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November 05, 2007 06:02 PM UTC

Should the FSO unquestionably go to Iraq?

  • by: Sir Robin

Addressing a reporter I believe, This from a retiring FSO:

Before you even hint at accusing FSO’s of lacking nobility and courage I invite you (and others indulging in this kind of careless slander) to visit the Department of State’s C Street lobby and read the names engraved on the walls. Pay particular attention to how many have been added in recent decades and the locations. In my 25 years in the service, friends and colleagues that I have served with have been shot dead while visiting a foreign government official’s office, hit by gunfire while standing in their living quarters, taken hostage by terrorists while attending a diplomatic function, had their Embassy building blown down around them by massive truck bombs, and contracted lethal and painful diseases while serving far from home. The generation before me, some of whom I had the honor to serve with late in their careers, included many who spent well over a year imprisoned as the guests of the Iranian revolution for the crime of representing their country.

My contemporaries’ spouses have faced an inability to work or been forced to settle for employment and wages far beneath their ability and experience. Their children have attended substandard schools (or have had to attend boarding schools an ocean away from their parents), have come home from abroad with levels of toxic substances in their bodies far in excess of U.S. safety limits and have been diagnosed with serious learning disabilities that overseas schools are either unwilling or unable to deal with.

All of this is so much a part of the territory of our work that we don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time dwelling on it or talking about it. Perhaps that explains why the broader public seems blithely unaware, and the commentariat and demagogues of various stripes can continue to peddle their cheap stereotypes about cowardly, striped pants cookie pushers. When was the last time you saw a State Department official portrayed in any popular fiction or entertainment medium in a positive, let alone heroic light?

Turning to the specific case of Iraq assignments, we are currently engaged in in the FIFTH rotation of FSO’s into Iraq since the invasion most on one year tours and all unaccompanied, (with the exceptions of a few husbands and wives who are both in the service and have gone together). Every single position up until now has been filled by a volunteer, meaning well over 1,100 have gone, by the official counts. I believe this is well in excess of 10 percent of the Foreign Service, and before you start saying that’s low, remember that their are many other “garden spots” around the world that we have had to keep staffed at the same time, not all of them on one year tours.

The number of Iraq positions to be staffed has been increasing every year. (Whether that makes sense is another question. For that I suggest you take a look at Juan Cole http://www.juancole….). For the assignment cycle beginning in summer 2008, I believe there are over 250 positions to be filled, many of them in Provincial Reconstruction Teams located outside the “safety” of the green zone. The vast majority of these had already been filled, again by “cowardly and ignoble” FSO volunteers, before the Department leadership launched the exercise to identify potential candidates for directed (forced) assignment. More people have volunteered since that announcement, so it is not yet clear whether anyone will wind up being directed. Nor has anyone yet, officially turned down such a directed assignment, since the process has not yet reached that stage.

The people who have been notified they are under consideration for a directed assignment, are, from what I know, mostly experienced FS-01 grade or Senior Foreign Service officers. This means they have well in excess of a decade and a half to 20 years or more of service. Not surprisingly, they have also accumulated families, medical issues and personal obligations in that time (since celibacy and poverty are also not a part of the oath we take), things which they have to weigh when considering their options, along with a lot of factors specific to Iraq evident to anyone who reads the newspaper or watches news broadcasts. Many, although not all, are eligible to retire, and free to do so at any time. Unlike the military, the Foreign Service system has no “stop loss” provision.

Finally, as for showing respect for the sacrifices of young military service members, I recall an exchange with one of the officers in the first wave in Iraq about the dilemmas he faced weighing his need to get out of his “office” (not in the Green Zone) to do his job, and the risk that the military personnel that had to escort him would be placed in danger every time he did so. His personal safety was not his concern. It was how he would live with the fact that his decision to take his escort detail out to a particular meeting on a given day might result in a soldier’s death or injury. How ignoble of him!

h/t time-blog


13 thoughts on “Should the FSO unquestionably go to Iraq?

  1. My experience with FSO’s at Embassies abroad is that they ARE effete pin striped little cookie pushers, and they won’t lift a finger for you if you aren’t somehow connected to their insular world.  They are overpaid and underworked, stymied by their own bureaucratic behavior at every turn.  They did take an oath, let them either live up to it if called to Iraq or resign.  Pussies.

      1. I have lived overseas and have witnessed firsthand the “tough duty” these people go through.  The lavish receptions alone are arduous – now there is one posting out of 150 or so that is dangerous and they are all up in arms.

      2. But I’m thinking more along the lines of a LeMay or Patton to whip these pansies into some form of an organized unit.

        It really DOES sound like herding cats in State. 

        THIS is how we need to operate to finish winning the battle in Iraq and, indeed, the war against Islamism, and when someone suggests that maybe that’s a pretty good reason to suck it up and serve the country they’re claiming to serve, they throw a hissy fit and cry to the media.

        Really, my big problem is that last part – the union revolted and cried to the media.  They didn’t offer a solution, or explain why maybe this wasn’t a good idea, they went straight to the media about what a meanie the President is.  Weak.

    1. While employed at a major corporation, my job was to set up affiliates and operations outside the United States.  To that end, I made a presentation at CeBIT (a huge electronics trade show in Germany) to all the FSOs in Europe that outlined what my company planned to do.

      Maybe 20-30 FSO attendees from all areas of Europe.  Because Europe is a civilized place, these were guys in choice assignments who had worked their way into their current jobs.  Because my corporation was really, really big, we could marshall attendance and participation from the highest levels of the US government.

      My question was extraordinarily basic: What do I need to do in each of your respective countries to start-up an affiliate?  I explained that I already had the complex tax issues handled.  I was expecting (and seeking) practical things like “here’s how you apply for a business license in France…” or “Here’s a contact who can help you with that…”

      The answers I got from this group were utterly unhelpful, utterly uninformed and unconnected with any resources in the countries they were supposed to be our liason to.

      I went away convinced that if this was how we spent our $$ overseas, our government was in deep doo doo.  My experiences with these folks made me understand how the group think that lead to the Iraq invasion happens in our government.

      They did have nice cookies at the meeting, ‘tho and gave me some nice CDs that explained what they did.

      I’m pretty sure all the Dems on Colorado Pols will say “Oh, that’s why we need more money for those guys” but this was at the height of the Clinton administration.

      1. Here comes the but.

        The state department is mostly focused on representing the government at a political level.

        Though they have some duties related to the promotion of trade, those roles are divided between state, commerce and a variety of ad hoc trade agencies.

        Doing business in Europe ranges from very easy to incredibly difficult, but it is nothing compared to the kleptocracries of the third world.

        Having some experience in this area I totally agree with you that State is not well organized to help US business compete overseas. 

        I may be a liberal, and I am concerned about the job impacts of globalization, but I fundamentally believe that trade is critical to our survival as a nation.

        1. to politely eat their cookies and greatly lower my expectations when dealing with these government employees. 

          I’d have been happy with “Here’s the telephone number of some lawyers we know in our country who we don’t think are crooks.”  But, they did not and could not provide even that.  It’s really hard to deal with these guys and think “My taxes pay his/her salary (and living expenses while they are on their overseas junkets), and s/he produces nothing.”

          As luck would have it, I saw Russell Crowe’s “Proof of Life” movie on the flight back to the US after my CeBit meeting and completely freaked out.  I realized if I’m ever kidknapped government guys like those at the CeBit meeting would be the ones looking for me or negotiating for my release.

          I ultimately stopped looking for any help from government sources and started interviewing and hiring law firms that had offices in several countries.

          When I had political problems, I handled them myself.  Got on a plane, hired an interpreter if I could not communicate with the government official, and sat down until we could figure out a solution.  Asking for political help from the State Department seemed like a recipe for disaster.

  2. It’s ok to be killed in America’s worst foreign policy blunder….Iraq, if you’re a worthless highbrow govt. employee. I guess they have it coming then?

    1. but here is an opportunity for FSO’s to actually DO SOMETHING USEFUL, and undoubtedly challenging, other than draw a salary, and rather than step up to the plate they just start sniveling.

      I am sorry to be so negative, but I have about 15 years in international business now (trying to occasionally work with these offices) and FSO’s have proven to be about as useful as tits on a bull.

  3. The majority of FSO’s I’ve worked with in developing countries are of four sorts:

    1) primadonnas more concerned about networking with other Americans for future private sector jobs;

    2) educated idiots who don’t know real life from their a**;

    3) career diplomats who know the game, know the players and maneuver themselves for positions of influence in the State Dept.;

    4) useful, smart, helpful individuals who were then relegated to inferior posts or mundane duties by those described above.

    FSOs don’t want to go to Iraq? Get out and join the private sector.  Why should they have more of an option than the rest of us in their jobs.  They joined to serve their country in the diplomatic corps of the United States and if they can’t do it, drop out, there are plenty of offices looking to hire overpaid lackeys in DC and other international destinations.

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