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U.S. Diplomats Riled Over Possible Forced Duty in Iraq

November 1, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: American diplomats reluctant to serve in Iraq, Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday’s contentious meeting at the State Department was unusual in the staid world of professional diplomats. Hundreds of Foreign Service officers crowded into an auditorium to protest a new policy for filling 48 critical jobs in Iraq next year.

Some 250 diplomats have been told that they are “prime candidates” for one or more of the jobs and that, if they don’t volunteer, some of them will be ordered to go. If they refuse the orders, they face disciplinary procedures, including possible dismissal.

This is the first time since the Vietnam War that the State Department has resorted to such directed assignments, as they’re known. About 200 Foreign Service officers work in Iraq at present, in Baghdad and in provincial reconstructions teams around the country. The U.S. embassy there is the largest in the world.

Three State Department employees, none of them Foreign Service officers, have died in Iraq since the war began.

And for more on all of this, we talk to two career Foreign Service officers. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski, director of career development and assignments at the State Department, he’s a former ambassador to Yemen and served for three months in Iraq in 2003. And John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents Foreign Service personnel, he’s served in Mexico, Colombia and Nicaragua.

And welcome to you both.

Mr. Naland, this was almost unprecedented to have all these Foreign Service officers stand up and protest like this. What triggered it?

JOHN NALAND, American Foreign Service Association: Iraq triggered it. Iraq really is unprecedented in the Foreign Service. You mentioned Vietnam 40 years ago. Many Foreign Service members served honorably in Vietnam, and some died, but those who served tell me that Saigon was never as dangerous, except during the Tet Offensive, as Baghdad has been and that serving in the provinces of Vietnam was never as dangerous as serving on many of the provisional reconstruction teams are.

So it’s a different animal. And the Foreign Service, the State Department, has been staffing it for the last four years, five years, with volunteers. And we in the American Foreign Service Association would like to see it continue to be volunteers because of the unprecedented situation.

Protecting U.S. diplomats

Thomas Krajeski
State Department
Is there risk involved? Yes, there's considerable risk. Is it dangerous? Yes, it's probably the most dangerous job we are doing in the Foreign Service today, without doubt.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that these -- what are you hearing from your members, that they feel they're not protected adequately?

JOHN NALAND: Well, obviously it's a war zone. The Foreign Service serves in difficult places. I served in Bogota, Colombia, at a very difficult time, so we're used to danger.

But being in a war zone is just on a completely different level. And there are questions about what an unarmed civilian diplomat can do in such a war zone. And it's anecdotal evidence, but certainly, and especially if the security situation, the Blackwater or the other protection...

MARGARET WARNER: Blackwater being the private contractor that protects diplomats in Baghdad.

JOHN NALAND: Right, the private contractor, there are not enough diplomatic security agents to protect us. The United States military has other missions, obviously.

And so the State Department has gone to private contractors, and most of them are former Special Forces, but there's been controversy about them. So who's going to protect the diplomats? Right now, the security in Baghdad has gotten better, but that can come and go.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ambassador Krajeski, who is going to protect the diplomats? Are they being protected adequately now?

THOMAS KRAJESKI, State Department Official: Well, thank you. I was just in Iraq accompanying the director general of the Foreign Service on a visit last week and, as you mentioned earlier, I spent about three months out there with Ambassador Bremer early on in the early days of CPA. And I've also volunteered to go back to Iraq next summer, where I'll take over the portfolio of political military counselor in the embassy.

I think this is a job that we have to do. It is unprecedented, as John rightly says. It is certainly acute, as John rightly says, but it is a job that I feel we have to do, and I feel it's a job we can do.

We visited two of the PRTs, the provincial reconstruction teams, while we were in Iraq last week, and I've had occasion to interview many people coming out of them in the course of my current job. And almost to a person I hear from those in the provincial reconstruction teams that they do feel they are making a difference, that they can do their jobs, that they can get out of the compounds and bases that they're operating from.

When they go out, they go out either with private security, such as Blackwater or Triple Canopy, or they go out with the U.S. military as part of a U.S. military mission. And so the protection offered to them is part of that mission.

Is there risk involved? Yes, there's considerable risk. Is it dangerous? Yes, it's probably the most dangerous job we are doing in the Foreign Service today, without doubt. But, again, I think it's a job we have to do; it's a job that we pledged to do when we signed an oath of office when we all became Foreign Service officers.

If there are those who feel they cannot do it and that they must resign rather than serve in Iraq, then I respect that decision. But as a Foreign Service officer, I think I am bound to serve wherever my government asks me to serve, including Iraq.

Preparation for Foreign Service

John Naland
American Foreign Service Association
A lot of people have spoken up saying, "Where are the civilians standing up to reconstruct this country?" Well, any defense planner who thinks that there are tens of thousands of civilians ready to do this is just wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point -- and this is one Sean McCormack emphasized today -- that that's part of the deal when you join the Foreign Service, you're going to be available worldwide?

JOHN NALAND: We believe the duty is a two-way street. The generation that went to Vietnam had four to six months of preparation. The generation going now to Iraq has about two weeks of preparation.

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about special training of some sort?

JOHN NALAND: Well, you know, this is Iraq, this is what it's like, this is the culture, language. And for Vietnam, they had small arms training in case they really had to use it. So there was a lot more effort going to preparing people to go to Vietnam.

And there's a bigger issue here. I mean, a lot of people have spoken up saying, "Where are the civilians standing up to reconstruct this country?" Well, any defense planner who thinks that there are tens of thousands of civilians ready to do this is just wrong.

The administration and Congress have not funded this. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- he used to be a strong critic of the State Department -- is now telling anyone who will listen that you need to vastly increase the size of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, so they can step up and do the job and let the military go back and, you know, get a rest.

And so our complaint is that there's just not enough bench strength in the Foreign Service, in the State Department, in U.S. Agency for International Development to provide all of these people on a volunteer basis. Now, the secretary of state has the authority to direct people. And if it comes to that, then she has that authority.

Stretching the State Department

Thomas Krajeski
State Department
I do not think that Foreign Service officers should ever carry weapons, and I know the policy of the ambassador there now is not to allow us to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, what about the two points he just made? One is the sort of lack of much special preparation, and the larger point that you all are really, really stretched thin.

THOMAS KRAJESKI: I agree with John wholeheartedly that the State Department is stretched thin around the world. We staff Iraq right now at about 94 percent of its staffing needs; we staff the rest of the world at about 79 percent. We simply have no, as John says, bench strength in the Foreign Service and in the State Department today.

We had an increase in recruitment in the early years of this administration, under Secretary Powell and his diplomatic readiness initiative that was funded by Congress, but that intake of new officers has largely been absorbed by new demands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in some of the newer countries from the former Soviet Union.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly -- sorry, but could I get you to address the training issue?

THOMAS KRAJESKI: Please. I think that it's difficult to determine exactly what kind of special training is needed to serve in a situation like Iraq.

I do not think that Foreign Service officers should ever carry weapons, and I know the policy of the ambassador there now is not to allow us to do that. I myself rely on the professionals to do that and the professionals to protect me. If it comes to me and a gun, then we're in deep trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me -- I didn't mean to cut you off, but we're actually, believe it or not, close to out of time.

And let me just ask you both, what about the larger point here? If the American mission in Iraq is not just a military one, but is focused on reconstruction, political reform, if you've got some of your most senior Foreign Service officers resisting going, does this mean they think it's futile? What does this say about the prospects for the larger mission?

JOHN NALAND: Well, this is the fifth rotation of Foreign Service members into Iraq, so we have had four rotations of people stepping up to the plate. And...

Cooperating with the military

John Naland
American Foreign Services Association
There are 200 people on a list, and 48 of them might be told, "You're going to Iraq next summer." And it's just a shock for people, and that's what came out at that town hall meeting.

MARGARET WARNER: But are they saying -- I mean, does this bespeak a deeper sort of alienation from the mission, a lack of belief in the mission?

JOHN NALAND: I think it's just that it's unprecedented. In the Foreign Service, you do tough assignments, but you do it in a way that you can set it up. "OK, I'll go to Bogota without my family for these two or three years, but then I'll be able to get them through high school and the others."

And now there's no chance to make those arrangements. It's just there are 200 people on a list, and 48 of them might be told, "You're going to Iraq next summer." And it's just a shock for people, and that's what came out at that town hall meeting.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, do you think it says something about the ability of the United States to pull off this larger mission, that it's not just military?

THOMAS KRAJESKI: This is a challenging mission; there's no question about it. I'm immensely proud of the people who have volunteered to go, and very, very few people have refused to go. A lot of people have not been asked. Now we are asking more to go, and we are telling folks that we may have to direct you to go.

This should not be a surprise. We've been talking about this for more than six months now, the necessity to direct to Iraq. I still think we'll have many more volunteering. I do believe that the Foreign Service is a fine institution and that Foreign Service officers will stand up and volunteer to do this and to do the other difficult jobs we have around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Thomas Krajeski and John Naland, thank you both very much. Thanks for being with us.

JOHN NALAND: Thank you.