This week's outburst by U.S. Foreign Service officers over the potential for forced deployments to Iraq, to make up for a shortage of volunteers, undoubtedly will be met with disdain from members of the Armed Services and some other civilian agencies of our government. The emotive response from the nation's diplomats, and the military's frustration over feeling very alone in this Long War, are symptoms, not causes, of a much deeper problem.
To recap: At a State Department town hall Wednesday, hundreds of diplomats cried foul over a new policy that could cost them their jobs if they turn down assignments in Baghdad or outlying provinces. "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," declared one Foreign Service veteran. "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?"
Who, indeed? Undoubtedly, the same question was asked silently by the parents among the approximately 4,000 military personnel who lost their lives and the nearly 30,000 wounded since the Iraq war began.
I conducted interviews with hundreds of soldiers returning from Iraq as part of my previous job as director of policy and research at the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. The most common complaint: Where are our civilian counterparts? Forced deployments or not, this fundamental question will reverberate long after Iraq -- and answering it is not easy.
It's understandable that some diplomats who objected to the Iraq invasion are reluctant to partake in Iraq's reconstruction. But some uniformed military also disagreed with the invasion. If they got to pick the missions to which they deployed, we would have a civil-military crisis on our hands. We cannot afford a civil-civil crisis either. That's why Foreign Services officers swear an oath to go where they're sent.
There are some completely practical considerations that make the personal-risk calculation for diplomats different from their military counterparts. For instance, a Foreign Service officer's life insurance policy becomes null and void in a combat zone -- a big deal for someone with a family to support.
But the more significant problem is cultural. Our diplomats are not used to laying their lives on the line in operational roles. Sure, many of them serve in hardship postings. But part of the reason that only three State Department employees have died in Iraq is that most never leave the relative safety of the Green Zone. They're not trained to. Our diplomats have been the conveyer belts of policy ¿ not the engines of policymaking or operations.
But the Long War will increasingly call for civilian expertise in "non-permissive" environments, where the bullets are still flying. The Blackwater debacle touches on only a small sliver of the many questions about U.S. civilians in warzones. Should the U.S. ambassador Iraq, or any country, be in charge of all U.S. government personnel there, including U.S. military personnel, so that the ambassador can order, rather than ask, for protection of operational diplomats? Should our diplomats be given the authority, training and means to defend themselves in non-permissive environments? Would that shift then require legal reconsideration of their role as "combatants" versus diplomats?
The visceral response from the diplomats this week suggests that the cultural inclination of the State Department will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. That should only be the beginning of the debate, however, not the end.
At least two options exist: First, a separate Cone (or section) could be carved out at the State Department for such Foreign Service Operators. The currently envisioned Civilian Reserve Corps that would create a cadre of civilians to deploy overseas is a start, but the underlying issues of State Department culture still need to be addressed. This Cone would build an expeditionary culture by having different incentive structures and expectations from the rest of the State Department. Roping off this Cone from the rest of the State Department is critical lest State's bureaucratic antibodies kill it.
Alternatively, if one believes that such a Cone would perish before it even got off the ground, a Field Operating Agency (FOA) should be created to house this operational civilian cadre outside the State Department. These civilians would answer directly to the President. It should be noted that the FOA should not fall under the National Security Council (NSC) due to rightful concerns that the NSC not become operational. The FOA leader should hold a Cabinet position to give the civilian cadre clout, as well as to establish the proper reporting chain.
The country cannot continue fighting the wars of the 21st century with the civilian tools of the 20th. It is long past time to begin debating options, inside or outside the State Department, to address this gap in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal.