Austin Bay

News services ran headlines touting a "State Department call-up" or "diplomatic draft," but both templates are misleading. State certainly isn't conducting a draft. Its diplomats and departmental specialists all accepted government jobs without coercion. A "call-up" implies the use of reserves, of part-timers. Our diplomats aren't reserve "weekend warriors" leaving businesses to pick up rifles. They are full-time professionals who know -- when they sign on -- that they have duty stations worldwide.

The order had precedents. In the past, the State Department has ordered reluctant personnel to take hardship assignments, with the Vietnam War being a notable example. According to one newspaper report, in the 1980s State forced diplomats to take posts in West Africa. Sweaty, humid hellholes make great backdrops for Graham Greene novels, but service in a political and economic backwater doesn't add career-enhancing glitter to a diplomatic resume.

It should. In fact, it must. If we're to win the war for modernity, civilian agencies must encourage and reward personnel who tackle boot-and-work-glove jobs. We've learned that the seeds for attacks on New York and Washington are sown in chaotic, anarchic backwaters.

"Directed assignments" (diplo-speak for forcing personnel to fill unwanted jobs) are a "quick fix" for immediate problems -- they aren't a solution. Changing organizational culture is, but that's a job that takes time, training and sustained emphasis by senior leaders. It also takes increased pay to attract and keep talent.

But we need expeditionary diplomats. Fostering political and economic development requires sweat and sustained presence. Woody Allen's quip that 90 percent of life is just showing up has always applied to diplomacy. "Showing up" in the 21st century means more than running the embassy in the capital city, it means conducting a "diplomacy that reaches neighborhoods." It's a complex requirement, but anything less is inadequate.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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