Friday, November 30, 2007

Thank You Secretary Gates!

In a speech Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave at Kansas State on Monday, he called for additional funding of the State Department. Among his comments about the Department:

"...But, my message today is not about the defense budget or military power. My message is that if we are to meet the myriad challenges around the world in the coming decades, this country must strengthen other important elements of national power both institutionally and financially, and create the capability to integrate and apply all of the elements of national power to problems and challenges abroad. In short, based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use “soft” power and for better integrating it with “hard” power....

...The key, over time, was to devote the necessary resources – people and money – and get enough things right while maintaining the ability to recover from mistakes along the way. Ultimately, our endurance paid off and the Soviet Union crumbled, and the decades-long Cold War ended.

However, during the 1990s, with the complicity of both the Congress and the White House, key instruments of America’s national power once again were allowed to wither or were abandoned. Most people are familiar with cutbacks in the military and intelligence – including sweeping reductions in manpower, nearly 40 percent in the active army, 30 percent in CIA’s clandestine service and spies.

What is not as well-known, and arguably even more shortsighted, was the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world – the “soft power,” which had been so important throughout the Cold War. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers for a period of time. The United States Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts – its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 during Vietnam to about 3,000 in the 1990s. And the U.S. Information Agency was abolished as an independent entity, split into pieces, and many of its capabilities folded into a small corner of the State Department.

Even as we throttled back, the world became more unstable, turbulent, and unpredictable than during the Cold War years. And then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, one of those rare life-changing dates, a shock so great that it appears to have shifted the tectonic plates of history. That day abruptly ended the false peace of the 1990s as well as our “holiday from history.”...

...these new threats also require our government to operate as a whole differently – to act with unity, agility, and creativity. And they will require considerably more resources devoted to America’s non-military instruments of power.

So, what are the capabilities, institutions, and priorities our nation must collectively address – through both the executive and legislative branches, as well as the people they serve?...

...I mentioned a moment ago that one of the most important lessons from our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere has been the decisive role reconstruction, development, and governance plays in any meaningful, long-term success.

The Department of Defense has taken on many of these burdens that might have been assumed by civilian agencies in the past, although new resources have permitted the State Department to begin taking on a larger role in recent months. Still, forced by circumstances, our brave men and women in uniform have stepped up to the task, with field artillerymen and tankers building schools and mentoring city councils – usually in a language they don’t speak. They have done an admirable job....But it is no replacement for the real thing – civilian involvement and expertise....

...The importance of deploying civilian expertise has been relearned – the hard way – through the effort to staff Provincial Reconstruction Teams, first in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq. The PRTs were designed to bring in civilians experienced in agriculture, governance, and other aspects of development – to work with and alongside the military to improve the lives of the local population, a key tenet of any counterinsurgency effort. Where they are on the ground – even in small numbers – we have seen tangible and often dramatic changes. An Army brigade commander in Baghdad recently said that an embedded PRT was “pivotal” in getting Iraqis in his sector to better manage their affairs....

...we need to develop a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills, a need which President Bush called for in his 2007 state of the union address, and which the State Department is now working on with its initiative to build a civilian response corps. Both the President and Secretary of State have asked for full funding for this initiative. But we also need new thinking about how to integrate our government’s capabilities in these areas, and then how to integrate government capabilities with those in the private sector, in universities, in other non-governmental organizations, with the capabilities of our allies and friends – and with the nascent capabilities of those we are trying to help.

Which brings me to a fundamental point. Despite the improvements of recent years, despite the potential innovative ideas hold for the future, sometimes there is no substitute for resources – for money.

Funding for non-military foreign-affairs programs has increased since 2001, but it remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military and to the importance of such capabilities. Consider that this year’s budget for the Department of Defense – not counting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – is nearly half a trillion dollars. The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department is $36 billion – less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone. Secretary Rice has asked for a budget increase for the State Department and an expansion of the Foreign Service. The need is real.

Despite new hires, there are only about 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers – less than the manning for one aircraft carrier strike group. And personnel challenges loom on the horizon. By one estimate, 30 percent of USAID’s Foreign Service officers are eligible for retirement this year – valuable experience that cannot be contracted out.

Overall, our current military spending amounts to about 4 percent of GDP, below the historic norm and well below previous wartime periods. Nonetheless, we use this benchmark as a rough floor of how much we should spend on defense. We lack a similar benchmark for other departments and institutions.

What is clear to me is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development. Secretary Rice addressed this need in a speech at Georgetown University nearly two years ago. We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years....

...I hear all the time from the senior leadership of our Armed Forces about how important these civilian capabilities are. In fact, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was Chief of Naval Operations, he once said he’d hand a part of his budget to the State Department “in a heartbeat,” assuming it was spent in the right place.

After all, civilian participation is both necessary to making military operations successful and to relieving stress on the men and women of our armed services who have endured so much these last few years, and done so with such unflagging bravery and devotion. Indeed, having robust civilian capabilities available could make it less likely that military force will have to be used in the first place, as local problems might be dealt with before they become crises."

Here is the link if you want to read the speech in its entirety.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Turkey Day!

I wanted to wish everyone a Happy Turkey Day/Busk/Green Corn!

Since I had to work last night and tonight, M went to see her folks for the day without me. So I had a great lunch with a good friend from Jerusalem and some friends she served with in Manilla. Among them were three of the Marines she served with, and it was really great to sit and chat with them. It reminded me of the good times I had with the Marines in Jerusalem and what great guys they were.

It made me thankful for the job I have and the comraderie you develop with other Foreign Service people. I had only met two of my friend's guests briefly once before, and yet we could all sit around and share stories of our service. You make such great friends in the service, and even the folks you don't know either have a friend in common with you or have been to a place you have been. The Foreign Service is a small world, and one I am thankful and proud to be a part of.

I am also thankful for having a wonderful partner, a wonderful home and family that loves me. I am thankful we all, including the pets, are in good health. I am thankful to be back in the states for a while, and thankful I am an American, and one fortunate enough to get to serve this great country.

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Can Someone Explain...

Can anyone explain to me why the Department, after all of the uproar over announcing the possibility of directed assignments first in the media, STILL seems to think it is better to tell the media before it tells us?? This came out yesterday...I was at work yesterday and there was no cable or email about this.

State Dept. Seeks Workers for Hot Spots

WASHINGTON (AP) - The State Department has begun looking for diplomats willing to take hundreds of unfilled positions at embassies and consulates in 15 dangerous countries after finding enough volunteers to avoid forcing some to go to Iraq.

Having averted an employee revolt over the prospect of ordered tours of duty in Iraq, the department is now seeking foreign service officers for more than 500 jobs at 21 diplomatic missions in those countries, which include Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said Monday.

The selection process for the non-Iraq hardship posts, all of which are also of limited one-year duration and covered by restrictions banning or limiting the presence of family members, starts this week and should be completed by January, Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas said. "Afghanistan and Pakistan will be first and then we will move to the other unaccompanied posts over the next several weeks," he said. The other nations in that category are Algeria, Bosnia, Burundi, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Liberia, Palau, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan and Yemen.

Thomas said he was "pretty confident" that volunteers would be found for all the jobs but stressed that if there were not enough, the department would force diplomats to fill them under threat of dismissal in the same so-called "directed assignments" system that ignited controversy over the Iraq positions.

"We reserve the right to direct assign at any time," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Thomas' comments followed the State Department's formal announcement that volunteers had come forward to take all 48 vacant positions at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and outlying provinces that will open next summer and that it would not have to force anyone to go to Iraq.

"We are pleased to announce that all of the Iraq jobs have been filled by volunteers," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, adding that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be sending a worldwide cable congratulating the foreign service and those who answered the call.

McCormack said Rice had assured herself that all the volunteers were qualified and "that we met the bar that we had set for ourselves." "We, in no way, lowered the standards in order to get these volunteers," he said. "We're quite pleased that the Foreign Service and the State Department has stepped up to this challenge."

The prospect of the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam had caused an uproar among the 11,500-member Foreign Service. At a contentious town hall meeting late last month, the strength of their opposition came into public view as some diplomats protested the forced assignments, citing safety and security concerns.

Three foreign service personnel - two diplomatic security agents and one political officer - have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

The complaints were a deep embarrassment to the department and led Rice and her deputy, John Negroponte, to remind diplomats of their duty to serve their government anywhere they are needed.

More than 1,500 diplomats have volunteered to work in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Still, the resistance to forced assignments generated bitter criticism of the diplomatic corps; some Internet commentators accused the foreign service of cowardice and treason.

At the Oct. 31 town hall meeting, hundreds of diplomats applauded when one likened a forced tour in Iraq to a "potential death sentence." Some at the session questioned the ethics of ordering unarmed civilians into a war zone and expressed concerns about a lack of training and medical care for those who have served.

The debate, often in nasty exchanges, has surfaced on the State Department's official blog. Last week, the Web log posted a critical message from a career diplomat in Iraq who accused opponents of directed assignments of being spoiled elitists and suggested they are "wimps and weenies." More than 200 people, including some who identify themselves as foreign service or military officers, had entered the fray on the Dipnote blog as of Monday, making it one of the most popular posts the two-month-old venture has published.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ex-Hostage Says, Don't Fault the Brave Foreign Service

Remember the hostages held in Iran? They were Foreign Service Officers. Just like those of us serving today. The letter below is from one of them, and is worth reading.

November 15, 2007
Ex-Hostage Says, Don't Fault the Brave Foreign Service

To the Editor:

As a retired Foreign Service officer and a former hostage in Iran, I regret the growing media cynicism portraying the Foreign Service as a bunch of sheep unwilling to rise to the challenge of assignments to Baghdad.

This is nonsense. More than 2,000 Foreign Service personnel have volunteered for service in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years. I've met many of them on their return.

While frustrated by the security limitations that make it both difficult and dangerous for them to exercise traditional diplomatic functions beyond the Green Zone, they courageously volunteer to serve as unarmed civilians, as is their calling.

Baghdad has a lower vacancy rate than any other American embassy in the world. Criticize the government policies that obligate service in one of America's largest embassies in unprecedented danger these days, but not the hundreds of still deeply committed Foreign Service officers who are ready to serve there.

Bruce Laingen

Bethesda, Md., Nov. 12, 2007
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

One the One Hand, I'm Happy...

I just heard that the department has gotten volunteers for all 48 of the unfilled positions in Iraq (which is awesome), meaning no one will be directed to Iraq. Once again, my collegues have shown that no matter what you read in the media, we DO step up to the plate and do our part, even when it is hard, even when it is unpopular, and even when it strains the rest of the service.

My concern is that I heard the announcement over DC's NBC affiliate Channel 4. I verified that that no internal announcement has gone out. The station said the announcement is scheduled to be made tomorrow.

The announcement is also already in the Washington Post online:

US Drops Plan to Force Diplomats to Iraq

Is this the department's new communication method with us?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Addressing Comments about the Diplo-draft

The Foreign Service has been taking a beating in the media over the whole directed-assignments issue. Much of what has been reported in the media has focused on inaccuracies and a few comments taken out of comments. The worst of them have questioned our courage, committment and patriotism. And as someone who joined the service after, and in no small part because of, 9-11, I resent it.

Here, according to AFSA, our employee association, are some of the facts, with my own comments in italics:

-- more than 2,000 FS members have volunteered for service in Iraq/Afghanistan over the past five years;

-- no one has had to be directed to serve in either war zone thus far;

-- this exercise is about a potential shortfall in volunteers for a relatively small number of positions in Iraq for summer 2008 (and I might add, these are NEW positions. The existing positions were all filled with volunteers);

-- well over 80 percent of the FS-designated positions in Iraq for summer 2008 have already been filled, eight months in advance;

-- Embassy Baghdad has a lower vacancy rate than almost any other U.S. embassy in the world (94% as opposed to 79% for the rest of the world, even as the Service is down by 20%...we are 11,500 strong and need an additional 2,094 officers to fill all of our positions and allow for a training float similar to that of the military);

-- most people in the Foreign Service spend the majority of their careers in
increasingly difficult and dangerous hardship posts (M and I volunteered for Jerusalem during the second intifada, and M served in Azerbaijan before that);

-- unlike the military, our members are courageously volunteering to serve as unarmed civilians in a combat zone;

-- our assignment system has always worked on a voluntary basis because FS
members take seriously their commitment to worldwide service;

-- when the Foreign Service is compared unfavorably with the military, we have attempted to note that the Foreign Service is less than one-half of one percent of the size of the U.S. military in personnel and budget (there are more army musicians than foreign service officers), and that we are stretched thin all over the world at the other 260 embassies and consulates that we staff , most of which are hardship posts. (And we ARE all over the world. More than 60% of the Foreign Service is "forward deployed," compared with about 20% of the military. So unlike the military, we don't automatically get sent back to the states or a European post after an overseas tour.)

I had two primary complaints about the directed assignments: that they had been almost exclusively targetting those who had already served in the region, leaving untouched those who had served in lesser hardship posts, and that they announced in the media before telling us. The second still annoys me, but the first that have corrected, with many of the "prime candidates" having never served in the Middle East. That is as it should be. We are supposed to be generalists. We are supposed to be able to work where ever the Department sends us...I would have no "regional experience" if they decided to send me to Mexico, but I would go.

And if they order me to Iraq, I will go. In a few years, depending on the health of some family members (the reason I don't volunteer now), I will probably volunteer. I think it is hypocritical for those outside either the Foreign Service or the military to question my patriotism. I have already put my life at risk to serve my country in a dangerous place. No doubt I will again.

Make no mistake. I may have concerns about the way some personnel issues are handled, but I am proud to be in the Service and I am proud of my service to the country.