Thursday, November 1, 2007

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Is the foreign service like the military?

The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman reports about some trouble a brewin' between Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and the higher-ups in the State Department:

Angry US diplomats lashed out yesterday against a State Department plan that would send them to Iraq against their will, with one likening it to "a potential death threat" and another accusing the department of providing inadequate care to diplomats who have returned home traumatized.

At a rare, contentious meeting, foreign service officers told senior State Department officials that the move to fill vacancies in Baghdad puts them in danger, jeopardizes the well-being of their families, and could deplete the ranks of those willing to serve overseas at a critical time. Several diplomats said privately they would resign rather than accept orders to serve in Iraq. The president of their union pointed out that about 2,000 State Department personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, greatly taxing the ranks of the 11,000-member core.

"We have had four years of people volunteering to Iraq, and as the size of the mission has increased, demand has outstripped supply," said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, in an interview after the meeting.

The State Department has struggled to find Foreign Service volunteers to fill 48 of the 252 diplomatic posts that will become vacant next summer in Baghdad as well as other Iraqi provinces. To solve the problem, the department decided on mandatory service in Baghdad if too few volunteers step forward. Yesterday, at a packed meeting to discuss the plan, foreign service officers spoke out passionately against it, an unusual display of internal dissent.

Jack Crotty, a senior Foreign Service officer who has worked overseas, told his superiors that being forced to serve in Iraq is a "potential death sentence and you know it."

"It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers," he said, according to the Associated Press, "but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment."

Rachel Schnelling, a diplomat who served in Basra, Iraq, got a standing ovation when she said the State Department had failed to care for diplomats after they returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"I would just urge you, now that we are looking at compulsory service in a war zone, that we have a moral imperative as an agency to take care of people who . . . come back with war wounds," she said at the meeting, according to the AP. "I asked for treatment and I didn't get any of it."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not at the meeting convened by Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service. Sean McCormack, her press secretary, said that the decision to draft diplomats to Iraq came with Rice's support, and that the move was not taken "lightly."

"Understandably, people are going to have some pretty strong feelings about it," he said. "But ultimately our mission in Iraq is national policy. We as Foreign Service officers swore an oath, and we agreed to certain things when we took these jobs. Part of them is to be available for worldwide assignments. They all agreed to that."

On Friday evening, the department sent notices to between 200 and 300 Foreign Service officers informing them that they had been selected as possible candidates to serve in Baghdad or on provincial reconstruction teams if there are not enough volunteers. Many officers were upset to read media reports of the new assignment plan over the weekend before they received the department notifications at work on Monday.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ambitious diplomats flocked to posts there, which were seen as tickets for promotion. But as the danger grew, and as Baghdad became the largest US embassy in the world, filling posts in Baghdad became more difficult....

Naland said it is "almost unprecedented" to force diplomats to serve in a war zone. "During the Vietnam War, Foreign Service officers were ordered to serve, but for everyone on active duty, this is brand new," he said.

Although senior officials defended the plan, others contradicted McCormack's assertion that they had committed to be sent anywhere in the world.

"People didn't sign up for the foreign service to go get killed in the war zone," said a Washington-based State Department official who volunteered and served in Iraq during the invasion but does not want to return.

"In any other country, an embassy like that would be in evacuation status," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Morale is not helped by news from colleagues in Baghdad who say inadequate security has kept them holed up in the Green Zone, unable to interact frequently with the Iraqi officials and ministries they are supposed to advise....

[S]enior military officials accuse the diplomatic arm of the government of failing to send enough personnel to work on the Iraq reconstruction teams. Conflicts have emerged within the State Department itself, as some senior officials pressed for a more aggressive policy of assisting the US-led mission in Iraq.

Henry S. Ensher, a Foreign Service officer who served as director for political affairs in the Iraq office inside the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs argued in the March 2006 issue of the Foreign Service Journal that the State Department should "recognize that service in wartime necessitates a complete commitment by all its personnel." (emphasis added)

Let's just stipulate that the quoted line is really disturbing. That said, the
question I have to readers is, should FSO's be treated differently from soldiers?

posted by Dan on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM


Actually, they are treated differently. Unlike military officers:

1. Their earnings are NOT tax-free in Iraq (that's also unlike non-federal Americans -- ONLY federal civilian employees pay tax there, military, contractors, NGO reps, business people, etc don't).

2. They are not guarranteed health care for life like military officers. FSOs face potentially big problems if they are severely injured in Iraq.

Even worse, a regular federal employee (say, a DoD or Dept of Education civil servant) has to fall back on just a worker's comp claim if they lose a leg to an IED while working in Iraq. After initial evacuation back to the US they have no access to the special trauma / rehab care the military does. Better hope your primary care physician knows to treat life-threatening war wounds as well as varicose veins. Likewise, better hope you have many months of sick leave built up.

3. Likewise, while in Iraq you only have access to military health care for emergencies -- need a root canal and you're out looking for a dentist on the streets of Bagdhad. That's different for FSOs, however.

4. FSOs are likely to have had no military training or other emergency training, can't carry weapons, and will tend to be significantly older and not necesarily in as good health as military officers.

5. The current crop of FSOs has been recuited and retained generally on the assumption that they are not involuntarily deployed into war zones. I have no moral problem with saying we want a diplomatic corps we DO deploy like that, but, it's reasonable for them to feel like the terms of their (admittedly tacit) contract have been changed with corresponding compensation to them. Expect recruitment/retention problems and be prepared to increase benefits to make up for it.

posted by: anIRprof on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

The military is largely devoid of the upper class, and the Foreign Service (I beleive) is chocked full of our educated elites.

Certainly the sons and daughters of the affluent shouldn't be forced into George Bush's new democratic utopia (sarcasm fully intended).

On a more serious note, how many of our diplomats speak the language? It has been a few years since 9/11, State should have been doing some fairly intensive language training.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I don't know too much about FSO regulations. I know they may be sent anywhere in the world regardless of the choices they submit, and they do not live a settled lifestyle.

That being said. The embassy in Iraq is a joke. I have trouble understanding why that place is the biggest embassy in the world. The overlap between military and state department authority negatively affects the ability of the diplomats to do their jobs.

The U.S. does not treat Iraq like other sovereign countries (such as unannounced visits by the president). So I can see why diplomats may be hesitant to go there. Not only are they in danger of life and limb, but also that they cannot do their job effectively.

Does that mean that they shouldn't be forced to go? I am not so sure. It seems to me that there is an inherent risk for these guys to be sent anywhere in the world, from a crisis prone middle east to sub-Saharan Africa. And, in many of those places there is danger to their lives. Nevertheless, it is not clear that those diplomats will be performing a duty in Iraq that they signed up for or indeed are used to.

A friend of my family is in the FSO workign on counter-terrorism. His impression of the operation of the State department under the Bush administration is highly negative. He claims that the department has become much more politicized and partisan (probably not to dissimilar to DOJ). And that the morale of the department is extremely low because of such pressures like going to Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think there needs to be a more open and honest conversation about 1) the inappropriate use of our diplomatic services in Iraq (it reminds me of Russia building its embassy in East Berlin) and 2) expanding the conversation about the politicization of our state agencies under Bush.

posted by: DQuartner on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

George Bush told me that the future of the free world hinges on our success in Iraq. Surely, given the stakes, we could figure out a way to compensate and insure a few hundred FSOs being asked to undertake a difficult and dangerous task.

By the way, thanks for the post anlRprof. It's not often you learn something from blog comments.

posted by: Ken on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Thanks, Ken.

Just to follow up, you are quite right that these sorts of problems are very solvable. As an even worse example, regular federal civil servants were very reluctant to volunteer for Iraq postings in 2003-2004 because it was widely but incorrectly believed, including by many managers, that your job-based life insurance wasn't valid in Iraq, due to an "acts of war" exclusion. I gather that isn't true when stationed abroad on official business. It took a year or two (!) for the administration to clue in that the issue was scaring away some volunteers and to get correct information widely disseminated

Likewise, I suspect the White House could easily get the tax exemption through Congress if they pushed it. Better health care including access to the DoD/VA specialists could be done with no legislative changes at all, as could a variety of other pay/benefit/regulatory issues. They've received virtually no attention from OPM (Office of Personnel Management), they haven't been on the President's legislative agenda, nor did Rumsfeld show any interest in fixing them (Gates has been better).

I have frequent opportunities to talk with military officers, and they often complain bitterly about "the interagency not being there". I try to point out that one issue is that the White House has shown very little interest in enabling those other agencies to be there.

posted by: anIRprof on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

FSO's can quit any time they want. They are not under the UCMJ.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]


I have this job, and the boss says I'm going to be transferred to a new location. I decide that I don't want to go to that location. The boss says she'll tell HER boss that, but that such an attitude won't help my career any.

I'm sure that sort of thing has never, ever happened to any one in the real - commercial - world.

I'm sure that it only happens to FSO types.

What a bunch of whiny pukes. But not surprising since the vast majority of them are anti-Semites who no doubt hate Israel for messing up their nice clean sandbox.

posted by: anon on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

What a bunch of whiny pukes. But not surprising since the vast majority of them are anti-Semites who no doubt hate Israel for messing up their nice clean sandbox.

I think Norman Podhoretz just shed a tear of joy.

posted by: Hal on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

"The military is largely devoid of the upper class, and the Foreign Service (I beleive) is chocked full of our educated elites."

I find this to be a vast oversimplification. All the FSOs that I've met were very well-educated, but they were not "sons and daughters of the affluent." Most were children of public school teachers, social workers, missionaries, etc. Just wanted to throw that out there.

While I do think that FSOs should be made to serve in Iraq if there aren't enough volunteers, I think the issues of training, medical care, etc. all need to be resolved. As it was noted, "In any other country, an embassy like that would be in evacuation status." I don't believe the Department has a system in place to take care of its people who serve in Iraq, either in country or after they return.

posted by: student on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

1) FSOs do swear an oath to serve where they're sent. In theory, they can be sent anywhere, anytime. It's implicit that some of these destinations may not be safe or pleasant.

2) That said, they're not military and they do have the option of quitting.

3) /That/ said, it's pretty clear that both the administration and the State Department have screwed the pooch on this one. Iraq postings are incredibly unpopular, not because Iraq is dangerous, but because Iraq is a horrible place to be an FSO.

At the micro level, you can't do your job because you can't easily leave the Green Zone. At the macro level, important decisions on Iraq are made either by the military or the White House. Nobody who goes there has a sense of making a difference. The Iraq Embassy has become a byword in the State Department for futility and frustration.

The way this was handled -- with FSOs hearing about it in the news -- is also indicative. Way to build trust, guys.

4) I know a lot of FSOs, and it's just stupid to say they're "elites". They're overwhelmingly children of the middle class. You find very few poor kids going into the FSO, but very few rich kids either. The entry levels don't pay that well, and you have to spend years paying your dues (e.g., by sitting in a small office in a consular section reviewing visa applications).

I'd say the average FSO comes from a more prosperous background than the average Army enlisted man, but the difference isn't huge. Again, the wealthy and the upper middle class don't take these jobs.

5) Final point: the FSO is a deeply hierarchical organization. Perhaps less so than the military, but much more so than any civilian corporation. There's a lot of emphasis on tradition, deference to authority, and not rocking the boat.

For FSOs to be talking like this means something is really not right.

Doug M.

posted by: Doug M. on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Also, being an FSO is already a front-line job in many places around the world. In the years between Vietnam and Iraq, it was more dangerous to be an FSO serving abroad than a military officer.

Besides being stupid, "anon" is probably impervious to facts, but for the persuadables out there, foreign service officers are out there every day doing America proud. In places like Lagos, where dead bodies in the street are a regular feature of the drive to work, or in Port Moresby, where civil unrest was on the agenda the first day at work for an FSO I know, or in Islamabad, where embassy and chancery have been attacked by rocket, or indeed Karachi, where there were bomb or shooting attacks in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006, FSOs are serving willingly. For people with that level of dedication to take a public stand against serving in Iraq is a sign of how fundamentally bad the situation is there. The only other site of significant resistance to service -- Vietman during the war there -- ought to be a huge warning signal is well.

This administration hasn't been listening to contrary opinion and isn't about to start now. But it damn well should.

(ps Doug M., above, is a different Doug.)

posted by: Doug on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Is that Doug W., from the Fistful of Euros?

Anyway: it's a good point. FSOs serve willingly in a lot of unpleasant places. From what I can see, they even take a certain pride in having done a tour or two in Chad, Islamabad, or Uzbekistan. Certainly there are lots of FSOs who'll be happy to tell you blood-curdling stories of life in Beirut or wherever.

So, the public balking here really is unusual.

Doug M.

posted by: Doug M. on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

My reaction when I read this story in the Times was the same as "anon's," though slightly less pugnacious.

I don't know why Dan is acting as if the military is the only job where one gets assigned by one's employer to a particular location. Many companies will say, "You're being transferred to our branch office in X. We need you there. Don't like it? Find another job."

As DougM points out, unlike the military, they can quit.

posted by: David Nieporent on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

I sympathize with the FSOs, who certainly had not Iraq in mind, when they signed up. But similarly,
most of those joining the National Guard (more than 7 years ago) didn't really expect to be called up for service in Iraq either then.--
Both FSOs and soldiers would undoubtedly be happy to risk their life for really defending the U.S. (or, catching Osama..), but Iraq is obviously an 'optional' war, defended by lies (remember the imminent mushroom cloud?), and if you go there, you can't do any good, but might just prolong the agony. But all of us are complacent, and don't do anything about Iraq, because only a small part of the population is immediately affected, with most of the burden on the professional army and contractors.
If there were a draft (or better: a draft in which the children of the top 5% income tax bracket were called up first) the Iraq war would have been ended a long time ago.
If Colin Powell had resigned after realizing that he had presented lies, perhaps the American people would have voted Bush out of office in 2004...
So now, we can hope that when more FSOs resign, more people realize what is going on.
Any FSOs now prompted to resign and criticise the administration's policies probably do something good by doing so (however late it comes)
(and will be denounced - like all war critics - as unpatriotic by the administration. They have my sympathy; the actual decisions on the war etc. from which they -and all Americans - suffer were made by those above their pay grade.)

posted by: A on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

There's a post on this over at washingtonmonthly today. Quote:

"Foreign service diplomats routinely serve in backwater ratholes, and dangerous postings are often part of the bargain too. But when you combine that with a setting in which there's literally almost nothing they can accomplish, a revolt is hardly surprising.

"I'd add one other thing... As near as I can tell, Ryan Crocker is well-liked and highly respected. If even he can't manage to attract enough people to fill up all the open slots in Iraq — especially when a Baghdad posting also offers higher pay, the career boost of serving in a critical embassy, and a choice of assignments after your hitch is up — then service in the Green Zone must be a rathole squared."

Doug M.

posted by: Doug M. on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

November 3, 2007

How Low Can FSO's Go?

International Relations professor Daniel Drezner’s blog has a clip up of the reporting on the resistance of some State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) to serve in Iraq. Drezner asks, “should FSO's be treated differently from soldiers?” The Comments are worth reading.

Aside from one taking the posture of his own blanket opposition to the war as an excuse for the FSO’s, most of the others raise practical concerns about lower benefits (non-income tax free duty) or lesser insurance against death or disability.

These are, indeed, practical concerns and if true should be remedied.

However, I would guess they are overblown is several respects:
1. If so, these benefits issues existed in prior wars or other dangerous duty assignments, and weren’t raised as an excuse for draft evasion by State Department FSO’s;
2. If so, until the professional military was established, military draftees and volunteers received much lesser benefits than presently (e.g., during Vietnam, the life insurance was $10,000) and benefits were not an excuse for not serving among a cohort in greater danger;
3. It appears from the reporting of these FSO’s resistance that their union was in the forefront. Where has this union been on this issue, if indeed it is one, these past 4-years or the previous decades?

My friend, John Carey, is a retired career Naval officer. He asks, "In Iraq: Reporters More Dedicated than the U.S. Foreign Service?” Carey posts that,

As of October 15, 2007, according to the Washington Post, 118 journalist-reporters had been killed in Iraq….We asked the U.S. State Department about any and all deaths and we got this in reply:
“At least three department employees have been killed in Iraq since the 2003.”

The media has been lambasted for its failure to report for field duty in Iraq, most of the 118 journalists killed being Iraqis or from other countries than the U.S., and with even lesser benefits than State FSO’s

How low can FSO’s go? Apparently, even lower than the media.

— Bruce Kesler | Nov. 3, 2007 | 11:42 AM

posted by: Bruce Kesler on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

BTWE, here's the link to State's website, of the benefits available to FSO's in Iraq.

posted by: Bruce Kesler on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

As others above have noted, the main reason for the FSO's revolt is not the physical danger or low pay or lack of benefits. FSO's deal with all of these issues in other parts of the world, without complaining (much).

The issue that FSO's see in Iraq is pointlessness. All major decisions there are made by President Bush or by military brass - State has almost no say, and FSO's feel that they are useless there. Also, many of them feel that they have no chance whatsoever of selling the Iraqi people on US policies there, an issue that is probably exacerbated by 100,000 Iraqi dead, 2M Iraqi refugees overseas, and no end in sight. FSO's are willing to serve in 3rd world hellholes when they are supporting a cause they believe in. The cause is what is lacking in Iraq.

posted by: Joel on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

Everyone is assuming there's a Foreign Service revolt going on because there was a town hall where a couple people stood up and complained. Fact is that FSOs have been volunteering for these jobs for over four years, over 1500 have willingly served. Of the 252 jobs opening next summer only 48 have yet to be filled, this nine months before the jobs are even open. Volunteers will likely fill most of these as well. The problem that I've heard is that most of the experts have already cycled through Iraq. What is left is Latin America experts and Africa specialists who can speak Swahili, but have no qualifications for an Iraq job. The Foreign Service is a pretty thin organization, there's not a lot of bench strength to suddenly throw 250 people at a new post.

posted by: David K on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

The face of America abroad

Baltimore Sun

By Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh

November 6, 2007

The complaints by diplomats at the State Department over the possibility of "directed assignments" to Baghdad provides a window into what should be a central debate regarding the future of American foreign policy: Who should be the face of America?

The State Department, like the military, is home to many of America's best and brightest. Foreign Service officers swear an oath to the Constitution and commit to a life of national service. Many volunteer to serve in war zones and other hardship posts.

Certainly, our diplomats should go where they are asked to, and if they do not believe in the mission, they should step aside.

In extreme circumstances, after years of war and numerous requests by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, some directed assignments may be necessary.

But some concerns raised by diplomats are valid.

They note that many receive only two weeks of training for deployment to the chaos of Iraq and encounter poor security that can make it impossible to do their jobs. In these areas, their complaints ring true and reflect a broader crisis in the practice of American statecraft.

Most Americans are not aware that the State Department is a hollow shell of its Cold War-era self. Cuts throughout the 1990s hobbled our diplomats. These drawdowns mirrored cuts in defense, but they had a much more debilitating effect on the already small diplomatic corps. Vital tools of statecraft such as the U.S. Information Agency were eliminated, and the U.S. Agency for International Development was reduced to little more than a contracting organization. There are more members of U.S. military bands than Foreign Service officers.

Ms. Rice regularly notes that there are few military solutions to our major challenges overseas, including Iraq. Yet the administration has failed to demand meaningful increases in resources for diplomacy. Indeed, the Department of Defense seems most attuned to the crisis posed by our lack of "civilian capacity" deployable for service in weak or failing states. Defense has become the biggest advocate of beefing up State and USAID capabilities. Since 2006, the Defense Department has persuaded Congress to pass legislation that lets the military transfer up to $200 million to the State Department for urgent stabilization and reconstruction missions. This unusual transfer authority was born of Pentagon frustration with civilian resource constraints. After all, where civilians are not present, military men and women manage efforts for which they have little training, from negotiating with local tribes to setting up community centers.

Many older military and diplomatic veterans note with frustration that America has performed better in the past. In the later years of the Vietnam War, thousands of diplomats and military officers trained and worked together in joint civilian-led teams. In those days, turf battles over jurisdiction and money were sidelined, and civilians and military officers worked, fought and died together. These teams, generally credited with vastly increasing the efficiency of various aid and pacification programs, are widely held to be a rare success in the waning years of America's Vietnam disaster. The attempts made so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably through "Provincial Reconstruction Teams," have failed to integrate capabilities as effectively.

Ultimately, this problem is about much more than Iraq; it strikes at the heart of how America chooses to connect with and understand the world. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is right that the United States needs to be "persistently engaged" in the world. The struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan may end someday, but the types of challenges they pose - defeating violent militants, protecting innocent populations, facilitating difficult political processes, building and protecting essential services - will occur in the future. Lacking civilians with proper training and resources, American leaders will rely on the military, and the face America presents to the world will always be framed by a combat helmet and wraparound sunglasses.

American leaders know this is not the best way to do business, and our military does not want to be alone in the world taking on jobs better done by civilians. The American people expect that our diplomats and aid workers will go where they are needed and when they are asked. But unprotected, inadequately prepared civilians in a war zone are in no one's interest. Our elected officials must start giving our diplomatic corps the resources and training it needs to again be the face of America abroad.

posted by: Sean Bohannon on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

No, they are simply civil servants and should not expect special treatment. The State Department has a big morale problem because a group of diplomats have
been trying to claim they are exempt from the Civil Service. They need a unified personnel system so that positions can be filled based on needs and qualifications instead of membership in a special club. The "foreign service" is simply on of the personnel systems under which US Diplomats are assigned abroad.

posted by: PEter on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

No, Foreign Service Officers represent the elite corps of US diplomats. We are not part of the civil service. Civil servants do not take an Exam, do not speak foreign languages, and do not have overseas experience. They are there to support the professional diplomats (FSOs). Only FSOs are entitled to bid for overseas postings. Civil servants can occasionally work abroad, but only if there are no qualified FSOs willing to go. Iraq is an example. But simply serving in Iraq does not entitle a civil servant to call himself a diplomat. Only by passing the Foreign Service Exam (the most difficult Exam in the entire USG), can one rise to the rank of FSO.

posted by: christoper R on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

No, FSOs should not have to go. Civil servants are waiting in line for a chance and should be sent unless a FSO want to go. That is the intent of Congress as expressed in the Foreign Service Act.

posted by: FSO on 11.01.07 at 10:55 AM [permalink]

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