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Dangerous duty in Iraq casts doubt on war’s progress

Guy W. Farmer
Special to the Nevada Appeal

The Foreign Service Journal, a monthly publication for America’s career diplomats, devoted its March issue to personal accounts of daily life in Iraq submitted by diplomats who are serving, or have served, in Iraq. Their stories paint a vivid and scary picture of actual living and working conditions in that strife-torn country and cast doubts on the Bush administration claims of “progress” in the war.

According to the Journal, nearly 1,000 career U.S. Foreign Service officers have volunteered for duty in Iraq since 2003, with many of them citing “service to my country” as their main reason for volunteering. Others mentioned possible career advancement and financial incentives as reasons for going to Iraq. But there are many other issues just beneath the surface, such as family considerations and security.

Diplomats surveyed by the Journal said Iraq assignments differ from most other overseas postings in three fundamental ways: (1) the level of danger, (2) the extremely long working hours and (3) the lack of bureaucratic coordination between the largest U.S. Embassy in the world, a huge American military establishment and the sprawling quasi-civilian Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, staffed by private contractors with little or no overseas experience. Based on my own experiences during a 28-year diplomatic career – and most particularly, as the U.S. spokesman in Grenada during the 1983 invasion – the current organizational structure in Iraq is a recipe for disaster.

As I learned in Grenada, coordination between civilian authorities, headed by the ambassador, and U.S. military commanders is extremely difficult in a war zone. In Iraq, everything is complicated by stringent security requirements. For example, one Foreign Service officer (FSO) described how difficult it was to arrange and attend a meeting with an Iraqi contact in Baghdad’s so-called “Red Zone,” which is everything outside the heavily fortified “Green Zone,” where most Americans live and work.

Describing what some U.S. diplomats refer to as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” in Baghdad, one FSO said he “traveled to a meeting with three armored vehicles and 14 fully-armed contractors in assault gear as my personal security escort. I was met by six more (security guards) who had secured the building before my arrival. As we re-entered the checkpoint on our return to the Green Zone, a car bomb detonated at a nearby checkpoint, killing two and injuring many more.” In Iraq, timing is everything.

“Extreme perseverance, determination and stubbornness are required to overcome the myriad of difficulties of performing diplomatic duties,” an embassy political officer told the Journal. “Security restrictions often keep us overly locked down and in a bubble where we cannot accurately track or influence events.” Another mid-level FSO put it this way: “If the kinds of dangers (State Department) employees in Iraq face on a daily basis existed at any other post in the world, we would have evacuated the embassy long ago.” Considering these extremely perilous conditions, it’s amazing to me that our diplomats are able to accomplish anything at all in Iraq.

Most FSOs stationed in Iraq live in temporary trailers, or “hooches,” similar to the FEMA trailers occupied by Hurricane Katrina evacuees along the Gulf Coast while their U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) colleagues live in relatively comfortable small houses, but don’t ask me why. Many diplomats feel the hooches are unsafe and complain about the lack of privacy. Apparently, the housing contractor springs surprise inspections on them from time to time – just one more indignity our diplomats must endure while living in flimsy trailers and serving at the world’s most dangerous post. Out of more than 2,000 people working out of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, fewer than 200 are career Foreign Service officers, so they’re outvoted on most administrative matters, like housing, security and leave policies.

Although FSOs are trained to understand the cultures and languages of Iraq, they must contend with an army of political appointees and private contractors who make life-or-death decisions without understanding the local cultures or the languages. I can just imagine the bureaucratic conflicts and misunderstandings resulting from that situation. “Frankly, I think a lot of the political appointees were disasters,” wrote one FSO who had served in Iraq. “They seemed to be ideologues rather than diplomats” – another recipe for disaster, in my opinion.

But President Bush continually assures us that we’re making progress and that he has a plan for victory in Iraq. Well, as I’ve indicated in previous columns, I’m not so sure about that. Although some of the FSOs who were surveyed by the Foreign Service Journal about living and working conditions in Baghdad may be personally opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy, I take their comments seriously, and so should the president and their boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

For her part, Secretary Rice is implementing a “transformational” assignments policy that will transfer many FSOs from cushy Western European posts to Third World hell holes like Baghdad. They signed-on for “worldwide availability” when they went to work at State, however, so they must go where they’re sent regardless of personal or family hardships, which raises the question of whether our government can protect American diplomats who serve at the world’s most risky outposts.

Perhaps those who are assigned to such posts should go through Army basic training and wear helmets and flak jackets because it’s that bad in Iraq and at other high-risk posts. So will I recommend a diplomatic career to my twin grandsons in Seattle? No way!

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, served in seven countries on three continents during his 28-year (1967-95) Foreign Service career.