Memo to U.S. Diplomats: Come and Join Us

Some angry American diplomats are calling it "a death sentence". But as the war of words continues over whether U.S. diplomats can be forced to take assignments in Iraq, their colleagues already here are less than sympathetic toward those reluctant to join them.

"I'm doing exactly what I signed up to do," said Patricia Butenis, Deputy Chief of Mission in Iraq at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad this morning. She believes outside fears about the posting stem from misconceptions about what it is like to live and work in a war zone. "People think it's a constant barrage of attacks," she says, "but really it's not that way all the time."

Since the U.S. established a diplomatic presence in Iraq more than four years ago, 1500 service personnel –out of 11,000 employees—have volunteered to work here. Until now, none of them have been forced to take the posts, but because diplomatic assignments here typically last just one year, the State Department has constantly had to look out for new staff to rotate in as old staff rotate out. That led to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent announcement of her plans to send a cable to all U.S. embassies and missions explaining the decision to launch a diplomatic draft and encouraging people to serve in Iraq.

Letters sent out last week notified 200 to 300 State Department employees that they are prime candidates for an Iraq assignment. (Assessments were based on relevant qualifications but also on how recently the candidate had served a hardship post; none of those singled out has been on one in the past decade.) The idea was to inspire volunteers who would soon begin training to get ready to fill the 48 remaining jobs still open for the summer of 2008 at the embassy and in provincial reconstruction teams across the country. So far, around 15 have responded positively. The rest have left themselves open to accusations that they are going against the foreign service officers' oath they took to carry out the policies of their government and be available to serve anywhere in the world. No other foreign assignments will be made until all positions in Iraq are filled.

While the danger is real—since March 2003, three State Department personnel have been killed in Iraq--diplomats here say that most employees get used to their work environment quickly and adapt accordingly. For those who may be politically opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, Butenis has little patience. "If you have objections to any policy, you shouldn't be in the Foreign Service," she says. "You're there to support the president."

Another main concern diplomats have about Iraq is that, because of the security situation, restrictions on their movements will get in the way of their being able to do any meaningful work. Economic Minister Ambassador Charles Ries, who also spoke at this morning's conference, admits this is a daily frustration in Iraq, particularly for those who joined the foreign service to experience different cultures and interact with local people. But Ries, who, before arriving in Baghdad, had not served in a hardship post since he left Turkey in 1986, said that the fact that this is the biggest foreign policy issue facing the U.S. today should convince doubters of the importance of the assignment. His colleagues at the conference all agreed. Says Butenis of those trying to resist this posting, "they don't understand that this is where the work is." And if this is where the work continues to be, diplomats might have to get used to the idea of mandatory assignments for years to come.