WASHINGTON – While the diplomats and foreign service employees of the State Department have always been expected to staff “hardship” postings, those jobs have not usually required that they wear flak jackets with their pinstriped suits.
But in the last five years, the Foreign Service landscape has shifted.
Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House is calling for more U.S. civilians to head not just to those countries, but also to some of their most hostile regions – including Iraq’s volatile Anbar province – to try to establish democratic institutions and help in reconstruction. That plan is provoking unease and apprehension at the State Department and at other federal agencies.
Many federal employees have outright refused repeated requests that they go to Iraq, while others have demanded that they be assigned only to Baghdad and not be sent outside the more secure “Green Zone,” which includes the U.S. embassy and Iraqi government ministries.
And while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained yesterday that State Department employees were “volunteering in large numbers” for difficult posts, including Iraq, several department employees said that those who have signed up tend to be younger, more entry-level types, and not seasoned diplomats.
The reluctance highlights a problem with the administration’s new strategy for Iraq, which calls on U.S. diplomats to take challenges on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world, when the lack of security on the ground outside the Green Zone makes it one of the last places people, particularly those with families, want to go.
Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization that represents State Department employees, said that “our people continue to show great courage in volunteering for duty in Iraq.” But Kashkett added, “there remain legitimate questions about the ability of unarmed civilian diplomats to carry out a reconstruction and democracy-building mission in the middle of an active war zone.”
The issue flared this week when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates testified at a Senate hearing that he shared the concerns of officers who complained about a request from Rice’s office that military personnel temporarily fill more than one-third of 350 new jobs in Iraq that the State Department is supposed to be responsible for.
The New York Times reported yesterday that senior military officials were upset at the request and told President Bush and Gates that the new Iraq strategy could fail unless more civilian agencies step forward quickly to carry out plans for reconstruction and political development.
David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior adviser for Iraq, told reporters during a teleconference that the State Department’s request was only for temporary help and for non-State Department positions that would probably be filled by contractors anyway.