Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How many ambassadors does it take to change a light bulb in Baghdad?

I just saw that Ambassador Adam Ereli (until recently US Ambassador to Bahrain) has arrived in Baghdad to serve as Public Affairs Counselor for 2008-2009. The embassy notice says: From 2007 to 2008 Ereli has served as Ambassador to Bahrain. He will return to post when his tour in Iraq is completed in 2009. (Ambassador Ereli, like all ambassadors still has to tender his resignations when the new U.S. President takes office in January 2009). Anyway, prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Bahrain, Ambassador Ereli was Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy for Overseas Communications, based in London. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Spokesman of the Department of State (2003-2006) and was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar, from 2000 to 2003.

The U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, Robert Ford, is reportedly also heading back to Baghdad as chief of what is probably now the largest Political Section in the world. Ambassador Ford was previously Political Counselor of Baghdad from 2004-2006, the same job that he will encumber this time around. I could be wrong but this might actually be his third tour there. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bahrain from 2001 until 2004.

According to the Office of the Spokesman, the most recent DCM in Baghdad was previously the Ambassador to Belarus, who was replaced by a former Ambassador to Bangladesh. The Political Section, most recently was headed by the former Ambassador to Syria who will be replaced by our Ambassador to Algeria. Another former ambassador reportedly became the political-military counselor, and yet another became coordinator for the economic transition. Assistance work and the PRTs reportedly have their own ambassador –rank staffers, too.

Ambassadors here, there and everywhere. Of course, in addition to Ambassador Crocker, who plans to retire in January.

The Spokesman says that this really paints a picture of a Department that has stepped up and answered the call that the Secretary has put out for experienced, seasoned people to serve in Embassy Baghdad. That is well and good but – does State really need that many ambassadors and that much experience and talent expended in one area of the world? This makes me wonder about the Department’s overall talent management strategy here.

Strategic use of limited resources: Is there one? The most senior members of the FS have 20-30 years of experience under their belts. Although they are "generalist" who could be assigned anywhere in the world, the truth of the matter is they have relevant expertise only in certain areas of the world. By placing them in Iraq, State has taken away talent that could be its most effective representative elsewhere in the world and lumped them together in an already saturated talent pool called Baghdad. Somebody please explain this to me. I know the reasoning must be simple, but I just can’t understand why we have so many ambassadors working in Iraq. Won’t they trip over each other?

Stretch assignment: State has always prided itself with offering stretch assignments, allowing junior and midlevel officers to serve a rank or two above their grades. It is good practice but also a pragmatic one, since State has been afflicted with the curse of deep staffing gaps for years now. Is State using stretch assignments in Baghdad, or has it been decided that the practice is great elsewhere but not in Iraq? I’m not proposing sending our JOs straight out of A100 to Iraq, but c’mon, I’ve never seen this many senior officers assigned to a single place except Iraq, and well, there's Foggy Bottom. An argument could be made that this simply shows that Iraq is our most important foreign policy engagement at the moment. If this is so, shouldn't people up on the 7th floor be holding office in Baghdad on a monthly rotation instead of doing quick trips? I'm sure somebody would tell me, "But Iraq is not the world!" there are other hotspots around the globe.

True, Iraq is not the world, it says so on my NGS map - so why can't we rightsize the embassy in Baghdad as we're trying to do with the rest of the State Department's overseas presence around the world? And wouldn't this be a good job for the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation? And while I'm in an inquiring mood, does anyone have a good rationale for the staffing pattern in Baghdad? I really would like to know. I don’t think even AFSA knows except that we need more people there.

The thing is - I don't know very much but I understand that we have 29-30 poloffs in Baghdad. Even with minnow-brains, I have to ask if we really need 30 political officers working at the Political Section there? How often do these officers travel outside the Green Zone (GZ) to meet with their Iraqi contacts? Do we have 30 portfolios for these officers to tackle during their year of service in Iraq? Is there continuity to the work they are doing there, or do they spend their first three-six months starting from scratch with every officer rotation? How many Blackwater Worldwide guards are required to escort each Political Officer on every excursion outside the GZ? How many Diplomatic Security Agents are required to escort each Blackwater mission escorting each Political Officer on every excursion outside the GZ? See, how that gets a bit confusing?

If the US Embassy in Baghdad is the forerunner and model for the much touted “expeditionary” diplomacy of the future, I think it might need to go on a lean diet before it could effectively run.

Steve over at Dead Men Working, by the way, has an excellent piece that explains, Why Don't We Just "Soldier Up" in response to the Washington Times editorial, the paper's opening salvo for the nth Annual "Bash the Foreign Service" Party. You understand, it's a summer thing. Steve wrote an enlightening piece for those not too familiar about the Foreign Service and you can read it here. Consul-at-Arms has also written about this last week here. In case readers missed the point, there was also an accompanying editorial cartoon for this year's festivities. John Naland of AFSA has responded to that here.

I apologize that I don't have much to add except to politely request all past and future bashers - why don't you slap us naked and hide our clothes after we've done all the packing/unpacking in Ouagadougou, Timbuktu, Banjul, Ashgabat and elsewhere in this worldwide available universe? Or better yet, why don't you come join the fun, as in sign up and walk in these reportedly comfy and cushy shoes? Shh.... just between you and me, they're not as comfy or as cushy as they were made out to be, but we get beaten up for it still the same.


jc said...

Yes there are a lot of Ambassadors in Baghdad; there's been at least one out at a PRT as well. A colleague of mine used to observe that the senior diplomats would come, and the junior officers would come; the problem was finding mid-level officers (who tend to have school-age children).

I think that it's also true that the Front Office does actively recruit for the top positions ... after that, pretty much a pulse seems to be the first requirement. Not that there aren't some fine officers here, but I don't think any of us had to lobby hard for the positions - they'll even take civil servants like me. So yes there are a lot of people in stretch assignments: of people in comparable positions to mine across the PRTs, I can think of one who is at-grade, in-cone. There might be more; I just don't know who they are.

What does everyone in Baghdad do? I try to avoid Baghdad, so I'll pass on that question. I do manage to keep busy out here in the periphery - especially covering two portfolios for the last six months (yes we even have staffing gaps here). But the good news is that it's time to think about heading home and, as this recent correspondence demonstrates, I won't have to worry about any directed assignments in the near future.

Dear ...,

The 2008 Skill Code Conversion Panel, with concurrence from the Director General, has made its final determinations concerning applications for the ... code . With regret, I must inform you that while the nomination panel determined that you met the basic requirements for conversion, there were insufficient numbers available in the desired cone to allow you to convert at this time. Accordingly, your application was not approved. As per 3 FAH-1 H-2627.1, these decisions are final and may not be appealed. Assuming applications for the ... skill code will be accepted next year and you once again meet basic eligibility requirements, you may reapply.

Thank you for your interest in this program. I know that you are disappointed, but I hope this explanation has been of some help. If you have any questions or issues for discussion, please don’t hesitate to contact your CDO, ... in HR/CDA/ML.



T. Greer said...

Hmmm. While I appreciate your point, I think I would sympathize with your concern a lot more if the Ambassadors being sent to Baghdad were being pulled out of Brussels or Beijing. I mean, we are talking about Bahrain- hardly a priority one country for United States Diplomacy, I am sure. While I hate to marginalize a country, it seems to me that our success in Iraq is much more vital to American interests than our relations with Algeria or Belarus. The FS is not big, so we kinda have to prioritize, do we not?

If it were me -and this is just my uneducated, non-FSO sensibilities speaking here- I would make our Embassies in Beijing, Brussels, Moscow, and perhaps Tokyo as loaded as our embassy in Iraq is.

My biggest concern with such a policy is that the Ambassadors would "trip over each other" as you mention. Still, I think that we may put a little to much value on the title of Ambassador- Indeed, I am reminded of the passage in Dick Francis' novel, "Comeback" where the main character (a British FSO) remarks how funny it is that American diplomats keep their title of Ambassador with them their whole life, even if they were assigned to, "some tiny little county with no real consequence." Indeed, I have a hunch that a few of the jobs you have listed here are just as hard and demanding (if not more hard and demanding) than an Ambassadorship. But seeing as I have neither served as an Ambassador or a Political Section chief in a war zone, I can't really talk. Perhaps you, as a FSO, can clear this one up a bit?

Good post,

~T. Greer

DS said...

Thanks for the comment. By one account I've heard that 85% of staff in Iraq comes from the mid-levels; I'm not sure how realistic is this figure given the shortages of midlevel personnel across the board in the FS. I have to laugh at the "pulse" comment because somebody just recently said the same thing to me.

I am sorry that the conversion skill request did not go through. I think the intake almost always depends on the "needs of the service" in whatever cone selected. If this is something you really want to do, I encourage you to try again next year. You might also consider other excursion tours in the FS. The CS I've seen have done consular tours, although I'm sure there are other jobs available in other tracks. One civil servant did 3 maybe 4 consular tours if I remember right, before successfully converting to the FS. But it was a job that this person really loved.

Good luck on your two portfolios and keep safe. I'd be happy to post in Diplopundit your PRT experience perspective when you conclude your assignment there. Email me off-line, if you're interested.

DS said...

Thanks for your comment. Ambassadors indeed keep their titles for life. Here's something on commission, titles, and rank in the FS that might interest you:

Making those other embassies loaded like Iraq would be scraping bottom in the FS since we're not only underfunded, but we also have a deep staffing deficit particularly in the midlevel ranks. Add to that the retirement of baby boomers in the next 5-10 years, and we're in even deeper trouble.

I understand your point, but its not so much which places these senior officers are taken from, it is their thick concentration in Iraq that is unsettling. Are we saying that at-grade, at-cone officers are not good enough for these positions that we need an ambassador ranked staffer there? It just seems like overkill.

I personally think that every job in the FS is demanding. If there is a microcosm of the knowledge economy in the world, it is the FS, where knowledge is the currency. We often refer to the information requirement as "feeding the fish." The higher you are, the bigger the fish that needs feeding; and the bigger the splash , of course, if you make a bo-bo. That does not make it easier if you're in the lower ranks because you still need the feed the fish larger than you are.

No, no, I don't think we're putting too much value on these ambassador ranks - these are career ambassadors not political appointee-ambassadors awarded ambassadorial posts in exchange for their political and financial support. A career minister is equivalent to a Lt.General or Vice Admiral. A career ambassador is equivalent in rank to a general and admiral in our Armed Forces. These are folks who spent most of their working life in the FS; no matter how small or irrelevant we might think some of those countries they are accredited to, they are the president's personal representative to those countries. And in the years to come, as the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent with one another,we will need the smaller players in the international stage to help us with GWOT, trafficking, pandemic, drugs, global warming and a host of other issues. The GWOT will be fought in every corner of the globe, although there may not be a bullet fired in most of those places.

Consul-At-Arms said...

Thanks for the mention and the link. I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2008/06/re-how-many-ambassadors-does-it-take-to.html