Saturday, October 20, 2007

In defense of the US Foreign Service

Support our troops — and our diplomats!
Now and then, it's necessary to stand up and defend our diplomats, the 9,000 or so courageous men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service who staff our embassies and consulates all around an increasingly hostile world. After all, it's not only our uniformed military forces who face danger on America's behalf in zones of conflict and violence. In fact, our career diplomats — unarmed and pitifully few in number — are usually on the scene well ahead of our troops, contending with the same terrorists, religious radicals, suicide bombers, unfriendly governments, and hostile mobs. Their job is to safeguard and promote American interests without resorting to armed force, if possible. And the job is getting tougher, not easier.

I've been out there myself, so I know how it sticks in their craw to be compared unfairly to our brave troops and labeled cowards, or worse, by armchair patriots. So it made me feel good to read the stirring letter their "union boss" John Naland (the president of the American Foreign Service Association) published in their behalf, when they were ridiculed by a writer for Congressional Quarterly in an online article late last month. Mr. Naland's letter follows; you can read the article that riled him if you wish at the website.

Jeff Stein,
Congressional Quarterly
Washington, DC

Mr. Stein,

I write in response to your Sept. 21, 2007, article "State Department Cajoles Young Diplomats into Iraq Service.". Your article reflected unfamiliarity with some basic facts about today's Foreign Service, so I offer the following information to inform your future reporting.

I am a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service who is currently serving my second term as president of the American Foreign Service Association (the professional association and union representing U.S. diplomats). My assignments have included U.S. Embassy Bogotá, Colombia (an unaccompanied, danger pay post) and the White House Situation Room (under Presidents G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton). I am also a former U.S. Army Officer (1/1 Cavalry, 1st Armored Division, West Germany 1981-84) and a 2006 graduate of the U.S. Army War College (via a State Department training detail).

To begin with, here are some baseline facts about the Foreign Service.

The State Department Foreign Service is made up of approximately 11,500 people. Of them, 6,500 are Foreign Service officers (for example, political officers) while 5,000 are Foreign Service specialists (for example, Diplomatic Security agents). There are another 1,400 or so Foreign Service members at USAID, the Foreign Commercial Service, the Foreign Agricultural Service, and the International Broadcasting Bureau, but I will focus on the State Department Foreign Service, which is what most people think of when they think of diplomacy.

More military band members than diplomats
Let's put the size of the State Department Foreign Service in perspective. The U.S. active-duty military is 119 times larger than the Foreign Service. The total uniformed military (active and reserve) is 217 times larger than the Foreign Service. A typical U.S. Army division is larger than the entire Foreign Service. The military has more uniformed personnel in Mississippi than the State Department has diplomats worldwide. The military has more full colonels/Navy captains than the State Department has diplomats. The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats. The Defense Department has almost as many lawyers as the State Department has diplomats.

I will not even get into the huge disparities in operating budgets, which are widely known.

The key point -- especially for observers who think in terms of the myriad capabilities of our nation's large military -- is that the Foreign Service has a relatively small corps of officers.

ixty percent of the Foreign Service currently stationed abroad, mostly in hardship posts
Moreover, in contrast to the military, the vast majority of Foreign Service members are forward deployed (thus the word "foreign" in Foreign Service). Today, in a time of armed conflict, 21.1 percent of the active-duty military (290,000 out of 1,373,000) is stationed abroad (ashore or afloat). That compares to 68 percent of the Foreign Service currently stationed abroad at 167 U.S. embassies and 100 consulates and other missions.

There is nothing new about this high percentage of Foreign Service forward deployment. The percentages have not changed from two decades ago when I joined. Thus, the typical Foreign Service member serves two-thirds of his or her career abroad. Over a 30 year career, that adds up to 20 years spent stationed overseas.

Where are these overseas Foreign Service members? Two-thirds are at posts categorized by the U.S. government as "hardship" due to difficult living conditions (for example, violent crime, harsh climate, social isolation, unhealthy air, and/or terrorist threats). Of those hardship posts, half are rated at or above the 15-percent differential level which constitutes great hardship. Thus, unlike the old stereotype seeing most Foreign Service members serving in comfortable Western European capitals, only one third of overseas posts are non-hardship -- and the majority of people at such posts are decompressing after serving at a hardship post.

Again, the contrast with the military is instructive. As previously mentioned, 78.9 percent of the active-duty military is stationed stateside (including 36,000 personnel in Hawaii). Of those serving abroad, there are more U.S. military personnel serving in the United Kingdom or Germany or Japan than the State Department has diplomats worldwide.

The military does have a greater percentage of its personnel serving in unaccompanied tours (ashore or afloat) than the Foreign Service. I have not found solid statistics on this point, but subtracting those stationed at accompanied postings in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea around 11 percent of the military serving in unaccompanied tours.

But the Foreign Service is catching up. Since 2001, the number of unaccompanied and limited-accompanied Foreign Service positions has quadrupled to 700 (representing 6.1 percent of the Foreign Service) at two dozen danger pay posts including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. This represents a dramatic change for Foreign Service members, who previously had fewer than 200 unaccompanied slots to fill at a few posts such as Bogotá and Beirut.

Moreover, consider these facts. Around 40 percent of the 11,500 Foreign Service positions come up for reassignment each year (including all 700 one-year unaccompanied posts and a mixture of two-year great hardship posts and three-year lesser-hardship and non-hardship posts). This means that, in any given annual assignment cycle, over 15 percent of the Foreign Service jobs to be filled are at unaccompanied or limited-accompanied danger pay posts.

One out of five
Foreign Service employees has served, or is serving, in Iraq
But what about the toughest duty assignment: Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an Oct. 1, 2007, interview with the New York Post editorial board, stated that more than 20 percent of the Foreign Service has served, or is serving, in Iraq. I would have guessed that the percentage was a little lower, but let's stick with Secretary Rice's official estimate that 20 percent of our nation's diplomats have served in war zone Iraq since 2003.

I have not found comparable military statistics. Presumably, at least for the Army and Marine Corps, it is over two-thirds with many troops serving two or more tours. But again, unlike the military which maintains 78.9 percent of its active members stateside, the Foreign Service has worldwide staffing responsibilities that necessitate posting the majority of its members in the 188 countries besides Iraq. Thus, of the 80 percent of Foreign Service members who have not (yet) served in Iraq, most are now at, or have recently returned from, a hardship assignment.

There are approximately 200 Foreign Service positions currently at Embassy Baghdad and another 70 or so at the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Compared to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, those numbers look small. Of course, the U.S. civilian presence in Iraq includes a range of other types of employees. But if press reports are accurate that around 1,000 U.S. citizens work at Embassy Baghdad, then the Foreign Service positions constitute about 20 percent of that total. Turning to the PRTs, which comprise up to 600 members, the Foreign Service component is 10 to 15 percent.

Diplomats as oil and gas engineers? Electrical grid managers?
There are good reasons for those ratios. As Secretary Rice has repeatedly explained in public statements, no country's diplomatic corps has people with many of the skills now needed in Iraq: oil and gas engineers, electrical grid managers, urban planners, city managers and transportation planners. If any U.S. defense planner in 2003 thought that the State Department and other civilian federal agencies had such people on staff in large numbers (Arabic speaking or not) ready to rebuild Iraq, they were wrong. Obviously, if they wanted to do so, the President and Congress could staff up civilian agencies to take responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction. But they have not done so.

Some other points to consider: While some Foreign Service members in Iraq are engaged in support activities that do not require them to leave the International Zone, many do travel in the "Red Zone"-- working out of Embassy Baghdad, serving at one of the pre-surge PRTs, or serving at one of the 10 new PRTs embedded in Brigade Combat Teams.

Also, although this was not the case right after the 2003 invasion, most Foreign Service members serve one-year tours in Iraq with only a relative few going for shorter temporary duty assignments. A small but growing number of Foreign Service members have served more than one tour in Iraq. None, except perhaps for Diplomatic Security Special Agents, are permitted to carry a weapon for self-defense.

An all-volunteer diplomatic army in Iraq
The State Department so far has been able to fill all of its Iraq positions with volunteers. Every one of the more than 2,000 career Foreign Service members who have stepped up to the plate to serve in Iraq has done so as a volunteer. They receive no special preparation to serve in a combat zone (unlike their predecessors 40 years ago who received three to four months of training before deploying to South Vietnam in the CORDS program). While Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq do receive added pay and other incentives (but not tax-free income like the military enjoys), surveys show that most are motivated by patriotism and a professional desire to contribute to our nation's top foreign policy objective. If the State Department ever does run out of volunteers, the Secretary of State retains the legal authority to direct assignments.

I will now comment on the specifics of your Sept. 21 essay, in which you say: "Evidently * young * FSOs * signed up to go somewhere with more cocktail parties than road mines, [so it is difficult] to get them to go to Iraq - or anywhere outside the cozy playgrounds of Europe* Today's crop of young diplomats don't want to go to anywhere hot and dirty* Why doesn't Foggy Bottom just order its weenies to Iraq and other critical posts?"

I do not see any validity to those statements. As detailed above, a new U.S. diplomat today will spend an average of 20 of his/her next 30 years overseas. If current trends hold, 16 of those years will be at hardship posts, including perhaps three years at unaccompanied posts.
Relatively few will serve in Western Europe where there are decreasing numbers of positions as resources are being shifted elsewhere.

But what about the Government Accountability Office report that you quote? That report, "Department of State Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps" of August 2006 ( ), presents 2005 statistics showing that Foreign Service positions at non-hardship posts (for example, Dublin, Vienna, and Ottawa) had a median 21.97 people expressing interest in each job vacancy whereas positions at high-hardship posts (for example, Nairobi, Guangzhou and Karachi) had a
median 3.22 expressions of interest per job.

But Appendix IV of the GAO report contains State Department comments explaining why those statistics are deceiving. I would explain the situation as follows:

-- Seventy people may express interest (i.e., "bid") on a position in Paris, but only one will get it. The other 69 will go elsewhere -- most of those "elsewheres" will be at hardship posts.

-- Most of the bids on places like Paris are "throwaway" bids.
This phenomenon is a product of assignment rules that require employees to bid on at least six positions. In reality, most employees focus their lobbying efforts on just four or five vacancies. But, because they can be immediately assigned to any place they bid on, for the remaining one or two mandatory bids they list somewhere like Dublin, Toronto, or London where they know there is no chance they will be assigned unless they lobby very hard. Thus, the number of serious bids on such non-hardship posts is a fraction of what they appear to be.

-- Even if it is true that there are more serious bids on London than Lagos, is that surprising? Gen. George W. Casey Jr., U.S. Army chief of staff, in an interview published in the Oct. 1, 2007, issue of Government Executive, explained that one of the keys to retaining Army captains was helping them get "assigned to the post that they wanted to be assigned to." Thus, in both the military as well as the Foreign Service, tying to find the occasional non-stressful living environment for families is a fair goal.

-- Having a median of 3.22 bids on each job in the greatest hardship posts is still 222 percent more than is needed to fill each job.

As for the GAO's criticism that the State Department too often fills positions with people who lack the experience and language abilities required by their job, that is unfortunately true in some cases. But as the GAO notes, this is one result of staffing shortfalls. After hiring below attrition during the lost decade of the 1990s and shifting positions to Iraq in recent years, the Foreign Service has a significant staffing shortfall. Thus, contrary to how the game of "musical chairs" is normally played, when the music (bidding) stops and everyone sits down (gets assigned), there are hundreds of unfilled chairs (positions) and some of the filled ones are occupied by people with sub-optimal experience and language abilities.

For a detailed critique of staffing and training shortfalls in the Foreign Service, I invite you to see my essay "Training America's Diplomats: Better than Ever, But is it Enough?" in the Oct. 2007 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

I hope that this information will be useful to you. I doubt that I have answered all of your questions, so I stand ready to meet with you to discuss these important issues further.


John Naland
American Foreign Service Association

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