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State Department Meltdown: Wimps, Weenies, and a Few Brave Men
Coddling Foggy Bottom.
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Coddling Foggy Bottom

As I mentioned last week, State Department foreign service officer John Matel wrote an excellent, scathing piece lambasting his fellow diplomats/officers who balked at being assigned to the Green Zone in Iraq. Refresher:

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.

So, what is the White House doing? It appears President Bush has chosen to give in to the weenies:

The State Department has extended a window for diplomats to volunteer for Iraq duty in the hope the Bush administration can avoid ordering potentially unwilling candidates to serve in the combat zone, officials said Tuesday.

The department has put off until at least the end of the week the process of selecting foreign service officers for so-called “directed assignments” to Iraq as it looks for more volunteers to fill 48 spots that will come open at the Baghdad embassy and outlying provinces this summer, the officials said.

Amid a furor over the possibility that some foreign service officers may be forced to go to Iraq in the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam, U.S. officials said that as of Tuesday morning, 25 volunteers had already been approved for those jobs…

The good news is that volunteers are coming forward. The bad news is that throwing tantrums pays:

Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service, informed Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte of the rising number of volunteers on Friday. At the same time, Thomas said he would delay the selection process until Nov. 16 at which time he would re-evaluate the situation and decide how to proceed, officials said.

Thomas’ decision last month to begin the process of directed assignments for posts in Iraq has sparked a decidedly undiplomatic dispute in the foreign service that has since spilled into the public arena after news reports emerged of a contentious State Department town hall meeting on the topic on Oct. 31.

At the meeting, hundreds of diplomats applauded when one of their colleagues likened a forced tour in Iraq to a “potential death sentence” while some questioned the ethics of ordering unarmed civilians into a war zone and expressed concerns about a lack of training and medical care for those who have served.

Over at the State Department blog, there are many interesting comments responding to Matel’s post, including cheers, jeers, and a call to make the State Department’s video of the town hall meeting public amid claims by some State Department employees who think the media coverage of the meeting has been unfair. A sample:

Roger in Utah writes:

I’m not an FSO but I am a retired Army officer. I find the controversy over assignment to Iraq by some in State not only distasteful but cowardly. Your job, like mine, is to serve your country. Period. Not when it’s convenient or comfortable or fun but always. If you don’t like that, then get out. It’s that simple. I could care less whether these words ‘offend’ you or not; your conduct and lack of dedication offends me! This is exactly why the military has such a low opinion of diplomats. The author of this letter is an exception but for the rest of you, if you don’t want the job give it to someone who is more capable and less a coward. Coward. That’s the word for someone who won’t risk their personal comfort or safety in the national interest but will still take the governments check. My disgust is limitless as I am sure it the case for those soldiers and Marines currently deployed.

Posted on Tue Nov 13, 2007


Dan in Washington, DC writes:

Re the suggestion that @ Harry in Massachusetts offers about the State Department making public a tape of the State Department Town Hall Meeting where the Director General of the Foreign Service discussed assignments to Iraq, I think that is an appropriate idea.


I work at State and I’ve seen a tape of this meeting. As @ Jane reported, most of the meeting was a very productive, informative, positive and professional exchange regarding various issues and details related to staffing Foreign Service position and Foreign Service Officer service in Iraq. The majority of the exchanges at the meeting focused on Foreign Service Officers wanting to know the specifics about their service in assignments in Iraq, and also wanting to know about the support the Department will provide to those have already and will in the future serve in Iraq. The majority of the questions and comments were NOT about Foreign Service Officers objecting to or refusing to serve in Iraq!

Only towards the end of the meeting did some of the more emotional and heated exchanges take place. Seemingly, these few exchanges have been taken somewhat out of context.

As is so often the case, what has been publicized by the media is basically only the emotional and heated exchanges, while the forthright and positive exchanges that characterized the majority of the meeting were not highlighted or at all mentioned.

An example of this focus on the emotional exchanges only is the CNN report found at the link below. In addition to only showing a few seconds of several highly-charged, emotional exchanges (taken out of what was a meeting that lasted about an hour and largely was characterized by much less emotion and much more professionalism), the CNN reporters report that the meeting was an “open revolt” and a “stunning uprising.” If this town hall meeting was an open revolt and a stunning uprising, then does CNN characterizes everyday U.S. Congressional proceeding as all-out, doomsday, global thermo-nuclear exchanges? Anyway, here is CNN clip:

For another perspective on this issue, below is a link to the American Foreign Service Associations (AFSA) take on these matters. Of special note is this excerpt taken from the AFSA President’s November 5th letter found on this site: “AFSA reminds everyone that directed assignments are not a certainty. Both the Secretary and Director General have said that they remain open to filling the vacancies with volunteers if they materialize. At least 15 additional volunteers stepped forward last week. Others may do so this week.” AFSA link:

Posted on Tue Nov 13, 2007


Bill in Spain writes:

I have to agree with you, John. As a Foreign Service Officer who has served in his share of differential tours, I am somewhat dismayed to see the reaction. It seems a given that we are worldwide available and that there may come a time when you are assigned somewhere you did not particularly want to go. I feel those who declare their resistance most shrilly are doing the rest of us no favors. Our military colleagues are already disgusted by us and disrespecting the entire FS for the actions and statements of a few. Most of us are loyal and dedicated and, regardless of our political affiliations or our personal feelings regarding the situation in Iraq, will do our duty where it is required of us. Those considering vocal dissent should carefully consider the consequences of their words on the entire FS.

Posted on Tue Nov 13, 2007


Jane writes:

I am an Foreign Service Officer. I was at the town hall meeting. And I’m disgusted by the way this whole aftermath has played out in the media — and worse, by the way the Department has handled it.

I don’t think there was a person in that auditorium who thought he or she could change the policy. The vast majority of questions were on implementation issues, and were on technical details; those that weren’t, dealt with some anger over how the news was disseminated. The reason you only see one sound bite in dozens — if not hundreds — of newspaper and online articles is because that was essentially the only question/comment that would’ve been readily accessible to someone outside the profession. This was in no way the public protest it has been painted to be.

Moreover, although the initial Reuters coverage was fairly accurate, later reporting focused only on the “death sentence” comment and cut other important context, such as the way the Director-General hectored and belittled the audience, and compared FSOs to slave owners. The mood was far less confrontational at the outset of the meeting than at the end. And that, I believe, is the reason for the smattering of applause that Croddy received (which was far less, incidentally, than what was — justifiably — received than the brave woman who talked about her PTSD). People were applauding his anger against a Director General who was behaving like a child.

So: do “most” FSOs oppose directed assignments? That’s an open (and easy to research) question that certainly wasn’t answered during the meeting.

What has been answered is that, in the face of a massive public display of hatred for and ignorance about the diplomatic function, the Department’s only official response has been to dig up a clumsy flag-waver to egg on the detractors. How difficult would it have been to pull just one person from the “R” bureau to track and respond to news coverage with factual op-eds — heck, even letters — setting the record straight about the so-called “cushy” FSO life and about public service? It may seem like a warning shot to internal dissenters now, but what about when the lawmakers who are also following all this coverage realize how much popular approbation they can gain by slashing State budgets?

And gosh, could any of this in any way explain why only 12 percent feel the Secretary has the interests of the Foreign Service at stake?

And gee, could that, in turn, explain any of the reluctance so many of us feel (quite apart from the question of whether we’ll serve) in contemplating this assignment?

(For FSOs against directed assignments: here’s a nifty thought-experiment. Would you feel differently if Colin Powell had asked you to go? I know what my answer would be.)

Posted on Tue Nov 13, 2007


Thomas in Colorado writes:


I’ve been trying to get on with the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Public Diplomacy Officer for more than a year, but have been rejected time and again. And I probably have the appropriate qualifications: years abroad in Asia, former journalist/editor at one of America’s premier newspapers, master’s degree in international relations, a firm belief in the mission, and a strong understanding of the principles and practice of public diplomacy and public and civil affairs (about which I teach at a local university). Would that those who truly want to serve and are qualified had the chance to do so.

Posted on Mon Nov 12, 2007

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Iraq