Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mandatory Tours?

The assertion that the SD has begun debating the possibility of changing the voluntary assignment system to a mandatory one has generated a great deal of confusion and consternation, if not outright panic in some circles.

Part of the problem is semantic. Many people have issues with the word 'mandatory', equating that with taxes and military conscription. Not everyone would be required to go, obviously—only a select few. Although all incoming Foreign Service Personnel freely signed off that they were willing and available for worldwide service, the SD has been reticent to use that document to strong-arm FSOs into any position in which they might be especially uncomfortable.

Some members of the SFS (Senior Foreign Service) advocate changing this policy, but Secretary Rice continues to express confidence that adequate numbers of qualified volunteers will be found. The Baghdad mission is currently the most dangerous one we have, and the real problem is how to encourage and motivate people to volunteer.

Traditionally, the SD has offered hazard pay, shorter tours, better positioning for subsequent postings, and various other 'amenities' to facilitate volunteerism. The downside is that these 'perks' tend to attract younger, single, more inexperienced personnel. The more experienced FSOs don't necessarily need better positioning; they balk at the prospect of being away from their families; and complain that the supposed gain from hazard pay is set off by the loss of higher 'cost of living' benefits they receive at many Western posts, including DC.

According to an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (hmm, an outsider?), the SD "needs to start here by changing expectations", that incoming JOs should be ready to accept any posting, like a military officer.

Sure, sure. Does that mean an A100 Boot Camp now? Tactical training and diplomatic parades?

But in some respects, s/he may be right. Instead of 'buying' volunteerism (c'mon, let's say it like it is), the SD should be providing the means to instill confidence and security awareness among the FSOs. The FSS Security Officers receive specific types of training; have some of those classes available to FSOs going into hostile environments. Make the so-called 'Crash and Bang' class mandatory. Offer various self-defense courses as electives. Teach them how to safely transport, handle, clear, and secure weapons. Granted, diplomats are not expecting (or even wanting) to carry a firearm, but consider offering additional training options to interested parties. They don't need to learn combat techniques or accrue time at the firing range, but a familiarity with weapons, their uses and limitations, will boost confidence in a potentially hostile environment.

At the same time, the knowledge that our diplomats might be learning this sends a strong message to those who actively seek to harm us: "We're no longer as soft a target as we once were." How many of our embassy invasions might have been avoided were it known that our FSOs might act more defensively? That possibility helped delay the storming of our embassies in Somalia and Liberia. Could it have made a difference in Tehran and Islamabad in 1979? Would it have deterred the embassy attack in Jedda in 2004, or encouraged the assigned guard to stand their ground? We'll never know. But it is certainly worth discussing.

There are quite a few articles/sites which examine and discuss this issue in greater detail:

I know this topic, and many of the proposed 'alternatives', are highly emotional issues for many current and future FSOs, and their respective families. Please feel free to discuss, comment, or add other links related to this dialogue!