Since the State Department announced it would send US diplomats to serve in Iraq against their will, Foreign Service Officers have been volunteering to go – but the order has sparked a fresh controversy hearkening back to the Vietnam War.
Some Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) believe they should go where they’re told to go, no questions asked. Typical is the view of one 35-year-plus veteran. “To me the choice when tapped for service there is simple: go or quit,” Richard Undeland, who was ordered to Vietnam, where he served for two years.
The retired FSO says, “When I was pulled out of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1960, where I was director of our cultural center, and sent to Vietnam for a field operations posting, I didn't bat an eyelash, but went. It was what those in the Foreign Service did.”
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which represents America’s 11,500 diplomats, takes a decidedly contrary view. AFSA President John Naland says, “I marvel at people who point with pride to the experience 40 years ago with directed assignments of diplomats to South Vietnam. Do they not remember how that turned out?”
Facing growing scrutiny of the State Department's shortage of experienced diplomats in Iraq - and the Department's announced intention to force Foreign Service Officers to serve in Baghdad against their will -- the leader of America's diplomatic service is charging that critics, "including people who urged the 2003 invasion," are seeking to blame the State Department for their own failures.
"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 AFSA’s Naland.
Naland claims the State Department now has volunteers to fill around 90 percent of the summer 2008 openings in Iraq. “That fill rate is above the approximately 80 percent mark at this time in last year's assignment process for summer 2007 openings. With seven months to go in the summer 2008 assignments cycle, State most likely could find volunteers for the remaining two dozen or so openings if they would allow the assignments cycle to proceed as it did last year.”
However, he added, “If State does decide next week to rush to directed assignments, I personally believe that those so directed will, in the end, accept the assignment.”
While Undeland and Naland disagree on the responsibility of diplomats to serve wherever they are sent, they agree on a host of other issues.
Undeland says he “Greatly questions the need for so many from State being in Iraq and wonder what the hell they can all do that is of use.” Many active and former diplomats have pointed out that it is unusual for a US Embassy to remain open in the midst of armed conflict.
Undeland believes, “It was unbelievably stupid to go into Iraq in the first place, and I remain almost wholly convinced that we are going to leave behind something that is less to our liking than Saddam. We have gotten ourselves into an incredible disaster that is more than likely to have evil consequences for us as a nation and people for many years to come.”
Undeland also agrees with Naland on the way the State Department disclosed its decision to “direct” diplomats to Iraq – most FSOs learned of the new policy through the news media. Later, AFSA members held a fractious “town hall” meeting in the State Department auditorium, during which they strongly criticized both the new policy and Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, the Assistant Secretary of State who made the announcement.
Undeland says Thomas, who presided at the meeting, “handled the complaints in that now widely known session at the Department in a very inept way.”
Naland has pointed out that, unlike the US military, diplomats serving in Iraq are unarmed and protected by private security contractors like Blackwater.
During Undeland’s Vietnam service, he says, “It was dangerous enough that I armed myself with guns and grenades and drove around in a Jeep with armor plating and sandbags on the floor. It was not heroism or bravado, but only the way the vast majority of us looked on our Foreign Service commitment. I don't mean to draw odious comparisons between us then and those now, but I do not see why the same kind of attitude should not prevail today.”
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."