Reluctant Diplomats

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 — Career Foreign Service officers at the State Department reacted angrily at a town hall meeting on Wednesday to the possibility that they might be forced to go to Iraq, putting senior Bush administration officials on the defensive.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced just a few days earlier that the State Department would require some diplomats to serve at the American Embassy in Baghdad or on reconstruction teams in some of the country’s volatile provinces. Only those who can cite compelling reasons, like medical problems or extreme personal hardship, will be exempt from disciplinary action, including dismissal, if they turn down the assignment. [NY Times via Darth Beckman]

This is a strange story. On one level, it is easy to say that people at the State Department should stop whining and do their jobs. It's not like they're being asked walk through mine fields. They'll live in Bagdad's fortified Green Zone and be protected by Blackwater, the best security money can buy. Diplomats live in much better, safer conditions than most of the soldiers and Marines who are deployed to Iraq.

On the other hand, I wonder why this is suddenly a problem now. The world is full of places where it is not particularly safe to be an American diplomat, yet so far as I can tell it has not been necessary to threaten foreign service officers with termination to make them go anywhere else but Iraq. Why is this?

If, as we are told, the "surge" is working, violence in Iraq is falling and political reconciliation among the factions is right around the corner, you would think the State Department people would be pushing each other out of the way to get over there. Claiming a piece of the forthcoming great victory ought to be a good career move. This is not happening.

One would think that diplomats have a high degree of knowledge about the real situation in Bagdad. The reactions we see in this story suggest that the State Department rank and file is not optimistic. They could be wrong, of course. I sincerely hope so. Or, they may know some things that the rest of us don't.

Judging from the reports, Secretary Rice seems fully prepared to follow through on and replace anyone in the Foreign Service who refuses assignment to Iraq. From the Bush Administration's point of view this might not be an entirely bad thing. They would then get to re-populate the State Department's career ranks with people of their own choosing who would be more likely to share Bush's attitude toward diplomacy. This would make it that much harder for the next Administration to change course from the direction Bush has been going.

If in fact there are job openings at the State Department soon, it will be a golden opportunity for some people. Personally I am not interested. If I were, say, someone with a Ph.D. in political science who loves his country, fully supports current U.S. military operations around the world, and enjoys defending his positions vigorously, I might look into it. Then again, I might not.

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