Yesterday, State Department employees around the world logged on to their computers to find two cables - one from Secretary Rice and another from Director General Harry Thomas - announcing with equal parts triumph and relief that all 252 positions in Iraq for the Summer 2008 transfer cycle had been filled on a voluntary basis. After all the hand wringing, the embarrassment of a cathartic internal town hall meeting made public, the misinformed press stories about "soft diplomats," and the sometimes amateurish scramble by Human Resources to develop a policy and respond to concerns about directed assignments (the first time the Department had contemplated such a policy since the Vietnam War), it turns out there was no need for directed assignments after all. I wasn't surprised.
The Foreign Service I know and am proud to be a part of is an organization that invariably rises to meet a challenge. Indeed, more than 1,500 of my colleagues have served in Iraq since 2003. Three have been killed.
I am one of those who came forward in recent weeks and volunteered for assignment to Iraq, not because I received a letter euphemistically identifying me as a "prime candidate" (I didn't), but because I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate to myself, the Department, and yes, even the Iraqi people, that my skills and talents could make a positive contribution in our combined efforts to bring stability to the country. Idealistic? Perhaps, but not a decision I made lightly and without first doing a fair amount of research and reflection.
There are nearly 11,500 people in the Foreign Service (roughly 6,500 generalists and 5,000 specialists) and at least as many reasons for volunteering or not volunteering to go to Iraq. Much as politicians of a certain generation are asked whether or not they served in Vietnam, I believe whether or not one served in Iraq will be a question asked of future leaders in the Foreign Service. Serving in Iraq doesn't and should never guarantee promotion, and there are certainly valid reasons for not going. Nevertheless, it's a question people will ask, even if only to themselves.
I may or may not have voted for President Bush in the last election and I may or may not personally support the administration's Iraq policy, but as a career Foreign Service Officer my job is to implement the foreign policies of the United States to the best of my ability. There is no foreign policy objective more important than Iraq and that won't change with the next presidential election. I have tremendous respect for Ambassador Crocker and the team he has assembled in Iraq. If there was ever a group that can turn things around, this is it. I want to be a part of it.
Of course, there's also the money - it would be disingenuous to say this wasn't a consideration. A typical Foreign Service Officer receives various incentive payments (danger pay, hardship differential, overtime differential, etc.) while serving in Iraq, which nearly double his or her salary. I'll take it, but I also would have volunteered if the monetary benefits were less generous. If you're going to Iraq for the money, you're going for the wrong reason and should seriously reconsider.
Iraq assignments are unique and therefore require Foreign Service Officers to put aside criteria we might typically use to evaluate whether a particular position is likely to be professionally and personally rewarding. For example, as I researched positions on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and at Regional Embassy Offices (REOs), I quickly learned that things like being able to interact in person with local contacts on a regular basis and having one's own bathroom - pretty much givens in any other country of assignment - were benefits of some but not all positions. Ultimately, I accepted an offer to be director of the REO in Al Hillah, which supports five PRTs that cover the South Central provinces of Babil, Najaf, Karbala, Qadisiyah, and Wasit.
Consistently throughout my career I have found the reality of an assignment differs to a degree from one's expectations regardless of the amount of preparation. Right now, REO Al Hillah is in growth mode as part of the "diplomatic surge" and I am encouraged by press reports indicating violence in Iraq has declined in recent weeks. However, with nearly a year to go before arriving in country, I'm preparing for the unexpected.