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Iraq, the Foreign Service, and Duty

Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter
Vice-President, American Diplomacy Publishers

In his recent editorial “Iraq, the Foreign Service, and Duty,” our distinguished editor makes several assumptions about today’s Foreign Service with which I disagree. First, he suggests that the principle of worldwide availability has been eroded since the “good old days.” I would suggest that the principle was never applied equitably in the first place. Granted there was no open assignment process. Instead, whom one knew and one’s place in the hierarchy generally determined the location and type of assignment one received. Assignments to Vietnam were not spread equitably across the Foreign Service. Over the years the principle has certainly been eroded through a process of changing medical standards (once upon a time people suffering from asthma and other diseases, or with physical conditions limiting where they can be assigned could not enter the Service, something no longer true), more attention given to family values, and a deteriorating security environment for the Foreign Service globally.

Second, the editor implies that today’s Foreign Service Officers and staff are not willing to take on dangerous assignments. That is demonstrably untrue. Foreign Service staff have served, continue to serve, and have lost their lives in the service of their country in places like Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, the Congo, and elsewhere. He quotes a statement by David Passage, but focuses on the first phrase, i.e., assignments that “needlessly endanger lives. The full sentence ends with “…under conditions in which there can be no reasonable expectation of positive gain.” And this is the critical issue regarding current assignments to Iraq. Can FSOs really perform the functions for which they are trained and equipped in today’s Iraq? I, along with many other current and former FSOs, question whether they can. Isolated in the “Green Zone,” unable to travel without a large armed security force, risking the lives of contacts by the very fact that they are embassy contacts, and forced to do most business by telephone, I wonder how they accomplish anything at all. What work there can possibly be for over 200 officers, especially since the State Department doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of overseeing the activities of its numerous contract personnel in the country, is unclear. The same holds true for FSOs assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams, many of which work in conditions preventing them from having the impact they should. The editor suggests that “FSOs…in Iraq have demonstrated that they can implement effective counterinsurgency operations,” something I did not think fell within the mandate of the Service. In fact, in most cases, FSOs serving on PRTs don’t even control the funding to carry out their missions and instead are dependent on Defense Department funding. Many stories that I have read suggest that their military colleagues on PRTs find civilian counterparts a hindrance to their mission because they present an added security responsibility for the team. This is no way to run a railroad, much less a coherent peacemaking and nation-building operation.

The editor also questions the comparison today’s FSOs make between the difficulty of service in Iraq versus that in Vietnam three decades ago. I also served in CORDS, although at a later time than Ambassador Bullington. He is correct that the Foreign Service suffered grievous losses in Vietnam, but most of those occurred during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In general, FSOs in both Embassy Saigon and CORDS did not operate under the same constraints as do their counterparts in Iraq today. The principal danger in Saigon consisted of occasional unguided rocket attacks which, to my knowledge, caused no Foreign Service casualties. The only restriction on movement was an 8:00 p.m., or so, curfew. Citing progress in Anbar Province, he suggests that FSOs assigned to PRTs in Iraq have as great or greater freedom of movement as FSOs assigned to CORDS. I’m not at all certain that is true. In my experience most FSOs assigned to CORDS traveled unaccompanied by security in clearly marked civilian vehicles for most of their duties. Certainly in most provinces there were areas to which we did not have access, and no one expected civilians to travel to those areas. There were other areas to which we traveled only in the company of our military advisor counterparts. Are there, in fact, provinces in Iraq where our FSOs can travel unaccompanied at all? Can they, as many of us could, drive from their province to the capital unaccompanied? I think not.

Two other critical differences distinguish service in Vietnam from that in Iraq. First, most of the people assigned to CORDS, like Ambassador Bullington and myself, were first or second tour officers. That is largely who has staffed Embassy Baghdad and, I suspect, PRTs up to now. The current pressure is to assign more experienced mid- and senior-level officers. Inevitably this means taking people from other critical regional embassies that are already short-staffed, a situation not encountered in the 1960s when the Foreign Service was relatively better staffed. Perhaps the East Asian Bureau had to juggle positions, but other regions did not. Were there, as David Passage argues, reasonable expectation of positive gains from their assignments I think there would be less opposition among higher grade FSOs.

Second, there is the training factor. The editor doesn’t say what level of training he received, but by the time I entered training, in the fourth year of our military buildup in Vietnam, I received almost a full year of training including 10 months of Vietnamese language, area training, weapon familiarization, counterinsurgency game playing, and so on. I gather people assigned to Iraq receive two weeks of training. Why would any professional agree to take on an assignment for which he or she is woefully under trained? I note, for instance, the many complaints from military officers and NCOs forced to take on nation-building tasks in Iraq for which they aren’t adequately trained. At least the Pentagon is addressing the need by creating training programs which inevitably will mean passing essentially civilian functions to the military. Meanwhile the State Department, under funded and understaffed as usual, and led by a management team that seems uninterested in correcting either deficiency, appears resigned to having the military expand its foreign policy responsibilities even more.

I do agree with the editor that all FSOs took an oath to serve wherever assigned. Those who cannot do so must resign. However, I can only sympathize with colleagues forced to choose unpalatable options: give up their career or take on an assignment for which they are not trained or equipped and which shows little promise of producing any positive results. End.

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