By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007
The State Department will order as many as 50 U.S. diplomats to take posts in Iraq next year because of expected shortfalls in filling openings there, the first such large-scale forced assignment since the Vietnam War.
On Monday, 200 to 300 employees will be notified of their selection as "prime candidates" for 50 open positions in Iraq, said Harry K. Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service. Some are expected to respond by volunteering, he said. However, if an insufficient number volunteers by Nov. 12, a department panel will determine which ones will be ordered to report to the Baghdad embassy next summer.
"If people say they want to go to Iraq, we will take them," Thomas said in an interview. But "we have to move now, because we can't hold up the process." Those on the list were selected by factors including grade, specialty and language skill, as well as "people who have not had a recent hardship tour," he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice previewed a possible shortfall in June, when she ordered that positions in Iraq be filled before any other openings at the State Department headquarters in Washington or abroad are available. At the time, Rice said it was her "fervent hope" that sufficient numbers would continue to volunteer. Her order followed a request by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker in Baghdad for an increase in the number and quality of economic and political officers.
Although a few skilled individuals were ordered to "hard-to-fill" diplomatic posts in past decades, there have been no mass "directed assignments" in the Foreign Service since 1969, when an entire class of 15 to 20 entry-level officers was sent to Vietnam, Thomas said.
Those who receive the selection letters will have 10 days to file a written notice of objection. The review panel will consider the objections, but Thomas made clear that a serious, documented medical condition is likely to be the only valid excuse. The department has the authority to fire anyone who refuses to accept an assignment.
The union representing U.S. diplomats has officially objected to the Iraq call-up.
"We believe, and we have told the secretary of state, that directing unarmed civilians who are untrained for combat into a war zone should be done on a voluntary basis," said Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. "Directed assignments, we fear, can be detrimental to the individual, to the post, and to the Foreign Service as a whole."
Kashkett said the association had contended in meetings with Rice and Thomas that a diplomatic draft is unnecessary and that "thousands" of diplomats have volunteered for Iraq over the past five years. "We're not weenies, we're not cowards, we're not cookie pushers in Europe," he said. "This has never been necessary in a generation."
Thomas also praised the service and noted that more than 1,200 of 11,500 Foreign Service personnel have already served in what has become the largest U.S. embassy in history. But the embassy's sheer size and the truncated, one-year diplomatic tours there have strained the service. The embassy and other U.S. diplomatic outposts in Iraq employ about 6,000 people, including several hundred Foreign Service officers, other State Department specialists, American contractors, third-country nationals and Iraqi hires.
The number of diplomatic positions in Iraq has increased every year since the embassy was opened in 2004. The expansion of Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- made up of diplomats who work with local communities outside of Baghdad -- from 10 to 25 last summer as part of President Bush's new strategy added another 30 Foreign Service personnel and many more outside contractors. Volunteers have filled all but about 50 slots that will be empty as of next summer, Thomas said.
At congressional hearings last summer, Kashkett testified that medical and psychiatric symptoms have become a growing problem for personnel serving in high-danger zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the constant need for personnel in Baghdad has drawn new dividing lines between those who have volunteered and those who have not.
Although the secretary of state has the authority to direct assignments, "State Department discipline exists on paper only," one senior official said. "They rarely make people go to places they don't want to go."
Crocker requested a management review of the embassy when he became ambassador in March. In a cable to Rice two months later, he asked for more -- and more experienced -- political and economic officers. "In essence," he wrote, "the issue is whether we are a Department and a Service at war. If we are, we need to organize and prioritize in a way that reflects this, something we have not done thus far."
At the time, President Bush had declared a new push for political reconciliation and economic progress in Iraq, and the State Department was struggling to meet those ambitious goals. When it could not quickly mobilize enough diplomats and other civilians to fill the new Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the far larger Pentagon agreed -- with barely concealed resentment -- to provide temporary manpower.
"The military in the last 12 months has been fed a diet of how the State Department failed and sent a bunch of second-stringers" to Iraq, the senior official said. Some department officials took umbrage at Crocker's cable, which seemed to confirm that assessment, but the end result was a determination to marshal whatever resources it took to fill the need.
Those who are ordered to Baghdad as part of the new call-up will receive incentives, known as the Iraq Service Package, already offered to volunteers. It includes additional pay of about 70 percent for most mid-level officers, plus another 20 percent of basic salary to compensate for long hours. Officers are not allowed to take their families to Baghdad, but the package allows them to leave spouses and children in whatever post they transfer from for the length of their tour, or to send them back to Washington.
U.S. diplomats in Baghdad are given five "rest and relaxation" breaks during the year, including up to three of them in the United States, for a total of 60 days outside Iraq. Those completing a Baghdad tour are also given preference in choosing their next assignment.