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Fair Weather Foreign Service

Where have you gone Vernon Walters?

By Michael Tanji | November 1, 2007

In the days immediately after September 11th, 2001, the point was made by one of my intelligence agency colleagues that in a war against terrorists, just showing up to work in a government building meant you were on the front lines. If anyone needed a more pointed reminder, they could walk down to the lobby and note that several of non-intelligence personnel were memorialized on a wall that documented the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. Their loss was no less significant because they were not engaged in some intrepid pursuit of enemy secrets; merely a reminder that no job conducted in service to the nation was just a desk job.

Contrast this with the attitude held by some Foreign Service personnel, who equate service in Iraq to a “death sentence” and argue for the closure of arguably one of the top five most important US embassies in the world. Where else can diplomacy prove its worth than in an area of the world where the political dynamics extend from the state through the tribal and down to familial level? In this former soldier’s lexicon that’s an “opportunity to excel” not an excuse to retreat.

To be sure, there is legitimate concern amongst the ranks of those more used to embassy receptions than armed convoys. No doubt pre-deployment training of personnel is not what it could be. That would be consistent with the experience of both members of the military and civilian intelligence officers who have expressed similar concerns in the past. That five years into the conflict this is still an issue should give people pause, and light a fire under the backsides of officials who are big on issuing policy statements and unlikely to face the hazards of Iraq themselves.

That post-deployment health and welfare are not adequately address is also a familiar refrain from soldiers – most notably documented earlier this year in the Walter Reed scandal – and in the ranks of the intelligence community, as pointed out in a little known Stars and Stripes story. Having sat is my share of war-related agency “town halls” I can recall clearly the heart-felt pleas of veterans of military and civilian deployments that the agency prepare its young and inexperienced for the trials and horrors of what was to come. The cold, pat response recounted in recent reports from Foggy Bottom sound eerily familiar.

Still, this is service to the nation and with the perks and benefits comes sacrifice. As with most things in life there is some fine print that everyone acknowledges their willingness to comply with during peace time, but few actually consider the implications of what happens when the shooting starts. Postings to Bermuda, while desirable, are for large campaign donors not professionals. The honest, honorable thing to do, if you cannot set aside your political differences or muster sufficient nerve in order to fulfill your obligations, is to resign. In this sense Foreign Service officers and civilian intelligence officers are extremely lucky because the largest group of Americans in Iraq do not have that option.

As to “who will raise our children?” a question posed to State Department officials by Foreign Service officers who disagree with the policy of compelling service in Iraq, it is worth noting that with very rare exceptions every State Department employee that goes to Iraq comes back in one piece. Still, if your children are your primary concern and you feel you are less likely to die in a car accident than in a convoy in Iraq, then you have a moral obligation to find gainful employment that does not include service in a war zone.

It would be nice to spend a career in government service during a period of extended peace; when no deployments were necessary, when every job was easy and every tour overseas was to a garden spot, but this is the real world. In addition to terrorism we still have a serious nuclear proliferation problem, a ballistic missile problem, a resurgent and adversarial Russia and a military buildup in China. This country could use more and more aggressive diplomacy, not the timid disposition of those complacent with accomplish-nothing cocktail parties.