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If You Build It, The Diplomats Will Come

If You Build It, The Diplomats Will Come

Just as the brand new US Embassy in Iraq has finally been cleared to open for business, bad news from HR.

“The State Department is warning U.S. diplomats they may be forced to serve in Iraq next year and says it will soon start identifying prime candidates for jobs at the Baghdad embassy and outlying provinces, according to a cable obtained by The Associated Press.

‘We face a growing challenge of supply and demand in the 2009 staffing cycle,’ the cable said, noting that more than 20 percent of the nearly 12,000 foreign service officers have already worked in the two major hardship posts ‚ Iraq and Afghanistan ‚ and a growing number have done tours in both countries.

As a result, the unclassified April 8 cable says, 'the prime candidate exercise will be repeated’ next year, meaning the State Department will begin identifying U.S. diplomats qualified to serve in Iraq and who could be forced to work there if they don't volunteer‚ “The Associated Press.

This is déjà vu all over again for most Foreign Services Officers, as the Department warned this past fall that diplomats would be forced to take up the hardship post if not enough volunteered to fill the required slots. The Associated Press described a “town hall meeting” held last fall among several hundred foreign service officers to discuss the Department's mandated service order. Some questioned the ethics of sending people against their will to a war zone, with one calling the forced assignments a “potential death sentence” to loud applause. In the end, enough officers leapt to the cause and all the slots were filled.

If only Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could only win her battle with Congress to appropriate more funds to hire the 1,110 new diplomats she's requesting for FY 2009, the already strained Foreign Service might not get further squeezed by the largest US embassy ever, that just built in Baghdad.

The US embassy in Baghdad itself is the center of controversy. First is the sheer size of the complex. About 104 acres, the embassy is roughly the same size as the Vacation City in Rome, six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York, and two-thirds the size of Washington, DC's National Mall. It will provide working and living quarters for more than 1,000 U.S. diplomats and military personnel and includes a shopping complex, cinema, gym and “extensive” sporting facilities.

The second point of controversy is the embassy's cost. The complex began costing $592 dollars to construct. That's a lot of money considering how starved this particular government agency is for funding. But, as one would expect of the embassy of the future, poor construction resulted in serious infrastructure problems, which pushed the cost up by an additional $144 million.

Then there's the symbolic repercussions. The International Crisis Group, a European-based conflict prevention group, argues that: “The presence of a massive U.S. embassy ‚ by far the largest in the world ‚ co-located in the Green Zone with the Iraqi government is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country.”

Another AP dispatch points out that: “The complex quickly could become a white elephant if the U.S. scales back its presence and ambitions in Iraq. Although the U.S. probably will have forces in Iraq for years to come, it is not clear how much of the traditional work of diplomacy can proceed amid the violence and what the future holds for Iraq's government.

Edward Peck, a former top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, explained to the AP: “What you have is a situation in which they are building an embassy without really thinking about what its functions are. What kind of embassy is it when everybody lives inside and it's blast-proof, and people are running around with helmets and crouching behind sandbags?”

And the embassy is, in fact, a giant, uber expensive, sitting duck. Embassy officials ordered its staff to wear flak jackets and helmets while outdoors or in unprotected buildings. In this field of dreams off the Tigris, “if you build it” the diplomats will come‚ with enough wrangling, hardship pay, and body armor.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.