Envoys Resist Forced Iraq Duty
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Uneasy U.S. diplomats yesterday challenged senior State Department officials in unusually blunt terms over a decision to order some of them to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or risk losing their jobs.
At a town hall meeting in the department's main auditorium attended by hundreds of Foreign Service officers, some of them criticized fundamental aspects of State's personnel policies in Iraq. They took issue with the size of the embassy -- the biggest in U.S. history -- and the inadequate training they received before being sent to serve in a war zone. One woman said she returned from a tour in Basra with post-traumatic stress disorder only to find that the State Department would not authorize medical treatment.
Yesterday's internal dissension came amid rising public doubts about diplomatic progress in Iraq and congressional inquiries into the department's spending on the embassy and its management of private security contractors. Some participants asked how diplomacy could be practiced when the embassy itself, inside the fortified Green Zone, is under frequent fire and officials can travel outside only under heavy guard.
Service in Iraq is "a potential death sentence," said one man who identified himself as a 46-year Foreign Service veteran. "Any other embassy in the world would be closed by now," he said to sustained applause.
Harry K. Thomas Jr., the director general of the Foreign Service, who called the meeting, responded curtly. "Okay, thanks for your comment," he said, declaring the town hall meeting over.
In notices e-mailed to Foreign Service officers around the world late Friday night, Thomas wrote that State had decided to begin "directed assignments" to fill an anticipated shortfall of 48 diplomats in Iraq next summer. Separate e-mail letters were sent to about 250 officers selected as qualified for the posts. If enough of them did not volunteer, the letters said, some would be ordered to serve there.
Foreign Service officers swear an oath to serve wherever the secretary of state sends them, but no directed assignments have been ordered since the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. More than 1,200 of 11,500 eligible State Department personnel have already served in Iraq, but the growth of the embassy has led to an ever-increasing demand.
The notices, which most diplomats first learned about from the news media as the e-mails sat in their office computers over the weekend, appeared to have catalyzed unease that has been swirling through the Foreign Service over issues that include Iraq, underfunding and inadequate recruitment, perceived disrespect from the U.S. military and the job performance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A poll conducted this month by the American Foreign Service Association found that only 12 percent of officers "believe that . . . Rice is fighting for them," union president John K. Naland said at yesterday's meeting, which was first reported by the Associated Press.
"That's their right. But they're wrong," said Thomas, who appeared to grow increasingly agitated as the questioning became more pointed.
"Sometimes, if it's 88 to 12, maybe the 88 percent are correct," Naland said.
"Eighty-eight percent of the country believed in slavery at one time. Was that correct?" Thomas responded, saying he was "insulted." Rice is fighting hard for them, he said. Amid scattered boos from the audience, Thomas added: "Let no one be a hypocrite. I really resent people telling me that I do not care about other Foreign Service officers."