Stowaways – Reflections and Confessions

Reflections and Confessions on War and Peace – My Twelve Months in Iraq

My service in Iraq, from January 2008 to January 2009, was a complex sentence that had, for me, several significant punctuation marks. A semicolon marked my transfer from the Office of Provincial Affairs to the Front Office; a series of exclamation marks accompanied the March and April bombings in the IZ and the Palace grounds; tentative commas marked our move from the “hootches” to the NEC apartments starting in May and the intense heat of the June through August summer months; repetitious question marks from September through November caused us all to wonder whether the Iraqis would actually accept the terms of the Strategic Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement; the period, full stop, of December ended our occupation of the Republican Palace; and the exclamation mark of our January move to the new chancery coincided, altogether, with some measure of restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and the establishment a new US-Iraq bilateral relationship. Through it all, the exceptional courage and the tireless sacrifices of my fellow foreign service officers, foreign service nationals, third country nationals, and contractors left me in a state of awe and with a deep sense of humility, of the privilege that was mine, to be there in service with them.

Similarly, service in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands great courage and sacrifice, as does service in less heralded but equally demanding hardship postings, such as Luanda, Monrovia, and Khartoum, to name a few (I betray here my AF background and professional lineage). The point, however, is that success in tough places requires personal courage and sacrifices, both of FSO’s and of their families. And the sacrifices are not equal – our families and loved ones pay far more, far more. Much of the human costs of our political success in Iraq, or in any of these places, such as it is, goes unpaid.

Shifting gears quickly, a great American diplomat once confided that perhaps we pay too much attention to direct compensation, such as hardship pay, danger pay, special differentials, etc., and not enough attention to the appeal to a sense of duty and the possible achievement of patriotic success so rarely experienced in a long career. It may be that we have lost faith in such intangibles, such outmoded values, and that we place more faith in the details of the Service Recognition Package. That loss of faith in our core values, quite frankly, identifies us less as diplomats and more as mercenaries, soldiers for hire, and we sell ourselves short, cheaply, at that.

And what is to become of our Foreign Service? That’s a question that came up often in Baghdad conversations where it was evident and obvious that traditionally diplomatic functions, once the province and the domain of the Department of State, were and are slowly being taken over by a far better resourced, better trained, and better equipped Department of Defense. Many studies have been and are being conducted on the militarization of diplomacy (just google the words and see what comes up) and the more euphemistic “civilian-military cooperation;” Baghdad is a huge laboratory for such studies, the former term being far more descriptive that the latter. Military units named Strategic Effects and Strategic Communications have leveraged the massive resource imbalance between Defense and State to spring themselves into former State-dominated areas of political and economic reporting and public diplomacy efforts. Regional and combatant commanders have become the equivalent of ambassadors and chiefs of mission, outside the traditional inter-agency setting, but with far more resources and more robust means of budget execution. The Country Team is just another joint interagency task force, among many. Fortunately for us, I guess, Defense shows no taste for administrative or consular work, State’s traditional and historic stepchildren, so State’s monopoly is safe there, for the time being.

Where did the Foreign Service lose its soul, its purpose, its identity? We allowed the lines separating foreign service professional service from military professional service to be blurred. But there are important differences between us, more that the false dichotomy espoused in the phrase “State is from Venus and Defense is from Mars.” We are both from Earth, but there are differences in the way we think, the way we approach problem solving.

Military professionals are digital, zero or one, all or nothing. Situations, problems to be solved, are black and white. For them, enough technology, be it smart bombs, smart tanks, or smart powerpoint presentations, can win any debate or resolve any difficulty. Military professional have little regard for or patience with the workings of international law or agreed upon conventions.

Foreign service professionals are analog, and focus on problems between nations as a range of issues, with a range of solutions, some more appropriate than others, some less. Situations are shades of gray, not just black and white. For us, technology is useful, but might doesn’t mean right, right means right. Correspondingly, foreign service professionals abide by international law and conventions.

In a different analogy, from my own military engineering training, Defense is a big gate valve in a system of large pipes. Closed gate valves are strong and hold well against incoming pressure. Open gate valves offer minimal resistance to fluid flow. But gate valves only work in the fully open or fully shut position. Measured flow is not an option. State is a needle valve that provides throttling where needed and can distinguish between, say, two gallon of flow per minute, and 35 gallons of flow per minute, by raising or lowering the valve stem. There are large needle valves for large applications, and there are microscopic needle valves for nanotechnology applications. But they all provide measuring capability.

In yet another analogy, Defense is like the stern planes on a submarine that provide for large depth excursions, say from the surface to four hundred feet. State is like the fairwater planes on a submarine that allow for precise depth changes, say from 200 to 150 feet, and enable a fast attack boat to do underhull surveillance of other ships and surfaced submarines, maintaining a six-inch depth excursion band. As an aside, I remember once studying a class of Russian submarines that did not have fairwater planes. Up and down, only.

Finally, diplomacy, true diplomacy can prevent war and all the attendant physical and human losses and has done so. The tools of diplomacy, falsely, inappropriately or unprofessionally applied, have a high probability of failure. Diplomacy has come to be seen in recent times as simply the prerequisite and prelude to war. The noted military historian, Geoffrey Blainey writes, “many historians, in explaining the outbreak of war, argue that ‘the breakdown in diplomacy led to war.’ This explanation is rather like the argument that the end of winter led to spring: it is a description masquerading as an explanation.” Where war, the noted historian Barbara Tuchman writes, is the unfolding of miscalculations, diplomacy is the precise calculation itself, and the accurate reporting of solutions to correct calculations that eliminates the need for war and all its corresponding horrors. State’s core competency is diplomacy to prevent war. Defense’s core competency is war itself.

Where do we go from here? We start by unequivocally defining ourselves and our core competencies. It is not about funding. It has never been. It is about our professional capacity to bring about the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is about peace making. War has brought us a limited economic development, followed by financial disaster. Peace brings a much broader and more widespread prosperity. History is the judge. Blessed are the peace makers…

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