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State Department Looking To Miss An Opportunity In Iraq

Last week’s speech from President Obama outlining his plan to withdraw from Iraq made a point to emphasize “sustained diplomacy” as a pillar of his strategy. From the White House website’s explication of the plan:

A strong political, diplomatic, and civilian effort on our part can advance progress and help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security. … We will work to support Iraqi national elections in 2010, help improve local government, serve as an honest broker for Iraqi leaders as they resolve difficult political issues, increase support for the resettlement of Iraqi refugees, and help strengthen Iraqi institutions and their capacity to protect rule of law, confront corruption, and deliver services.

To be a bit reductionist, it appears that Obama wants our diplomats to stand up as our troops stand down. All to the good, if you think that U.S. foreign policy has overemphasized military approaches at the expense of civilian ones.

There’s just one problem. The State Department doesn’t appear to want to stand up in Iraq.

Take a look at Secretary Clinton’s first town-hall meeting with State employees today. A representative of the American Foreign Service Association, Steve Kashkett, asks her:

Madame Secretary, I’m Steve Kashkett, representing the American Foreign Service Association. As you know, over the past six years, thousands of our colleagues have volunteered to serve in the two war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan – Iraq in particular, where we’ve created the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in history. But the cost of doing this has been to take people away from all of our other diplomatic missions around the world, which have been left understaffed and with staffing gaps.

So my question to you is two parts. How do you assess the prospect of getting Congress to authorize the positions we need to fill all those staffing gaps around the world? And secondly, have you had any discussions yet about reducing the size of our diplomatic mission in Iraq down to that of a normal diplomatic mission?

As Danger Room’s Nathan Hodge notes, Clinton ducked the answer. But the answer is less important than the fact that the foreign-service union is wondering about how to make the embassy in Baghdad a “normal diplomatic mission.” A normal diplomatic mission tends not to have blended development/diplomacy/military units like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. It tends not to have much sustained engagement with tribal figures and other non-governmental stakeholders. And it tends not to play facilitating roles in brokering political compromise in weak or failing states. In short, a normal diplomatic mission doesn’t do the sort of things that are necessary to keep Iraq from running off the rails.

I don’t want to make too much of one question at a town hall meeting. But I’ve been working on a piece for two weeks about the ways in which the State Department shows signs of wanting to do less in Iraq at a moment when both the Iraqis and the withdrawal strategy depends on it doing more. Overwhelmingly, what I’ve heard is that younger foreign service officers, the under-35 set that has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places throughout the Muslim world, are pushing against the tendency of their older career-employee counterparts, who are more traditional and more embassy-centric. You might think that at a time when the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the national security adviser are all talking about rebalancing foreign policy to give more weight to diplomacy that the State Department would want to take yes for an answer.

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