As you may have seen in the Director General’s May 27, 2008 [message] “Announcing the 2009 Iraq/Afghanistan Cycle” and in the Secretary’s personal message to the field, the Department has begun recruiting for summer 2009 openings in Iraq. I am writing to inform you that the Department considers you among those particularly well qualified for the key positions listed below and is asking you to seriously consider volunteering for an opportunity to tackle our nation’s top foreign policy priority.The above is not a draft notice, but these days few people outside the US military receive such explicit hints that it would behoove them to consider spending time in body armor in Baghdad. In the Army, as my father used to say, it was "We need three volunteers: you, you, and you." The State Department, diplomatically of course, "considers you particularly well qualified." The result is the same. Our diplomat-blogger contents herself with reproducing the Friday morning email. Like the good career professional that she is, she provides no editorial comment. But you can bet that there is much soul-searching going on in the "M" household this weekend.
Excerpt from State Department email of 30 May 2008 to American diplomat "M," cited in the blog Life After Jerusalem
In the fall of 2007, much was made of the State Department's difficulties in filling its personnel slots at the US Embassy in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, though after the initial flurry of publicity, in fact no one was actually "directed" (or, in non-State speak, forced) to go to Iraq. But "asking you to seriously consider volunteering," while not literally forcing, has a different meaning when you're an individual employee having to deal with the juggernaut of Washington's personnel establishment. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA, the professional association which advocates for American diplomats with their employers at the State Department, USAID, as well as the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture) has monitored this issue, and its monthly magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, has documented the nuanced meanings of "volunteering."
Consider the typical case of an officer with school age children, who has to follow increasingly restrictive rules that narrow choices down to places like Iraq (Green Zone or PRT?) and Afghanistan (Kabul or a Provincial Reconstruction Team?). One such officer outlined his dwindling options, and illustrated how in the end, his "voluntary" assignment to Afghanistan was simply a choice of lesser evils. And it's not just Iraq and Afghanistan. According to AFSA, "two thirds of the Foreign Service is deployed overseas at all times and 70 percent of them are at hardship posts (meaning locations with difficult living conditions due to terrorist threats, violent crime, harsh climate, or other factors)." Like the military, many Foreign Service families are separated during entire tours of duty.
Scott McClellan's current media blitz over his book "What Happened" has been the focus of stinging comment of the sort "If you didn't like the policy, why didn't you just resign from the White House?" A legitimate question, though last night's "Anderson Cooper 360" on CNN, where he described the former White House Spokesman as a "civil servant," missed the mark. No, White House Spokesmen are Political Appointees. Unlike "M" and other career diplomats, who don't have the easy option of a high-level resignation followed by six or seven figure book advances. Three American diplomats made timely, principled resignations over the Iraq war, and I do not believe any of them became wealthy.
Back to "M'" and her "opportunity to tackle our nation’s top foreign policy priority." I guess I'm just not convinced of the validity of the Administration's priority list. Which I liken to a pyromaniac who chooses to set Iraq ablaze while the fire department is busy trying to extinguish the 10-alarm conflagration of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan: "Okay, maybe it is a bigger fire now, but it was arson, and you're the arsonist."
In the remaining months of the Bush Administration, while it rushes to put a "Status of Forces Agreement" with the Iraqi government in place - one that many Iraqis oppose and about which the US Congress has many questions - American diplomats will continue to get more "volunteer notices" like the one above. But far-thinking people in the "shadow cabinet" that I hope the Democrats will soon form should consider the changes needed to prevent American diplomacy's core skills from atrophying. For service in all those countries in the world where, though they may be tough places, you still don't require a flak jacket, and where the host government has a presence outside a Green Zone perimeter. And where the safety of your embassy does not depend on the indefinite presence of the US Army.