Stuck in a Real State

Posted: Dec 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Stuck in a Real State

Americans are at our best when we volunteer. In revolutionary times, it was the Minutemen, sworn to leave their homes and fight the British at a moment’s notice. Today, hundreds of thousands of volunteer firemen donate their time and efforts to protect their fellow Americans.

We also enjoy the world’s largest and most successful volunteer military. When the draft was abolished in 1973, many worried that the armed forces would crater. But today we have a far better trained, much more skilled military because this force accepts only volunteers. Those who choose to serve in uniform are a cut above.

Of course, our military isn’t the only American institution that depends on volunteers. So does the State Department; there’s no “diplomacy draft” on the horizon. But the Department’s recent difficulty in finding officers willing to volunteer for posts in Iraq is a red flag that the diplomatic corps needs some serious attention.

“Foreign Service Officers advocate American foreign policy, protect American citizens, and promote American business interests throughout the world,” the State Department explains on its Web site.

That’s what made a recent tempest at State so disturbing. The department needed an additional 48 staffers to serve in Iraq in 2008, a country critical to the success of our foreign policy. We need to win hearts and minds there more than anywhere else in the world. It’s a job demanding the very best representatives.

However, volunteers were difficult to come by. “If we have to, we will redirect assignments,” Harry Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service, warned. That would mean ordering State Department employees to serve in Iraq, to fill jobs nobody had volunteered to take.

Luckily this crisis was averted. After the media covered the story, enough State Department officers stepped up voluntarily to solve the problem. But we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Because, while the government can force its employees to serve overseas (after all, they did take an oath to serve), it shouldn’t have to. A better incentive package could help solve this problem.

For example, when a member of the military is deployed to a war zone, that person gets combat pay and a government-supplied life insurance policy. It’s different for a Foreign Service Officer. If assigned to a war zone, an FSO’s private life insurance policy may become null and void. And, if the officer is injured, there’s no military hospital or VA system to rely on back stateside.

But that’s easily fixed: Give State Department employees who serve in dangerous places overseas the same benefits military members get when serving in a war or combat zone. Those volunteering to serve in dangerous jobs deserve all the protection Uncle Sam can give them.

It’s also time to update the way we train and deploy diplomats, especially the sort of multi-talented policy officers we want in conflict zones. They shouldn’t be completely defenseless. They wouldn’t be soldiers, but rather professionals with rudimentary training in self-defense and in operating in a combat or high-intensity conflict situation.

To succeed in linking all the elements of our National Security Strategy -- including defense, diplomacy and aid -- into a coherent program, the U.S. needs more volunteer diplomats who want to serve overseas, not fewer. Our Foreign Service officers took an oath to go where they’re sent, and we could force them to go into dangerous areas. But we’ll be more effective if they are well-trained volunteers, showing America at its best.