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by J. R. Bullington
Editor, American Diplomacy

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):

  • “A diplomat refusing to perform his duty is worse in my book than a soldier refusing to perform his.”
  • “Poor mistreated diplomats!!!”
  • “In a time of war FSOs should be prepared just like our military to ship out.”
  • “I have only contempt for those who both refuse to serve and also expect to retain their jobs.”
  • “Professionals need to do what needs to be done.”
  • “They make it sound like their children are more important than the soldiers’ children and their lives mean more.”
  • “Like members of the military you took an oath to serve this country, not at your convenience, but when we need you.”

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

Directed assignments to Iraq are the culmination of a series of systemic changes implemented by the State Department recently that were seen by American Foreign Service Association President John Naland (in an article on “The New Foreign Service” in the February 2007 issue of the Foreign Service Journal: as profoundly altering the conditions of service for career diplomats. “For better or worse,” he wrote, “this is not your father’s (or mother’s) Foreign Service.”

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

When my first overseas assignment (to a year-long Persian language and culture training slot at Tabriz University that I had coveted) was broken by orders sending me to the Consulate in Hué, Vietnam, as a “provincial reporting officer,” I was disappointed; but it simply did not occur to me to resist. The nation was at war, and Vietnam was where I was most needed at the time. Had not President Kennedy challenged all Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”? Were not my contemporaries joining the military or being drafted? Why should I, as a career diplomat, be somehow exempted from service that might be dangerous? I was proud to go to Vietnam, and in fact volunteered for a second tour, not in a traditional diplomatic position but working in a rural province in the civil-military counterinsurgency program known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support).

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”, 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.

Dangerous Service

First of all, the implication that Vietnam service was not very dangerous compared with Iraq is not accurate. Since the war began in March, 2003, three Foreign Service personnel — two diplomatic security agents and one political officer — have been killed in Iraq. In Vietnam, more than 30, including two of my close friends, were killed. Those numbers speak for themselves.

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.

J. R. Bullington
J. R. Bullington

Ambassador Bullington has been editor of American Diplomacy since July, 2007. He served at the Consulate in Hué, the Embassy in Saigon, and with CORDS in Quang Tri, 1965-68. He was on the NSC’s Vietnam Special Studies Group, 1969-70, and the State Department’s Vietnam Desk, 1973-75. His other Foreign Service assignments were in Southeast Asia and Africa, and as Dean of the State Department’s Senior Seminar. After the Foreign Service, he was at Old Dominion University, and was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He is a graduate of Auburn, Harvard, and the U.S. Army War College. He is currently retired in Williamsburg, VA.


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