WASHINGTON - Angry US diplomats lashed out yesterday against a State Department plan that would send them to Iraq against their will, with one likening it to "a potential death threat" and another accusing the department of providing inadequate care to diplomats who have returned home traumatized
At a rare, contentious meeting, foreign service officers told senior State Department officials that the move to fill vacancies in Baghdad puts them in danger, jeopardizes the well-being of their families, and could deplete the ranks of those willing to serve overseas at a critical time. Several diplomats said privately they would resign rather than accept orders to serve in Iraq. The president of their union pointed out that about 2,000 State Department personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, greatly taxing the ranks of the 11,000-member core.
"We have had four years of people volunteering to Iraq, and as the size of the mission has increased, demand has outstripped supply," said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, in an interview after the meeting.
The State Department has struggled to find Foreign Service volunteers to fill 48 of the 252 diplomatic posts that will become vacant next summer in Baghdad as well as other Iraqi provinces. To solve the problem, the department decided on mandatory service in Baghdad if too few volunteers step forward. Yesterday, at a packed meeting to discuss the plan, foreign service officers spoke out passionately against it, an unusual display of internal dissent.
Jack Crotty, a senior Foreign Service officer who has worked overseas, told his superiors that being forced to serve in Iraq is a "potential death sentence and you know it."
"It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers," he said, according to the Associated Press, "but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment."
Rachel Schnelling, a diplomat who served in Basra, Iraq, got a standing ovation when she said the State Department had failed to care for diplomats after they returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I would just urge you, now that we are looking at compulsory service in a war zone, that we have a moral imperative as an agency to take care of people who . . . come back with war wounds," she said at the meeting, according to the AP. "I asked for treatment and I didn't get any of it."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not at the meeting convened by Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service. Sean McCormack, her press secretary, said that the decision to draft diplomats to Iraq came with Rice's support, and that the move was not taken "lightly."
"Understandably, people are going to have some pretty strong feelings about it," he said. "But ultimately our mission in Iraq is national policy. We as Foreign Service officers swore an oath, and we agreed to certain things when we took these jobs. Part of them is to be available for worldwide assignments. They all agreed to that."
On Friday evening, the department sent notices to between 200 and 300 Foreign Service officers informing them that they had been selected as possible candidates to serve in Baghdad or on provincial reconstruction teams if there are not enough volunteers. Many officers were upset to read media reports of the new assignment plan over the weekend before they received the department notifications at work on Monday.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ambitious diplomats flocked to posts there, which were seen as tickets for promotion. But as the danger grew, and as Baghdad became the largest US embassy in the world, filling posts in Baghdad became more difficult.
The so-called surge of troops in Iraq, ordered by President Bush this year, has also stretched the foreign service ranks. Ambassador Ryan Crocker asked for 80 additional positions to increase the US diplomatic presence alongside the increased troops in Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other posts.
Naland said it is "almost unprecedented" to force diplomats to serve in a war zone. "During the Vietnam War, Foreign Service officers were ordered to serve, but for everyone on active duty, this is brand new," he said.
Although senior officials defended the plan, others contradicted McCormack's assertion that they had committed to be sent anywhere in the world.
"People didn't sign up for the foreign service to go get killed in the war zone," said a Washington-based State Department official who volunteered and served in Iraq during the invasion but does not want to return.
"In any other country, an embassy like that would be in evacuation status," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Morale is not helped by news from colleagues in Baghdad who say inadequate security has kept them holed up in the Green Zone, unable to interact frequently with the Iraqi officials and ministries they are supposed to advise.
Rice announced shortly after becoming secretary of state that she would make promotions contingent on serving in difficult posts. But until this point, no one has ever been forced to choose between serving and resigning from the State Department.
Diplomats, even those with critical Arabic language skills, were coaxed or prodded to do their time in Iraq. Former secretary of state Colin Powell was known to have personally called senior officials, or their spouses, to ask them to take posts in Baghdad.
Over the years, however, this policy has created a rift between the State Department and the Pentagon, as senior military officials accuse the diplomatic arm of the government of failing to send enough personnel to work on the Iraq reconstruction teams. Conflicts have emerged within the State Department itself, as some senior officials pressed for a more aggressive policy of assisting the US-led mission in Iraq.
Henry S. Ensher, a Foreign Service officer who served as director for political affairs in the Iraq office inside the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs argued in the March 2006 issue of the Foreign Service Journal that the State Department should "recognize that service in wartime necessitates a complete commitment by all its personnel."
"The Foreign Service is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the highest priority foreign-policy issue winning in Iraq because it has refused to take the one step that would guarantee it a key role, demonstrate seriousness of purpose to the military, and develop a cadre of true area specialists with extreme diplomacy skills," he wrote.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.