Missed Story in Iraq

When diplomats are in danger
July 1, 2007

Every March since the war in Iraq began, the Foreign Service Journal—the house organ of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization and union for U.S. foreign service employees—has examined the state of diplomacy and nation-building in Iraq. Reading those issues, one thing is apparent: the press has largely ignored an important story about the consequences for thousands of civilian foreign service employees of the administration’s disastrous war.

The maintenance of America’s largest embassy in an active war zone is a hard case to make. (Even in Vietnam security was never so bad that it prevented diplomats from doing their jobs.) Diplomats in Iraq—in the besieged International Zone in Baghdad and out in the perilous Provincial Reconstruction Teams (prts) around the country—operate under frequent mortar and rocket attack, or surrounded by armed guards when they dare venture beyond the wire to meet with wary Iraqis. In the prts, they are often forced to do without basic resources, like working phones. To date, three foreign service workers have been killed.

The press, meanwhile, has been more interested in the Pentagon’s effort to blame the State Department for the bungled nation-building effort—that somehow the lack of civil engineers, electricity-grid experts, and other specialists is due to State’s failure to, as President Bush said, “step up.” But this is not what diplomats do. They talk to people, negotiate, build relationships, and the like.
Here are two basic questions that reporters need to unpack: Is it possible to perform effective diplomacy under such circumstances? And if not, then why is our government risking so many lives this way?

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.