US Embassy Iraq: 5 Years Later, Some Questions Answered

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John D. Negropo...Image via Wikipedia

The US Embassy in Iraq opened on July 1, 2004 in the Green Zone, in the former palace of Saddam Hussein. Early this year, the Embassy moved to a new compound and had a dedication ceremony on January 5. Last month, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on US Embassy Baghdad.

There’s one thing I like about reading those OIG inspection reports; they occasionally provide us with answers to nagging questions. Diplopundit has been quiet perplexed about the large number of ambassadors and former ambassadors serving in Iraq. I realized that Iraq was a foreign policy priority in the previous eight years, but I was concerned about the number of ambassadors congregating in one single post. The practice sent a signal, unintentional it may be that “at grade” FS officers could not cut the cake, thus higher ranking officers were required. So a perfectly talented DCM in Beijing could not get to Baghdad, because a perfectly talented former ambassador was going to Baghdad as DCM.

Previously, I was aware of three former and current chiefs of mission in Iraq in addition to Ambassador Crocker (Patricia Butenis, then DCM who was previously US Ambassador to Bangladesh; Robert Ford, then POL Counselor who was previously Ambassador to Algeria and J. Adam Erile, the PD boss who was credentialed as US Ambassador to Bahrain). It turned out there were more ambassadors in Iraq than I thought and there was a reason for their recruitment and presence in Iraq. According to the OIG report:

“At the time of the inspection, seven active or former chiefs of mission were working as embassy section heads or as the DCM in Baghdad; the Ambassador had personally recruited all of them. This concentration of senior Foreign Service talent reflected the importance of Iraq and was congruent with the rank structure of the U.S. military with whom they worked.”

I don’t know what the rank structure was during the Petreaus-Crocker partnership, but right now the MNF-I has General Ray Odierno, with Lieutenant General Chris Brown CBE as his deputy and there’s Command Sergeant Major Lawrence Wilson. Oh, plus seven other senior military officers with the ranks of Lt. Gen, Major General and Brig. General. The FS is a much smaller organization (more band members in the military) so it does makes you wonder about congruence. I wonder how many ambassadors and former chiefs of mission did we send to Vietnam during the war for rank structure congruence? The Historian’s Office thought the question was “quite intriguing” but says it does not have the resources to perform such complex research for the general public.

I should note that we sent entry-level diplomats to Vietnam straight out of A100 in the late 1960’s (including apparently a whole class in 1969). Richard Holbrooke, yes that one, who was then 22 years old, was a USAID provincial representative in the Mekong Delta.

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I’m no longer young enough to know everything. I’ll admit that I’ve always found the staffing at the US Embassy in Baghdad (and not just the presence of multiple ambassadors) a mystery. I understand that even AFSA was in the dark on the embassy’s staffing pattern there.

Take the example of political officers in Iraq. No other US embassy in the world has this many political officers; not Moscow, nor Delhi, not even Beijing. No other post, that is – except Iraq and of course, Saigon previously. Makes you wonder why the concentration of poloffs in Baghdad? Now it can be told …. Here is what the OIG says about the Political Section staffing/operation at the US Embassy in Baghdad (long excerpt):

Led by a seasoned Arabist, a large section of 25 officers produces well-informed reporting on Iraqi politics. Despite security constraints, political officers maintain extensive contacts with Iraqi politicians, though meetings outside the International Zone require elaborate protective details. The quantity of reporting has declined in the past year but its quality has increased, as the section carried out a plan to send a smaller number of higher value cables tightly targeted to policy concerns.

This section of 25 officers is overstaffed. Its numbers were determined in 2007, when Ambassador Crocker requested a civilian surge to match the military’s surge of troops. Crocker cabled that he needed up to twice as many political officers, including more qualified Arabists. The Department was unable to provide enough Arabic speakers — the section has only three or four available at any one time — but it did agree to double the number of officers. The result is overly narrow portfolios, competition for information and contacts, and more reporting than is strictly needed. Officers returning for a second tour found “more bureaucracy but less real work” this time around.

The OIG team reviewed positions carefully with the political minister-counselor and concurred with his conclusion that the section would have higher morale and productivity with fewer officer positions, though it cannot function with fewer than two OMS positions because of gaps from the frequent R&Rs. The Embassy has already identified positions it wishes to cut.

The weakest aspect of reporting is the lack of tools to support it. Too many officers keep track of their contacts on back-of-the-envelope systems, some of them little more than stacks of business cards. The biographic information needed for successful meetings in the Middle East is dispersed in several files where it is difficult to find. The Embassy’s strategy of relying on a contractor in the Ambassador’s office for some of its most important contacts suffered when the contractor departed post and took his files with him rather than turning them over to the political section.

Short assignments and constant rotations also place a premium on the transfer of knowledge from departing officers to new ones. In theory, mandatory overlaps allow each new arrival to be trained by a predecessor, but departing officers are often too exhausted to pass needed information on. There are few standard operating procedures (SOPs). Many officers consider their pre-deployment training weak, particularly in tradecraft.

These problems are compounded by the absence of a deputy responsible for day-to-day management of the section. Following the Ambassador’s instructions, the minister-counselor focuses on substance. Three co-equal unit chiefs focus on the section’s products rather than its processes. Strong as the minister-counselor is in mentoring individuals, he cannot effectively manage a section this large without a full-time deputy who could create more tools to support reporting officers, including SOPs, “smart books” on portfolios, and a contact management system that is accessible to all section officers. The latter could contain protected estimates of reliability, be searchable by issue as well as by name, and be interoperable with protocol and other contact databases.

Okay, first — I still could not wrap my head around that part about having a civilian surge to match the military’s surge of troops. You’d think that the work requirements would be identified first before you calculate the number of officers needed to tackle the requirements. But apparently it works the other way around. Still one has to wonder where that order really came from – the Front Office in Baghdad or the Seventh Floor in Foggy Bottom.

On a related note, read Patricia Kushlis of WhirledView on
Iraq is not Vietnam and the PRTs are not CORDS). A WhirledView commenter was as perplexed as I was:

“I don’t know what they DO actually do, but delivering demarches, arranging cultural exchanges, negotiating agreements with, say, the national science agency, reporting what you heard on the street -when you don’t speak the language – just ain’t it. WHAT ARE THOSE 1000 “diplomats” DOING that they must risk life and limb for – and further risk the deaths of innocent bystanders if they venture out of the Green Zone with their Praetorian Guards? Going in harm’s way in order to pretend that we have a normal diplomatic relationship with a fully independent government????? Nonsense…nonsense on stilts.”

Now the civilian surge – um, excuse me – civilian uplift is on in Afghanistan.While the rightsizing train may be winding its way down US Embassy Baghdad, recruitment for Kabul and its provinces is gearing up. So what used to be the Iraq tax, can now be technically called the Aftax. How many jobs are currently vacant at your post because of personnel shifting assignments to Afghanistan (and Pakistan)? I won’t be surprise of course, if the top dog assignment cycle is now called – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan Bid Cycle. I do wonder if State has learned anything from Iraq on staffing a diplomatic mission in a war zone. No, Pakistan is not a war zone, but we might call it an area of supreme interest with its own corresponding civilian uplift.

Wouldn’t this just be the perfect topic for that proposed Lessons Learned Center (LLC) for the State Department?

Second — lack of systematic knowledge transfer and continuity is hardly a surprising end result. This is a problem with some embassies and consulates as well, but exacerbated in Iraq due to shorter tours in a much more stressful and demanding environment. On the dispersion of biographic information into multiple files which make them difficult to find — whatever happened to the Net-Centric Diplomacy project? (The OIG talked briefly about NCD in its semi-annual report to Congress 2008-2009). The NCD’s intent as I understand it is for information sharing not hoarding. But how would that work in an environment like Baghdad where there is competition for information and contacts? Simple – human behavior trumps technology. Also, a contractor departed post with his files, developed through his work under USG, of which I presumed he was handsomely compensated — and we let him get away with it? One more thing for the LLC.

Finally, on the seasoned Arabist leading the POL section at the time — perhaps I should add that any job under the Chief of Mission is very much like being a band member; you follow the direction of the band leader, and you don’t ever play your own song. That’s that, unless you have another job lined up. On that item about results over process and day-to-day management — I have to wonder if perhaps somebody out there took to heart Tony Lake’s ideas on this. In Somoza Falling (A case Study of Washington at Work p.285) , he argues that we need to have diplomats of “individual brilliance…” men and women who understand foreign societies, who can relate to foreign realities …policy generalist and not, not managers.

But – if you can’t manage the chaos, how can you find that “individual brilliance?” One more thing for the LLC.

Related Item:
Embassy Baghdad, Iraq: Report Number ISP-I-09-30A, July 2009