When I was reporting from the Middle East in the '80s and early '90s, Western diplomats in certain "hot-spot" countries were often sent home, with only essential personnel remaining to staff the embassy. In times of crisis, Western embassies sometimes closed temporarily. During the first Gulf War, only skeletal staff remained trapped in Kuwait. So the Bush administration's insistence that 48 diplomats be forced to post to Baghdad in the midst of chaos and war seems highly suspect.
It's no wonder US diplomats are protesting. This week 300 diplomats attended a meeting at the state department concerning the "forced assignments" order made by Harry Thomas, state department human resources director. One diplomat referred to an Iraq posting as a "potential death sentence."
Previously Iraq postings were filled on a voluntary basis. If too few volunteer, Thomas said some will be forced to go to Iraq or risk dismissal, other than those exempted for medical or personal hardship reasons. Last Friday, Thomas informed 250 "prime candidates" of their selection for one of 48 one-year postings at the embassy in Baghdad or in a Provincial Reconstruction Team elsewhere in the country. The diplomats were given ten days to respond.
Senior diplomat Jack Croddy, who worked as a political adviser with Nato forces, highlighted safety fears of staff forced to serve in a war zone. "It's one thing if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers, but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment," Croddy said. "I'm sorry, but basically that's a potential death sentence and you know it. Who will raise our children if we are dead or seriously wounded?
"You know that at any other [country] in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point," Croddy noted. And that's the point. Under these kinds of dangerous circumstances - daily suicide bombings, explosions and sniper killings - the embassy would be closed, or staffed minimally, mostly with US Marine guards. So why is the Bush administration forcing so many diplomats to work in a war zone? They're not trained soldiers; more likely they would become prime targets for kidnappings or worse. Is the Bush administration so completely deluded about the situation on the ground in Iraq that they really imagine American diplomats would be welcome?