Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where Are the Civilians?


Before I messed up my professional life by marrying a Cuban, getting involved in all facets of doping in sport and generally ensuring that I wouldn't pass the US federal government's insanely-invasive background investigation for my security clearance, I wanted to be a diplomat. In fact, besides being a pro cyclist, it was all I ever wanted to be (well, to clarify, I wanted to be a diplomat as cover for working for the Agency). I still read The Economist and Foreign Affairs, and would like to share this article with you, which asks the question:

Where Are the Civilians?
By J. Anthony Holmes
From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009

"When the State Department threatened to forcibly assign U.S. Foreign Service personnel to Iraq in late 2007, many diplomats read about it in the press before hearing about it from their superiors. The rank and file were irate. On October 30, 2007, the director general of the Foreign Service, several hundred employees, and union representatives held a meeting that quickly degenerated into a shouting match. A journalist's surreptitious recording of the gathering was widely publicized soon afterward, conjuring up an image of disloyal, cowardly diplomats, which stood in stark contrast to that of brave soldiers protecting the United States abroad. By stripping away the complex and highly political context surrounding the presence of civilian government officials in Iraq, the media made Foreign Service officers (FSOs) appear unreasonable and unwilling to serve.

In fact, the Bush administration had effectively engineered the dispute in an effort to publicly embarrass the diplomatic corps. By demanding that FSOs take on the unprecedented, open-ended, and fundamentally impossible challenge of nation building under fire without adequate training or funding, the White House was continuing a myopic tradition of shortchanging the civilian institutions of foreign policy while lavishing resources on the military. Furthermore, the Bush administration's general efforts to stifle dissent and to reward those serving in Iraq with promotions and choice assignments has led to the unmistakable politicization of the Foreign Service.

Before the Iraq war, Washington's priority was to get diplomats out of war zones on the understanding that diplomats had to be protected and preserved for when the fighting was over. (Pentagon veterans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage felt particularly strongly about this when they ran the State Department from 2001 to 2004.) During the Bush administration's second term, however, the imperative to protect was trumped by domestic political considerations. In late 2005 and early 2006, an ugly "Who lost Iraq?" game played out inside the administration. In an effort to escape blame, the Pentagon argued that it had won the war but that the State Department was losing the peace. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, determined to avoid the charge that the State Department had not "stepped up," responded by ramping up staffing both at the embassy in Baghdad and on the newly created Provincial Reconstruction Teams deployed throughout the country. Abandoning traditional State Department practice, she dramatically increased the number of U.S. diplomatic positions in Iraq when the level of violence was at its worst. The U.S. government began carrying out a largely unnoticed and little analyzed shift in policy, assigning large and growing numbers of unarmed diplomats and aid workers to Afghanistan and Iraq, despite security conditions that often made it impossible for them to do their jobs.

The controversy over mandatory assignments to Iraq -- which quickly dissipated as volunteers stepped forward to fill all 327 State Department positions there -- was merely one episode in a broader pattern of neglect and mismanagement of the United States' civilian foreign policy institutions..."

Read the full text here, thanks to my subscription to Foreign Affairs.

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