WT - Cheap shots
By Steve Kashkett
November 20, 2007
The U.S. Foreign Service has come in for a lot of gratuitous — and unfair — criticism in the aftermath of a State Department announcement a few weeks ago that it might need to identify certain diplomats for "directed" assignments to Iraq next summer. This story has been grossly misunderstood, particularly after footage leaked of a closed-door, in-house meeting in which a handful of State employees spoke candidly to our director general about their concerns regarding the prospect of forcing civilian employees to serve in a war zone.
What the press has failed to report is that more than 2,000 members of the Foreign Service at State have willingly volunteered to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, despite the fact that they are unarmed civilians, untrained for combat, offering to serve in the middle of a combat zone. These 2,000 Foreign Service volunteers have staffed the U.S. embassies and provincial reconstruction teams throughout Iraq and Afghanistan — our two largest diplomatic missions — for the past four years without requiring the Department to order a single person to serve there.
It is unfortunate that the media coverage in recent has drawn attention away from the fact that the people of the Foreign Service had already filled four-fifths of the positions in Iraq that will be coming open next summer, eight months in advance. It was finally announced on Nov. 16, just two weeks later, that all of next year's State positions in Iraq now have qualified volunteers. We also already have volunteers for virtually all of our positions in Afghanistan. It will come as a surprise to State-bashers that the Foreign Service has a higher "fill rate" at our embassies in Baghdad and Kabul than we do at almost any other U.S. embassy anywhere.
This is a time when our diplomatic posts all over the world are suffering staffing gaps because we simply do not have enough people. State, unlike the Pentagon, has seen its annual budgets stagnate in recent years and has been unable to get congressional authorization to create new positions. We are a very small service compared to the military. The total U.S. Foreign Service is less than one-half of 1 percent of the size of the U.S. military, and our members are already stretched thin staffing all the other 260 embassies and consulates worldwide, a majority of which are hardship posts.
In today's Foreign Service, most of our members spend the majority of their careers going from one extreme hardship post to another, often for years at a time. In the course of their long years of service in some of the most difficult and dangerous places on Earth, our members live daily with civil wars, political violence, unhealthy conditions and the constant realization that they are the No. 1 targets for terrorists.
It is understandable that some of our members may have personal or professional hesitations about serving in a combat zone, as a few expressed aloud at the recent in-house meeting. Foreign Service officers are not soldiers, they do not receive any kind of combat training and they are strictly prohibited from carrying weapons when they serve overseas, including in Iraq.
But the fact is that, despite these concerns, the U.S. Foreign Service as a whole has most certainly stepped up to the plate in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our members continue to volunteer for service there in large numbers. Numerous State Department Civil Service employees have joined them.
The courageous people of the Foreign Service do not deserve the unjustified and unwarranted finger-pointing by those who seem eager to call U.S. diplomats "cowards" and to blame us for any problem or lack of progress in Iraq. Foreign Service employees are undertaking heroic efforts across Iraq, working hand-in-hand with their military counterparts, to try to make a difference there.
Our country is fortunate to have a tough, dedicated, patriotic corps of skilled foreign-affairs professionals, accustomed to serving in challenging overseas assignments. They deserve respect and recognition, not an uninformed smear campaign.
Steve Kashkett is vice president of the American Foreign Service Association at the State Department.
Again, thanks to The Washington Times, and thanks to Steve Kashkatt for saying so well what I've been trying to say for weeks now.