'd be able to get much work done. This is a golden opportunity to clean house, a bit late, but an opportunity still. If they won't do their job, its time for them and their colleagues to find work elsewhere and be replaced by people who share a bit more of the administration's viewpoint on diplomacy and foreign policy.

Somehow I just don't see that happening, sadly.

One last comment, this time from Ace of Spades HQ:
I'm reminded of the George Shultz anecdote, where he would invite newly appointed ambassadors to his office, and point to a map of the world, and ask them which country they were going to represent.

Invariably, some would point to this nation or that where they were headed, and he'd walk over and point to the United States and say "no, you're going to represent this country".
-by Dave in Texas
I think that says an awful lot about diplomats and the type of folks that often end up at the State Department.
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