In a War That Must Not Be Named, Leadership and Security On the Line

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I’ve posted a first person account here of a Foreign Service officer assigned to a border post.  One wonders if this account is an isolated case or typical of how this is handled in our border posts.  Are our diplomats there routinely told to just suck it up or to go curtail amidst a war next door that must not be named?  First, a few quick points:

#The phone tree as I understand it is regularly updated by the Regional Security Office to ensure that the emergency contact number of mission members are correct. The CLO runs a separate phone tree for family members. The RSO then runs periodic test to make sure employees and dependents are reachable on their contact phones and back up phones.  I have never seen this run by the MGT or by Consular Sections, but I suspect anybody could be tasked to do this at much smaller posts in a collateral role.

#Worldwide Availability: All officers are considered worldwide available, that is, prepared to go where needed; ready, at any time, to meet the needs of the Service. Needs of the Service trumps almost everything else, almost always. The first two tours of entry level officers are normally “directed.” New employees can put in their bid lists, but they could end up going to places not on their lists. Needs of the Service. Over 60% of FS posts are considered “hardship,” in isolated, unhealthful and even dangerous environments.  Family members may not even be authorized to join the employee or even if they join, they potentially could be evacuated at any later time. Once saw a mid-level officer who started with a huge bid list, later shrunk down to 6 positions, all in Iraq. Needs of the Service. He had choices, six of them; all in Iraq.

#Together with the “no double standard” is the “need to know” policy (see 7 FAM 053.2-2 b).  Had the senior officials at the consulate told the junior officers about the impending raid impacting their security, might they have been required under the law to share the information with private Americans (unless the case was an exception under 7 FAM 052 (4))?  But — if there was any doubt as to the interpretation of the regs in relation to these two policies, post management could have picked up the phone and ask CA/PRI for guidance.  That said, I can’t understand why the employees not in the know could not have been ordered to have an official sleepover at the consulate office instead of leaving them out in the open on the day of the drug raid.  Surely, this was not the first raid in Mexico in close proximity to USG housing/facilities.  Is sheltering at home albiet blindly, standard operating procedure for all border posts?

#Leadership matters. Entry level officers on their first tours obviously do not have the same experience as seasoned officers even if they have previously lived/worked overseas.  Their fears are understandable. Their anger at being shut out is also understandable. People need to feel they matter.  Telling them to basically suck it up because they received danger pay or to go ahead and curtail due to legitimate fears is not good leadership and management. It builds distrust and without trust, the game, as the cliché goes, is over; teamwork becomes a fairy tale.

There are six border posts in Mexico: Cd. Juarez, Matamoros, Monterrey, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana.  Prior to the Cd.Juarez shooting last year, none except the Consular Agency in Raynosa had danger pay.

In 2009, The Telegraph reported that the annual murder rate in Cd. Juarez has reached 133 per 100,000 inhabitants, surpassing Caracas, Venezuela. The comparable murder rate in New York last year was six per 100,000.The report quoted Norte, the local newspaper in Ciudad Juarez: “With this, our city has reached a new historic mark in violent acts that verifies this is the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones.” The victims in Ciudad Juarez this year have included 85 children, 107 women and 49 police officers. There have been beheadings and dismemberments and one victim was tied between two trucks and ripped apart. Most of the crimes remain unsolved.”

And yet, it was not until March 14, 2010, the day after the Cd. Juarez US Consulate murders, that the border posts received a 15% danger pay differential.   (See Mexican Border Posts Get 15% Danger Pay | Mar 23, 2010)That same weekend, six US Consulates in Mexico also went on authorized voluntary departure (See Six US Consulates in Mexico on Authorized Departure).Over 35,000 people killed right next door, including at least 24 journalists and we still do not call that war on our doorstep a war.

As of March 13, 2011, Cd. Juaraez and Monterrey are up at 20% danger pay, Nogales down to 5% and the rest remains at 15%.Perhaps the FSO’s account should encourage not just a discussion on leadership in a crisis but also what it means to be a diplomat in this new and turbulent world.  Should diplomats need to have a new mindset that they are vulnerable like soldiers? And if so, what does that mean in terms of their ability and training to protect themselves and their loved ones?

DOD which is responsible for extracting large numbers of civilians in harm’s way during disasters and civil strife, has a joint publication on Noncombatant Evacuation Operations.  In it, it gave top billing to a legal and political maxim, “The people’s safety is the highest law.”

In fact, it’s just not DOD in an evacuation.  Organizations often tout their people as their greatest strength and resource and their safety, a sort of prime directive.  Why else do we evacuate people from harm’s way (except in diplomatic posts in war zones)? Why have companies evacuated their personnel out of Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and with the increasing bad news on the nuclear reactors? As the familiar phrase go — in the abundance of caution …to ensure their safety.

But what happens when the highest law collides with strategic national interest? We are talking about Mexico here, but we could just as well be talking about Japan, for instance. Or Pakistan, or Iraq, Afghanistan and on and on.Noting that every day is a dangerous day for employees working at US Mission Pakistan, the Office of the Inspector General writes that “Mission leadership and Washington policymakers recognize and accept this risk in order to pursue vital national strategic and security priorities.”

Similarly, leadership and policymakers understand that unarmed civilians in a war zone is at great risk, but they chose to stand up embassies and consulates and put diplomats in the middle of conflict, anyway.  An accepted risk.

And why does it take so long, and often at the very last minute for an ordered evacuation to take place?  Because it is a political decision, even if no one would admit to that. Governments, including ours,  may not want to send the signal that it has lost faith in the ability of the host country to tackle emergencies whether of political nature or natural calamities.  Most especially, if the host country is a close ally, and where our national interest requires that we help shore up its support. The negative connotation of an evacuation undermines that.  Thus, one can conclude that if employees remain in the danger zone, it means somebody has already calculated that risk against vital national strategic and security interest.  And accepted that risk.

I supposed we may think of life in the Service as if it were a weighing scale — the national strategic and security priorities on one side and on the other side, the acceptable personal risk on the employees.   But not everyone will get to look at that scale. And not everyone will get to make the judgment call.  Employees do not get to vote, diplomatic missions are not democracies.

They ought to teach this at A100. On second thought, they ought to have this in the recruitment flyer.

Domani Spero