"No country's diplomatic corps has people with many of the skills now needed in Iraq: oil and gas engineers, electrical grid managers, urban planners, city managers and transportation planners. If any US defense planner in 2003 thought that the State Department and other civilian federal agencies had such people on staff in large numbers (Arabic-speaking or not) ready to rebuild Iraq, they were wrong," says John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).
AFSA represents America's 11,500 professional diplomats. Of these, 6,500 are Foreign Service Officers while 5,000 are Foreign Service specialists, including Diplomatic Security agents. There are another 1,500 or so Foreign Service members at the US Agency for international Development (USAID), the Commerce Department's Foreign Commercial Service, the Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service and the International Broadcasting Bureau, an independent agency closely allied with State.
Naland points out that between the US invasion in 2003 through 2007, all of the more than 2,000 career Foreign Service members who served at the US mission in Baghdad and the expanding Provincial Reconstruction Teams around the country "did so as a volunteer."
Naland termed it "unfortunate" that late last month the Director General of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., declared that "the well of volunteers had finally run dry." Thomas announced that, if volunteers could not be found for 48 remaining positions by mid-November, diplomats -- under threat of dismissal - would be ordered to serve at the embassy in Baghdad and in so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams in outlying provinces. If carried out, it would be the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam.
AFSA contends that "directed assignments of Foreign Service members into a war zone would be detrimental to the individual, to the post, and to the Foreign Service as a whole. AFSA urged the State Department to find ways to increase the pool of qualified voluntary bidders."
Under the new order, 200-300 diplomats have been identified as "prime candidates" to fill 48 vacancies that will open next year at the Baghdad embassy and in the provinces. Those notified that they have been selected for a one-year posting will have 10 days to accept or reject the position. If not enough say yes, some will be ordered to go. Only those with compelling reasons, such as a medical condition or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action.
Diplomats are also angered that Thomas's announcement was made to the news media before it was conveyed to those likely to be deployed under the new policy.
At a 'town hall' meeting in Washington last week, some 300 US diplomats told Thomas what they thought of State's decision to force Foreign Service Officers to take jobs in Iraq.
One attendee, Jack Crotty, a senior Foreign Service officer who once worked as a political adviser with NATO forces, told the Associated Press that the new policy was tantamount to a "potential death sentence." Others expressed serious concern about the ethics of sending diplomats against their will to serve in a war zone while a review of the department's use of private security contractors to protect its staff is under way. Most Embassy staff works in the so-called 'Green Zone' - itself far from immune from incoming mortar and other types of attacks. But members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are deployed through the country, including in some of most dangerous provinces. Only Diplomatic Security agents are permitted to be armed.
The Associated Press quoted Crotty as telling Ambassador Thomas, "It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers, but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment. I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence and you know it. Who will raise our children if we are dead or seriously wounded? You know that at any other (country) in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point." His comments drew enthusiastic applause from his colleagues.
AFSA President Naland said that a recent survey found that only 12 percent of the union's membership believed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was "fighting for them."
He said that some critics of US failures in Iraq are seeking to shift blame onto the Foreign Service for their own lack of pre-invasion planning, while others are as basing their comments on "wildly inflated estimations of the capacities of civilian agencies to operate in combat zones such as Iraq."
In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the State Department assembled a series of blue-ribbon task forces to help prepare the Administration for the political, economic, social, cultural and religious challenges that would likely face the 'Coalition of the Willing' once the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled. The group, which included Iraqi exiles and some of the world's most distinguished Middle East scholars, made a series of recommendations. But the Defense Department, then under the leadership of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ignored their advice.
In a website statement, Naland attempted to put the Foreign Service's involvement in Iraq into perspective. He said, "Comparisons between the military and the State Department are often made with complete disregard for the facts relating to scale: budgets, personnel and capacity for war-zone service."
Naland pointed out that "the US active-duty military is 119 times larger than the Foreign Service. The total uniformed military (active and reserve) is 217 times larger. A typical U.S. Army division is larger than the entire Foreign Service. The military has more uniformed personnel in Mississippi than the State Department has diplomats worldwide. The military has more full colonels/Navy captains than the State Department has diplomats. The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats. The Defense Department has almost as many lawyers as the State Department has diplomats."
He said that, in contrast to the military, "the vast majority of Foreign Service members are forward-deployed. Today, in a time of armed conflict, 21 percent of the active-duty military (290,000 out of 1,373,000) is stationed abroad (ashore or afloat). That compares to 68 percent of the Foreign Service currently stationed abroad at 167 U.S. embassies and 100 consulates and other missions."
Naland noted that more than 20 percent of the Foreign Service has served, or is serving, in Iraq since 2003. In the PRTs, which comprise up to 600 members, the Foreign Service component is 10 to 15 percent. There are currently approximately 200 Foreign Service positions at Embassy Baghdad and another 70 or so at the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
He said, "Foreign Service members receive very little preparation before deploying to Iraq -- less than two-weeks of special training to serve in a combat zone. Contrast that to their predecessors 40 years ago who received four to six months of training before deploying to South Vietnam...."
Naland added that surveys have shown that most Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq have been motivated not by extra pay but by "patriotism and a professional desire to try to advance the Administration's top foreign policy objective."
One of the most serious challenges facing the State Department - and every other government agency involved in Iraq and in the Middle East generally - is the acute shortage of Arabic speakers. This deficit is in danger of crippling US efforts to counter terrorist threats, communicate with prisoners, and build bridges to the Muslim world.
At the State Department, only 10 of 34,000 employees were rated fully fluent in Arabic as of 2006.
The number of Arabic language students in US universities has skyrocketed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the course still ranks behind classical Greek, Latin and even American Sign Language in popularity.
The shortage has spurred an aggressive campaign of recruiting -- including generous sign-on bonuses -- by all U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.
One result of the shortage, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, is that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are "awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence" in Arabic. Heritage also said there are not enough interpreters to handle detainees in Iraq.
The shortage is also having an effect on US efforts in public diplomacy. Adam Clayton Powell III, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, says, "There are only a half dozen or so US spokesmen who have a sufficient grasp of the Arabic language to appear on radio or television in that part of the world. That means the US is not even part of the dialogue there."
While the language situation appears to be improving, it can only improve slowly. One reason is that Arabic is viewed by many as one of the most difficult languages in the world.
The State Department rates Arabic, along with Chinese and Korean, as a "superhard" language.
But aside from language difficulties, another key factor relates to policy. As Juan Cole -- professor of history at the University of Michigan and a fluent Arabic speaker-- put it: "Not everyone studying Arabic is thrilled with US policies in the Middle East."