November 1, 2007

The Diplomat Draft

America has a problem in filling in its front-line positions in a war zone. Volunteers have not materialized, and the mission faces collapse without the numbers necessary for success. The leaders have determined that the Charlie Rangel approach has become necessary -- and the rank and file have begun to mutiny.

Are we talking about the Army? The Marine Corps? No, their re-enlistment rates and recruitment goals show no troubles -- unlike at the State Department:

Uneasy U.S. diplomats yesterday challenged senior State Department officials in unusually blunt terms over a decision to order some of them to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or risk losing their jobs.

At a town hall meeting in the department's main auditorium attended by hundreds of Foreign Service officers, some of them criticized fundamental aspects of State's personnel policies in Iraq. They took issue with the size of the embassy -- the biggest in U.S. history -- and the inadequate training they received before being sent to serve in a war zone. One woman said she returned from a tour in Basra with post-traumatic stress disorder only to find that the State Department would not authorize medical treatment.

Yesterday's internal dissension came amid rising public doubts about diplomatic progress in Iraq and congressional inquiries into the department's spending on the embassy and its management of private security contractors. Some participants asked how diplomacy could be practiced when the embassy itself, inside the fortified Green Zone, is under frequent fire and officials can travel outside only under heavy guard. ...

In notices e-mailed to Foreign Service officers around the world late Friday night, Thomas wrote that State had decided to begin "directed assignments" to fill an anticipated shortfall of 48 diplomats in Iraq next summer. Separate e-mail letters were sent to about 250 officers selected as qualified for the posts. If enough of them did not volunteer, the letters said, some would be ordered to serve there.

Foreign Service officers swear an oath to serve wherever the secretary of state sends them, but no directed assignments have been ordered since the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. More than 1,200 of 11,500 eligible State Department personnel have already served in Iraq, but the growth of the embassy has led to an ever-increasing demand.

Service in Iraq is no milk run. It requires diplomats to work extensively outside the Green Zone, mainly with PRTs on reconstruction efforts. They also work with the military on security issues and with local leaders on reconciliation in one of the most volatile mixes of ethnic and sectarian populaces in the region.

However, volunteers for the Foreign Service understand that the job entails such difficulties when they join. The oath they take should make that fairly clear. Thomas warned the staff in the meeting that one in three tours would likely be in "hardship" areas, given the challenges facing the US, and that the Foreign Service would act to ensure that these missions had enough staff to succeed.

Morale at State seems poor enough that forcing the issue will likely lead to an exodus. Most of the people at this meeting seemed outright hostile towards Condoleezza Rice and current leadership, which may not reflect on Rice personally at all but on policy differences with the current administration. Perhaps Rice should look outside of State for new foreign-service officers looking for ways to contribute to the Iraq effort outside of military service. That could attract retiring officers and enlisted from the Army and Marine Corps with some experience in Iraq, or others with skills in Arabic language and culture and a desire to put them to use.

It will be interesting to watch Congress react to this. Some of the Bush administration's critics, such as Charlie Rangel, have pushed a military draft in order to complicate the political efforts for the war. They argue that a volunteer army doesn't appropriately balance the sacrifice for war among economic and racial lines, although the Heritage Foundation effectively debunked that last year. Will they criticize a State Department "draft" of diplomats after attempting to cram a military draft onto the Pentagon, which clearly would prefer not to deal with conscriptees?


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