A Letter From Iraq to My Overwrought Colleagues

Posted by John Matel
November 7, 2007
PRT Activity in Baghdad, Iraq

In his first posting, John writes an open letter to his Foreign Service Officer colleagues about the controversial issue of directed assignments in Iraq. The issue raises an interesting question, "Should diplomats and other non-military personnel be forced to work in an active war zone"?

John Matel is a career Foreign Service Officer (FSO) who is currently serving as the team leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team embedded in Al Asad, Al Anbar Province.

I just finished reading a news article discussing some of my FSO colleagues' vehement and emotional response to the idea that a few of us might have directed assignments in Iraq . To my vexed and overwrought colleagues, I say take a deep breath and calm down. I have been here for a while now, and you may have been misinformed about life at a PRT.

I personally dislike the whole idea of forced assignments, but we do have to do our jobs. We signed up to be worldwide available. All of us volunteered for this kind of work and we have enjoyed a pretty sweet lifestyle most of our careers.

I will not repeat what the Marines say when I bring up this subject. I tell them that most FSOs are not wimps and weenies. I will not share this article with them and I hope they do not see it. How could I explain this wailing and gnashing of teeth? I just tried to explain it to one of my PRT members, a reserve LtCol called up to serve in Iraq . She asked me if all FSOs would get the R&R, extra pay etc. and if it was our job to do things like this. When I answered in the affirmative, she just rolled her eyes.

Calling Iraq a death sentence is just way over the top. I volunteered to come here aware of the risks but confident that I will come safely home, as do the vast majority of soldiers and Marines, who have a lot riskier jobs than we FSOs do.

I wrote a post a couple days ago where I said that perhaps everyone's talents are not best employed in Iraq . That is still true. But I find the sentiments expressed by some at the town hall meeting deeply offensive. What are they implying about me and my choice? And what do they say to our colleagues in the military, who left friends and family to come here and do their jobs? As diplomats, part of our work is to foster peace and understanding. We cannot always be assured that we will serve only in places where peace and understanding are already safely established.

If these guys at the town hall meeting do not want to come to Iraq , that is okay with. I would not want that sort out here with me anyway. We have enough trouble w/o having to baby sit. BUT they are not worldwide available and they might consider the type of job that does not require worldwide availability.

We all know that few FSOs will REALLY be forced to come to Iraq anyway. Our system really does not work like that. This sound and fury at Foggy Bottom truly signifies nothing. Get over it! I do not think many Americans feel sorry for us and it is embarrassing for people with our privileges to paint ourselves as victims.



Sally J.
November 8, 2007

Sally writes:


Your comments are your own, granted. But I would question how this whole posting, this whole system of the "dipnote" contributes to the American public's knowledge of how foreign policy is made. In fact, you manage to make FSOs look bad by using your best diplo-speak in calling the "whiners""wimps and weenies." Is that really the best an American diplomat can do? If so, God help us.

I did actually learn something from this post. It has made me realize that there is actually a point to the whole clearance process. When someone is able to run amok online in his first tour...with no guidance from above...wow.

Good luck getting your next assignment!

Your friend,

John M.
November 9, 2007

Dipnote Blogger John Matel writes:

@ Sally -- You probably took the wrong lesson or did not read carefully enough. It is about our duty as Foreign Service officers. If you read all of what I wrote, you know that I do not advocate sending the whole FS to Iraq. I understand that some people?s skills are better employed elsewhere. But I do not like it when the minority of my colleagues loudly make us all look bad at town hall meetings.

I also understand the subtle blog dig about the first tour and I will just reject the implication. I expect you well understand that the FS does not make first tour officers team leaders in Iraq.

Re my next assignment, I got a couple dozen emails from colleagues. Most were positive and told me that I said what they were thinking. Only two were really negative. I do not think that I will have too much trouble.

Besides, before I took the Iraq job, I specifically resolved NOT to be concerned about the next job so that I would not have to shave my activities to fit career prospects. I made no deals for the next job. I have dcne no lobbying and if it comes down to it, I can always retire and grow trees.

@ Doug in Minnesota -- Robin did not pay attention to my posts or the links. I did not call anyone unpatriotic, for example, and I mentioned that not everybody should come to Iraq.

I think that too many people are mixing politics with duty. People can disagree about Iraq policy, but surely we ALL want our country to succeed there. No matter what decisions were made in the past, we can only proceed from where we are today. I chose to do what I could to produce a better result. Others have the right to make different choices. But FSOs are supposed to be worldwide available and we do not get to make our own foreign policy.

If you are former FS, you know that few of us REALLY will be forced to go to Iraq. There will be enough volunteers. Those guys at the town hall did not have to be so loud.

@ Ted in Belgium & Lysa in Virginia -- Please see above. I agree with you.

@ Matt in Texas -- My experience in Iraq gives me a different impression. I get out regularly and talk to Iraqi of all sorts. My team members are out every day. We are helping set up NGOs, building the infrastructure for local government, working on reconciliation and helping the Iraqis repair their infrastructure. I cannot predict the future. It is possible we will not succeed. But we are doing the right thing here and we are working for peace and understanding. Maybe it is a small thing, but it is what we can do.

Remember, it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

@ Elimoticky in Texas -- No matter what the politics, it is clearly in America's interest to succeed in Iraq. The macro-political decisions are made by elected leaders. FSOs do not have a direct part in that. We cannot change past decisions; we can only work to make the future better than the past.

November 9, 2007

Kristin in Iraq writes:

John congratulations on your well deserved promotion! I've been so sputteringly angry at the comments by some FS officers at the town hall meet and am glad that you've had put out the message that not all FSOs are unwilling to serve where needed. Good to have you on my western flank.

Maryland, USA
November 9, 2007

Dan in Maryland writes:

@ Bill in New Mexico -- You said “Bill in Minnesota” took a cheap shot a President Bush for his comment about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Viet Nam war. I agree that "Bill in New Mexico’s" comments on Bush service was indeed a cheap shot. However, you then answered with a couple of cheap shots of your own regarding Senator Kerry’s and Vice President Gore’s war service in Viet Nam. All these cheap shots are most unfortunate and unfair. Indeed, whatever Bush’s, Kerry’s and Gore’s decisions and motivations were when they were young men, they all did in fact serve their nation in a time of war. Further, in future years they all continued to make tremendous personal sacrifices to serve our nation, and they even put their lives at risk by seeking to serve our nation as President. To question these men’s integrity and patriotism is a great and unjust insult to them, to their service to our nation, and to our nation itself. Such cheap shots are also beneath us as U.S. citizens.

Missouri, USA
November 9, 2007

Kat in Missouri writes:

@ Sally, Doug, et al --

I actually believe this is one of the better posts as a number of FSOs have responded. As a private citizen who is very interested in how our federal government operates, I am glad to see some internal discussions. There are many people who have questions about how we operate precisely because our efforts in many fields, particularly that of State diplomacy, are not transparent. Most of it happens "over there", in other nations so we have little information or exposure.

With former ambassadors and other national agency employees routinely leaving their posts due to disagreements with this policy or that, who routinely end up on the book lists or in op-ed pieces airing their views, not to mention this latest public dust up that was in the AP, we are left to wonder exactly how does an agency perform their functions successfully if the employees are in constant rebellion?

Further, with some apparent failures of diplomacy as well as some not so apparent successes, we are wondering what our national agencies are doing exactly to promote our interest and work towards our security. There is definitely nothing wrong with a little transparency even if some of the issues are embarrassing or have exposed something less than shiny and bright within the department.

Finally, this blog isn't just for the American people, though it's in english. There are people from around the world that routinely comment here. It is an opportunity for State to "mine" the opinions and thoughts of others to possibly foster a better understanding of the opinion of other nationals as well as ours in order to better formulate the message we wish to project and manage our relations with these nations.

A government or corporate blog is meant to develop direct communications between it's "customers" (we the people) and the entity. Believe it or not, the most successful at those efforts are those who do not shy away from controversy, but embrace it and address it head on. In fact, if John had not posted this response and Mr. Croddy's remarks had been left to stand in the public media without being addressed, the public's opinion of State would be more damaged than it is now. Right this second, this blog post has made it around the internet and probably been viewed in one form or another over a million times, providing a platform for State to balance their image nationally and internationally.

I doubt seriously Mr. Martel's career is in any more danger than it was at any other time. Unless, of course, Sally is implying that he risk's retaliation by higher ranking officials who disagree with his opinion? That is a serious issue and makes one question exactly what else goes on at State that we should be concerned about?

In the end, protectionism within the State department, whether that is territorial or ideological, is the real danger at State. The inability to think outside the box and bring new ideas or even to accept them leaves the department moribund and irrelevant.

That's why I like this blog. It's existence implies the total opposite.

Mark E.
November 9, 2007

Mark writes:

Nice post. These FSO's refusing to help their comrades are also likely to be the ones who are hiding/burying/ignoring the evidence that was turned over to State Dept. post invasion about Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism (see www.regimeofterror.com).

Why do these people think they can make policy and not just carry out the policy of the elected officials?

United States
November 9, 2007

CB in U.S.A. writes:

Thank you for posting, John. I followed a link to this blog, and have learned a lot about the U.S. Foreign Service.

I do wish that the comments would specify who is from outside the FS (as I am) and who is a FSO. But I've tried, and here's what I've picked up.

* Many --- if not most --- FSOs are dedicated servants of their country, and willing to follow the orders and administer the policy of the elected and appointed officials who have the authority to give orders and set policy. They are honorable professionals, and my hat's off to them.

* There are some who, when they don't like a policy, whine and complain. This is a sign of immaturity; they should be told to grow up (and provided assistance) or leave.

* There are some who, when they don't like a policy, actively work to subvert it. They are criminal frauds, and should be prosecuted for violating their oath of service. If the FS has an equivalent of a Dishonorable Discharge, they should receive one.

* The percentage of the honorable FSOs is probably higher in the "less plum" assignments than in Washington DC or some of the more "easy" assignments.

* There are some management issues within the Dept. of State that should be checked. Medical support for FSOs should apparently be a higher priority.

John, your blog has improved the reputation of the FSO as a whole in my own sight. I have a greater appreciation for the valuable work that you and your colleagues do. Thank you again for publishing.

District Of Columbia, USA
January 17, 2008

Dan in Washington, DC writes:

@ Kat in Missouri -- Regarding your comments: "Maybe the DoS employees are behind the curve on understanding the current world situation. Increasingly, the places that are problems are nations are small, unstable, where the economy and political situation are marginal and where low intensity wars or even actual revolutions are taking place."

I’m a long-time State Department civil service employee, but what follows are my own personal views. You make some very good points, Kat. And, I agree with much what you say about how the world has changed. I will also agree with you that SOME State employees may be behind the curve in terms of the understanding and/or appreciating these changes in the international environment, and how this impacts U.S. diplomacy.

Nevertheless, I believe the vast and growing majority of State Department employees grasp how the world has changed. Moreover, these State employees who “get it” about the changes in world are also are leading the way and taking the steps necessary to adjust how the State Department’s operates, so as to provide winning U.S. diplomacy for today and into the future.

In this regard, the movement to change the State Department so that it effectively meets today’s global challenges, and makes the most of today’s international opportunities, has been strongly encouraged and endorsed by the top leaders at State for years now. Indeed, Secretary Rice has undertaken a significant effort to remake the Department and U.S. diplomacy. For example, in this 2006 Rice speech detailed her call for fundamental changes to the State Department, to where State's personnel are deployed around the world, and to the conduct of U.S. diplomacy as a whole -- an initiative she terms “transformational diplomacy” -- see http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/59306.htm .

The Department is also implementing a host of other initiatives designed to ensure effective and successful U.S. diplomacy in today’s increasingly interconnected, globalized and dangerous world. For example, the relatively new State Department Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (see http://www.state.gov/s/crs/ ) was recently established to “lead, coordinate and institutionalize U.S. Government civilian capacity to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations, and to help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife ...”

A further example of how State is changing is another new office in the Department -- the office that I currently work in -- which is named the “Office of e-Diplomacy,” (see http://www.state.gov/m/irm/c23839.htm ). The e-Diplomacy office was created to help ensure that State diplomats had the communications and knowledge management support they need for the successful conduct of U.S. diplomacy in the information age. One of e-diplomacy’s major initiatives is supporting the State Department’s “Virtual Presence Posts” program, which helps the Department broaden its engagement with key cities, communities, regions, and countries around the world without an American embassy or consulate building (see http://www.state.gov/m/irm/c23840.htm#vpps).

Further, I on my own have tried to do what I can to help bring about an altered State Department, so that it is better able and equipped to formulate and conduct U.S. diplomacy today and in the future. In this regard, “Kat in Missouri” expressed concern about a State Department that has “for many years” been caught in the “Cold War” thinking that has plagued the DoD.” I had some of the same concerns back in 1997 during an era that was often called with a lack of vision “the post-Cold War era.” And thus, with the Department’s clearance, I gave a presentation to a Department of State speakers program called “The Secretary’s Open Forum,” where I proposed a new term, a new agenda and appropriate changes for U.S. foreign policy, i.e., to work toward a “Fair Peace.” Following this speech and again with Department of State approval, I established my own web site (see an archived version of this web site at: http://web.archive.org/web/20040210181109/http://www.fairpeace.org/ ) to promote this idea. I even shared a copy of my speech/proposal a few years ago with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell wrote back to me saying he found my ideas to be “interesting and still on-target.”

Finally, I would add that this Dipnote blog itself is indicative of the ways that the Department is changing for the better and adjusting to the challenges and opportunities of today. This new method for the open, free exchange of information via this blog helps the Department, its employees, U.S. citizens and people around the world engage in useful discussion about important diplomatic and foreign policy issues. That is a very good thing, and indeed a lot of what diplomacy to promote peace, prosperity and freedom is all about!

November 9, 2007

Victor in Brazil writes:

Hello John,
In following the discussions with AFSA, etc. you may realize that what was really being discussed was a much larger issue: lack of support from management to FSOs in a variety of ways: transparency, the bidding process, consultation in decision-making, openness to feedback on policy (esp. HR) decisions, etc. All who viewed the remarks of the DG were flabbergasted at his crass handling of what are real concerns.

It is not about Iraq per se, in my view. It is about why our mission there is so large and has strained staffing levels everywhere else; it is also about doubts about the sustainability of our current foreign policy there, and the concern that you raised: are FSOs really being well-utilized in what is essentially a military operation by any other name? Of course, FSOs salute those who have and do bravely serve there; it is the larger context, which provokes so many questions and reactions.

Virginia, USA
November 9, 2007

Jim in Virginia writes:

Bravo, John!

As a retired FSO who served three years in wartime Vietnam and at several other hardship posts during times of conflict, I too was embarassed by the sentiments expressed at the town hall meeting. They do not reflect the Foreign Service I knew and loved.

For a very different viewpoint on directed assignments to Iraq, I invite readers of this blog to visit my editorial in American Diplomacy, an online professional journal, at: www.americandiplomacy.org.

November 9, 2007

Joe in Suriname writes:

What’s in a promise? Everything. Or at least that’s the way I think it should be. When I joined the Foreign Service in 1995, I signed an employment contract that stipulated I would be available to serve anywhere in the world, in any capacity the Department of State deemed necessary to the national interests. This contract was solemnized in the swearing in ceremony all Foreign Service Officers take. If this does not constitute a promise, I don’t know what does. It was the same promise I made when I entered the Army in 1981.

I understand why many of my Foreign Service colleagues are against directed assignments to Iraq. Having served there in 2004 and again in 2005 on temporary duty assignments, I know from personal experience that it is not a pleasant place. There are very real dangers, as has been sadly proven by the death of some of our colleagues. But character and its child “honor” dictate that a person lives up to their promises. Many in the Foreign Service have. A quarter of our total active duty strength has served there already.

But for those that are against it I would say, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” The Foreign Service receives a larger pension then our Civil Service colleagues. 1.7 percent rather than 1 percent. We also have the option of retiring at an earlier age, with less time in service. Fifty years old and twenty years of service, vice fifty-five with thirty years. This is because of the assumption that we face hardships and danger not normally associated with a Civil Service career. To make the promises and enjoy the prestige and financial benefits conferred with a Foreign Service career, and then to go back on the promise, reflects poorly on the individual and the Service.

It’s a two way street. Many who serve suffer from PTSD and physical injury. The government has a responsibility to care for these individuals in a way that places no financial burden on them or damage to their career.

Like the military of today we are all volunteers. You can’t pick and choose your wars. We bureaucrats have no right to make policy any more than our military colleagues do. Those decisions are left up to the highest authority in our land. The voter. When they vote their trust in the President and Congress, we are honor bound to accept the assignments given us.

If the objection to service in Iraq is moral you can resign without shame. If however it’s a matter of not wanting the hardships that go along with an assignment in a war zone, then you should convert to the Civil Service or go into private industry. Civil Servants do much of the good work done in our government, and your time would be well spent.

But don’t try and have it both ways. If you want to be a lumberjack you have to handle your end of the saw.

Florida, USA
November 10, 2007

Lola in Florida writes:

I have a couple of friends in the Foreign Service whom have served in places like Mali, Chad, Nigeria, Haiti, Bangladesh and Ivory Coast in recent years and are now getting letters. In the effort of full disclosure, I have a couple of questions for you. 1) What was the last hardship post you served in before Iraq? 2) How much of your career have you spent in hardship countries?

Florida, USA
November 10, 2007

Brad in Florida writes:

Mr. Matel:

First & foremost, thank you for your service.

As for your colleagues, perhaps State should replace the lot of them with retired military personnel. At least we'd know they wouldn't be afraid of serving, and if the reports we read about military officers day-to-day diplomacy are accurate, their 'real world' experience will more than make up for any shortage in "foreign service" time.

Oh, yeah - - - - your people sound like the very few folks who enlisted in the military for the college, etc. & wanted out when, you know, they were actually going to be asked to fight.

In short ... weenies.

New Mexico, USA
November 10, 2007

Bill in New Mexico writes:

@ Dan in Maryland -- I am bemused at your comment objecting to my cheap shots in response to a cheap shot. Have we become so sensitive that the cheap shot is the new lower limit to discourse and is not acceptable for on-line comment? In that case great swaths of the political spectrum must thereby go mute.

I have yet to locate your comment scolding "Bill from Minnesota" for his transgression. Would I be spending my time wisely to keep looking?

As for the gentlemen who were the subject of my comment, and with due respect to their service to the nation, I find many reasons to question their integrity. But this is all off topic...

Arkansas, USA
November 10, 2007

Jennifer in Arkansas writes:

I don't have a comment and I don't read blogs but just trying to find a way to get in touch with Mr. John Matel or any other person who can assist in getting a diplomat government job in Iraq. What jobs are open in Iraq and what are the requirements!? If other people would like not to go over there, please, let me take their place. Please, somebody, find me a list of jobs. I'd be so happy to apply.

November 10, 2007

Franz in Afghanistan writes:

The Secretary of State called on Foreign Service members to step up and volunteer to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the main reasons I volunteered to serve in a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan -- besides the obvious obligations entailed by the Secretary’s call and the oath I swore when I became a commissioned Foreign Service Officer – is the consular leadership tenet, “Lead by Example.” As a mid-level consular officer who ordinarily supervises junior officers, I am concerned about the great number of first- and second-tour junior officers who have been assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan. These dedicated junior officers, who are subject to “directed assignments,” deserve to have leaders who share the risks and sacrifices they are experiencing, and who develop the specific leadership skills of the new, “expeditionary” Foreign Service, which increasingly engages in interagency missions such as PRTs. It would obviously be detrimental to the morale of the junior officers if we older, more seasoned officers avoided service in Iraq and Afghanistan while the Department continues to send large portions of each new officer class to these dangerous assignments. Although we older officers tend to have spouses, children, and other reasons not to want to go on unaccompanied tours of duty, it is nevertheless essential to the well-being of our Service that we lead by example. I think we older officers long ago became used to being sneered at and characterized as the “pin-stripe set,” arrogant trouble-makers who aim to undermine the administration’s foreign policy, and so forth. The surge of public derision occasioned by some FSOs’ comments at the infamous town hall meeting should not alarm or offend us; we’ve heard it all before. What should concern us, I submit, is 1) the formation of skills and a professional work ethic among our junior officers, and 2) the development through on-the-ground experience of best practices for interagency missions. We mid-level officers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan will soon be leading and mentoring junior officers bound for those war zones.

I’ve read some articles lately which assert that FSOs’ roles in PRTs and in war zones generally are limited to the point of being nearly worthless; that the military has no use for us, does not understand what FSOs are doing, or supposed to be doing, and even that FSOs are a burden to the military units with which they work. My experience is quite the contrary. The military officers and enlisted ranks with whom I work appreciate very much that I am with them, and we work effectively together. I don’t presume that I perform any function for the mission that the military could not do itself if it had to; but it shouldn’t have to. There is a general consensus in Afghanistan that the inter-service and interagency functioning of PRTs is effective and is steadily improving as the military, State, USAID, and other federal agencies acquire experience with the interagency approach to counterinsurgency, security, reconstruction, and development. FSOs are recognized and appreciated by the military as force multipliers.

I have tremendous respect for my military colleagues, many of whom are Individual Ready Reservists whose deployment is even more inconvenient than mine is, as they have to endure an interruption of their civilian careers whereas this is my career. In light of our military colleagues’ sacrifices and the strong positive contribution FSOs are making to interagency missions, I would say to FSO colleagues who might be sitting on the fence with respect to volunteering for Iraq or Afghanistan: It is certainly difficult and painful to be separated from loved ones, but if you have a Class 1 medical clearance, you should volunteer. You will be appreciated, you will make a real contribution, you will become a better officer, and you will really lead by example.

Virginia, USA
November 10, 2007

Gregory in Virginia writes:

Let me articulate what the Marines might be thinking.

As a retired Air Force officer, I am appalled at the Foreign Service officers who are afraid to go to Iraq and so dramatically state that its a "death sentence." One does not expect to find the latest mutation of Sunshine Patriotism at State. As Mr. Matel points out, the U.S Military and DoD personnel pay an infinitely higher price than the State FSOs could ever dream - and the military folks pay that price with a lot more selflessness, a lot fewer expressions of reservation, and, on average at a lot lower pay.

Almost four thousand soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen have died in Iraq; about 23,000 have been wounded to some degree. To add insult to injury and death, some National Guardsman and Reservists have lost their regular jobs because of repeated call-ups and extended tours, if you believe what you read in The Washington Post. I searched State's official web site and can find no official record of any foreign service officer deaths in Iraq.

While Foreign Service officers do risk bodily harm, I would guess, statistically, that the risk is no greater than what they face on their drive to work in Washington D.C.

Those hopefully few "comfortable careerists" at State should be ashamed of themselves, for even suggesting that their risk of bodily harm should be an overriding consideration for their deployment. That they do so without any mention of the price their fellow Americans in Defense pay for what is a National policy, not to mention the Iraqui people themselves, should only add to their shame. The bitter irony is that those in Defense who serve in Iraq probably have much less "say" about the policy than those who object in State.

I am also profoundly disappointed that Secretary Rice is apparently publicly silent on the topic, as is Deputy Secretary Negroponte.

Those Foreign Service officers who refuse service in Iraq should be dismissed. At the very least, part of their daily duties should be to spend a year changing bedpans at Walter Reed for those Americans who did not refuse service.

Sadly, without much respect...

District Of Columbia, USA
November 10, 2007

Tara in Washington, DC writes:

Is Iraq a death sentence? Probably not. Perhaps you feel you are making a real difference in your PRT, and if so, congratulations. But every officer I've spoken to that has come back from service in Baghdad, even those who are true believers in the cause, have had bad experiences. They can't leave the green zone. They have no way to access information to report. They have to compete with contractors who do the same thing they do, have fewer security restrictions, have been at post far longer, and therefore have all the contacts. Let's face it, the majority of State officers in Iraq at the moment are there for show. They can't perform their jobs due to security problems, so they sit in their bunkers for a year, hope they don't get hit by a stray rocket, pocket the money, and come home hoping for a good assignment. So I am supposed to leave my two young children for a year to sit in a bunker and do nothing but fight with other Americans for shreds of information I can report back? I consider it tragic that military personnel must leave their families behind for such a poorly planned mission, but at least when they get to Iraq, they have a job to do. I personally don't feel that the travesty is that more FSOs aren't willing to go to Iraq, no questions asked, it's that more FSOs are not willing to ask the question, calmly and without emotion or hysterics, what for?

District Of Columbia, USA
November 11, 2007

Anne in Washington, DC writes:

I am one of those who have served in Baghdad and I can tell you that it was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I left my husband and two children (aged 11 and 15 at the time) and stepped up to the plate. It was also probably the most rewarding job of my career. Unlike many, I was lucky to have a management job where I could accomplish some real goals to improve the working conditions for my American and Iraqi colleagues alike.

On a personal side, I learned to appreciate my family and my country all the more. Although I've been back over 3 months, I am still overwhelmed by the joy of being with my family again, being able to shop at the local Giant and feel alive again.

I hope I never have to go back again, but if duty calls, I will respond. For details on my life during the year in Baghdad, check out my blog: www.baghdadanne.com. You'll see that it was a tough assignment, but not without its rewards.

I was at the Town Hall meeting and embarrassed to see how our service is being torn apart by this issue. I hope those who are sitting on the fence will make the decision to serve. We're professionals; we took an oath and we serve the Office of the President. I'm disappointed that we've become so polarized.

United States
November 11, 2007

Karl in U.S. writes:

As a former FSO, and USAF Vietnam veteran, I have read the postings re forced assignments to Iraq with interest and some vexation. While every FSO I know wants to "make a difference," I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a former Undersecretary for Political affairs, at the time the most senior career officer in the Department. We were discussing the future of the foreign Service, an evergreen favorite topic, when he imparted two thoughts that have remained with me over the decades:

"Remember, not one person in this building (Main State) was elected to their job. If you don't like policy X, quit and work to change it, but remember that "Service" is the middle name in FSO." Tough for a competitive examination entry junior FSO to hear, but true nonetheless.

The second bit of wisdom came later when we were discussing the public resignation (a one-day Washington Post story) of a mid-level officer supposedly over a policy disagreement. He said: "Look, when you get an assignment, you have three options - go, talk your way out of the posting, or quit. If you go, you owe it to your colleagues, your Ambassador, and the career to do your level best to succeed."

Many people disagree with our current policy in Iraq, but if you believe in a democratic government and a professional Foreign Service, I still think this advice provides fair guidance.

John M.
November 11, 2007

Dipnote Blogger John Matel writes:

@ Tara in Washington -- What you are saying WAS often true. It is also still dangerous difficult and unpleasant here. As for the difficult part, that is sometimes the FSO job. We all hope to have pleasant experiences, but we cannot always guarantee that. The more important point is that conditions are changing. The military surge has brought some security and an opportunity for the diplomats to really do to work. I am in the field, among Iraqis several times a week. Members of my staff are out every day. We still have heavy and unpleasant security arrangements, but we are by no means hunkered down.

I do not know much about the status of reporting officers in Baghdad and I never advocated that everybody come to Iraq, but I can tell you with certainty that in the PRTs we are doing real things. It is the kind of diplomacy that most of us can only dream of doing. It is hard and there is a lot of responsibility. I am certain that I will be glad when I am done, but it is shaping up to be the most interesting and rewarding job I have ever had, or ever even heard about.

It may not be the appropriate time for a particular person to come to Iraq. But they are missing out of the chance to do the things - the good things - that most of us signed up to do. Serving in Iraq is a great OPPORTUNITY. Some day soon others may regret they did not take it.

@ Gregory in Virginia -- you know where I stand on this issue, but I would not minimize the legitimate security concern. My own feeling is that I am in more danger from a helicopter or Humvee accident than from an insurgent bullet or AQI bomb, but since I am traveling by helicopter all the time, I do think of that.

@ Franz in Afghanistan -- My experience with the military is similar. They want us here and are supportive. We are not just hunkered down. On the contrary.

@ Jennifer in Arkansas -- I think it is www.careers.state.gov where you want to look. Otherwise just go to the www.state.gov and look for the career section.

@ Lola in Florida -- My hardships until now were not very hard. I was in Krakow when it was still a 15% hardship. It was very polluted but not hard. My posts in Brazil will called hardship, but they also were not very hard. I have been to only one non-hardship post, but I have never been to a post that I did not enjoy AND Iraq is not an exception, despite the danger, dust and drudgery. If you want to make an ad hominem point, you may be able to do it, but that is not the point. If you read carefully what I have written, you see that I say that some people's skills are best used someplace besides Iraq. I am not advocating Iraq tours to make people uncomfortable or as a type of payback. It is merely that Iraq is currently one of our top priorities and we should be willing to do our jobs if we are the most appropriate.

BTW - if you read what I wrote above, I think the service in Iraq is underrated. Running a PRT is probably about the best job most FSO can get. Conditions are unpleasant, but job satisfaction is tremendous. People who refuse to consider Iraq are just missing out. It is more fun than writing cables in Paris.

Virginia, USA
November 11, 2007

Michael in Virginia writes:

I'm a Foreign Service Officer scheduled for deployment to Iraq in early 2008. I, along with my fellow FSOs, will do the needful. We do this because we understand that duty and honor are important. In 1996, I was one of seven Americans taken hostage by MRTA terrorists at the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru. I remember my thoughts in those days before we were released when I wondered if I would ever see my family again. This is not an easy life but it's the one we've chosen. I go to Iraq because my country needs my skills and experience there. Over 1,500 of my FS colleagues have made the same decision. I hope that the country remembers those that have served and those that are committed to serve as the debate over directed assignments gains more attention.

November 11, 2007

David in Austria writes:


Thank you for expressing what has long been on my mind. As one of the early FSO's who volunteered for service in Iraq, it was always my assumption that once policy decisions are made by those constitutionally empowered to make them, it is our job to put shoulder to the wheel and make them successful. And while we may be frustrated by what we think is poor implementation, that in fact makes it more important for those of us who are in a position to help, to step up and do so.

Every organization has its whiners and shirkers, and the State Department, or for that matter the military, is no different. It's just too bad that ours have received undo attention lately, and made us all look bad.

Congratulations on your recent successes in Anbar. When I was in Baghdad in 2004, things were going in the opposite direction. What impressed me was the number of people who refused to admit defeat when things looked hopeless. It appears to me now that al Qaida has been defeated in Anbar.

If this turns out to be true for the rest of Iraq, we can claim a major historic victory, not unlike many others in the history of our country. Those of us who had the opportunity take part will be able to look back with satisfaction. Those few (from a historical perspective) who did not survive will be honored. Most of the rest of the world will pocket the turn of events as the natural course of things, with little regard for the struggle or the sacrifice. So be it.

Keep up the good work.

Tim B.
November 11, 2007

Tim in Thailand writes:

Dear Folks,

When I read the posts and comments here, I am reminded of the phrase about not seeing the forest for the trees. Folks are so busy picking apart the red herring issues (the trees) they are missing the underlying issues.

I am currently on business travel in Bangkok. Having seen much of the world over with extensive travel over 25 years, all without the benefits of the comfort and perks of being a diplomat, I am not uninformed nor unenlightened.

The view of the U.S. is at such an all time low that we U.S. citizens are embarrassed to show our passports. People whisper in hotel lobbies and lounges about how embarrassing the current leadership is in the U.S.

Of course it is frustrating for career diplomats when they are a part of an administration who view of diplomacy is to drop bombs and rattle swords in a new doctrine of "strike first" and "toss established humanitarian conventions out the window".

This is exactly what is to be expected when the basic doctrines of our constitution are trampled upon in a new Orwellian doublespeak called "freedom" and "democracy". Instead of a nation of compassionate intellectuals we are a divided nation because of religious and revengeful zealots.

It was not the events of 911 that destabilized the world - it was and is the continued revengeful and hateful reactions by our government leaders.

It is now an embarrassment to be an American overseas, as well all know, and the only folks who don't see it are those blinded by the flag that is wrapped around their head, covering their eyes to the truth.

Yours faithfully.

Massachusetts, USA
November 11, 2007

Andrew in Massachusetts writes:

@ Gregory in Virginia --
Just came across this WAPO article citing both Sec. Rice, and DepSec. Negroponte making it clear that if the remaining 28 of 48 posts are not filled there will be call ups to serve for FSOs. It seems Secretary Rice is putting her foot down, and that gives this citizen confidence in the leadership at State.

Excerpt Washington Post, 11/11/07
""If I need somebody to serve in Iraq, they have to serve there," Rice said in an interview on Friday with the Dallas Morning News.

Rice praised the Foreign Service and noted that "large numbers" have volunteered for Iraq duty in the past four years. She said that widespread news reports indicating diplomatic dissension over possible directed assignments were "overblown.""

Oklahoma, USA
November 11, 2007

Paulo in Oklahoma writes:

There is so much vitriol in this string of responses that it is difficult to find a place to begin. It seems to me that there are two basic issues to address: the political and the practical.

The practical first: The Foreign Service is being asked to sacrifice to support a U.S. Government policy. Expectedly, this request brings on much angst as Officers are trying to balance the demands that America today makes on them. We do not need to go into the differences in support that engender Military life and Foreign Service life. Let's just leave it at the fact that the military does a much better job of supporting its family than State currently does. As an FSO, I have been asked to carry out the foreign policy initiatives of every president since Reagan. Some policies were good and some were half-baked. The practical matter is whether, given the conditions on the ground, diplomacy can make a difference. That question remains unanswered even in the face of the largest deployment of diplomats in history to Iraq. Many of these problems were foreseen as early as March, 2001, when the majority of field reporting advised this administration against getting involved in Iraq for many of the reasons that have come to pass. Again, in 2003, the Foreign Service advised our policy-makers on the parameters for an invasion/occupation of a major country where we could not expect things to go very differently than they have. Should we continue to contribute our bodies to this situation when our tools of engagement (our minds) have been eviscerated?

The second issue is the most troubling. On the political side, many things are happening in this debate.

1. Why is there a shortage of volunteers for Iraq? There isn't. The numbers have been manipulated, perhaps for political reasons, in an attack on the integrity of the patriots that took the oath of office. The anticipated vacancies in Iraq were filled in the (ab)normal assignment process this year. The shortfall arose when some 50-80 new positions were created, positions that Officers were unaware of. The flap started with the premature wailing of the administration that the gap existed and the threats of directed assignments. None thought to ask for more volunteers before going to the press. To me, this is a political move by the administration to deflect criticism of the shortcomings of the Iraq policy over the past several years. It further hides what is perhaps a dereliction of duty on the part of the administration. Department officials have been given everything they have asked for by Congress over the past few years. So why do we have a 2000-person shortfall in State Department staffing? Those same officials have chosen not to ask for sufficient resources for the organization.

2. Oath of office: I swore an oath to serve this country, "to support and defend the Constitution," and defend the United States "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I am a Foreign Service office, not a law enforcement officer or a military officer. From that perspective, where have the challenges to the Constitution come from? Not from Saddam, or even al-Qaeda (which wasn't in Iraq until we got there). The "Patriot Act" is a bigger threat to the Constitution than al-Qaeda will ever be.

And for those of you chortling about "getting elected" to carry out policy, election does not make a policy effective, actionable, or even right-headed. That is what the Constitution is for.

Those in charge of the U.S. Department of State and other organizations in our government today need to take their roles seriously, consider both the political exigencies and the managerial responsibilities before taking an internal debate over the effectiveness of our Iraq policy into the public arena where the same media that ignored the warning signs before 9/11, and before the invasion of Iraq can work its same magic on this issue.

North Carolina, USA
November 11, 2007

Gary in North Carolina writes:

I am retired AF military (Vietnam Vet) and retired AF civil servant. I would gladly come back on duty to serve in Iraq given the opportunity. Serving my country is what my whole life has been about and I would be proud to continue. I'm sure there are thousands of us out there and the State Department wouldn't have a problem finding us.

November 11, 2007

Sean in Afghanistan writes:

I would like to know when you oxygen thieves will decide to serve your country? When the enemy is parachuting down on you. You all disgust me, I would cut all your pay to GS-1's and put you in front of typewriters. We in the military don't have families and friends? Who will take care of them when we are gone? Miss Rice please take me into the FSO state dept. and my fellow brethren so honor can be restored. Your worried about the green zone? You are clueless clowns and pathetic too! Can't tell you how much disgrace you people are. Go back to the other sheep, The guard dogs will protect you.

November 11, 2007

Martha in Canada writes:

Foreign Service Officers are civilians; we are not soldiers. One might ask, what is the difference? In general FSO's are valued for their abilities to communicate, to speak to people and to report on their contacts and exchanges that they have made with people overseas. We are valued for our language abilities, our abilities to see shades of gray and our abilities to express complex experiences and ideas usually in a bilateral (can be multilateral) setting.

There is a profound distinction between diplomacy which should focus on the steps governments make to avoid violence and working in a war zone. To indicate that somehow people who are capable of communicating and relating to foreign audiences, and able to make people to people contacts, are in some way cowards if they doubt their abilities to serve optimally in a situation that is predicated on violence, is simply a negligent misunderstanding of what diplomacy is.

There are reasons to have military personnel and there are equally substantial and necessary reasons to have diplomats. But, they may not be the same reasons.

Most of us who serve in State who are not coming in from the military are not trained to kill; we don't know how to use weapons.

Texas, USA
November 11, 2007

Don in Houston, Texas writes:

I am an Army veteran in the private sector who works hard to pay my taxes so that you pitiful people can get paid too much, do little real work, do simple work that bureaucrats do, retire at a young age and get a rich pension, In spite of your grand and easy life, some of you refuse to go where you are assigned. How sad.
Thanks goodness that our soldiers and Marines are not as pitiful as you pack of leeches.



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