Saturday, November 3, 2007
Hell No, We Won't (All) Go!
You've no doubt seen the media coverage of the State Department's 'townhall meeting' to discuss Department plans for some involuntary assignments to Iraq. The money quote was provided by a senior Foreign Service Officer, Mr. Jack Croddy (photo above), who appears to have been cast as La Passionaria of the Great Foreign Service Rebellion of 2007:
"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," Mr Croddy said."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."
Predictably, it was the "potential death sentence" phrase that got all the attention, and has led to endless and repetitive denunciations from internet-land of all those State Department pussies who fear to go to Baghdad. From what I've seen, there is a right/left split in the exact terms of those denunciations, with the right-wing bloggers most often calling diplomats unpatriotic civilians, wimps, and Clinton administration hold-overs, and their left-wing counterparts usually calling them Neo-Con chickenhawks.
Just FYI, the chances of a diplomat being killed during a tour in Iraq are approximately 1 in 500, since about 1,500 State Department employees have served in Iraq since 2003 and three of them have been killed [a ratio of 1:500]. By comparison, about 500,000 troops have been deployed to Iraq since 2003 and about 4000 of them were killed, or one in 125 [1:125]. That proves it is more dangerous to be a troop than a diplomat, as one would expect, but it's not exactly safe to be a diplomat, either.
Chances of death aside, it was Mr. Croddy's comment about how 'any other embassy would be closed' that I found much more significant. I suspect that really gets to the heart of the very genuine Foreign Service reluctance about the enterprise in Iraq. The fact is that there really isn't much, if any, diplomatic work to do when hunkered down in the Green Zone. This Time magazine piece gets it right:
"The most demoralizing aspect of the violence may not be the physical risk, but rather the isolation and sense of futility the violence engenders. Most diplomats leave the Green Zone only rarely, and never simply to socialize with ordinary Iraqis or explore the city."
Today's diplomats experience more than their fair share of hazardous duty stations. Someone who came into the Foreign Service in 1971, as Mr. Croddy did, has seen the embassy environment drastically changed by mob take-overs starting in 1979 (Tehran, Tripoli and Islamabad), suicide carbombers starting in 1982 (Kuwait, and Beirut twice), and more or less constant assassinations, riots, hostage-taking, wars, and civil disturbances. That's on top of the traditional embassy threats of violent crime and disease.
Most Americans have an out-dated and ridiculously glamorized image of embassies and diplomats. The first embassy I ever visited was Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the aftermath of a military coup. I was fresh out the U.S. Army at the time, and the embassy compared very unfavorably to any Army base I had ever experienced. It was a shock to my TV-and-movie derived image of the plush diplomatic life. Since then, I've visited about 45 embassies (some of them even worse than Haiti!) and have had a ring-side seat from which to observe the Foreign Service both abroad and in Washington. I completely reject the idea that diplomats are unwilling to serve in unpleasant or dangerous places.
So, how many Iraq positions have to be filled? The news media has done a terrible job of reporting the basic facts of this story. State isn't drafting diplomats wholesale, and it doesn't lack volunteers for Baghdad or the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Here are the facts: there are about 260 diplomatic positions in Iraq now, all filled with volunteers; Ambassador Crocker has asked for an additional 48 positions to be created in the next few months, 15 of them in Baghdad and 33 in the PRTs. State has notified 250 officers that they are prime candidates for filling those 48 positions, and that they will consider directed assignments if enough officers don't volunteer. As of Friday, 15 officers have already volunteered. In short, there is no crisis here.
You can read all about it at this State Department press conference.