Monday, August 28, 2006

America’s Manpower Deficit in Iraq

A couple of weeks back, Christian Isely, the author of a series of dispatches from Baghdad, wrote this on the need to recruit more reconstruction personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paris — August 14, 2006

America’s Manpower Deficit in Iraq

Until there are more U.S. citizens not just willing but eager to shoulder the ‘nation builder’s burden’, ventures like the occupation of Iraq will lack a vital ingredient.

— Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire

I recently read Ferguson’s book about the challenges to America’s global pre-eminence while I was on assignment in Iraq. I was immediately struck by the above words. It is indeed true that America is suffering a terrible manpower deficit. There are currently not enough of the right people in Iraq working to put that country on a sound footing in order to ensure progress toward political stability and a thriving democracy.

This is especially tragic when one considers the wealth and population of the United States. With a population approaching 300 million and unrivalled national spending power, why is it that we cannot summon up the necessary talent to defend America’s interests in the world by strengthening democracy in troubled countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan?

At the time of the intervention in Afghanistan, it became clear to the administration that the government agencies that usually took on the responsibility of nation building (DOD, USAID, DOS), did not have enough personnel for the task of reconstruction. Especially in the State Department where the hiring of Foreign Service Officers is a lengthy and complex affair, the administration needed talent sooner than the system permitted. In response, Congress created the positions which came to be known as 3161s, direct hires for the government to work only on a temporary basis on a specific assignment. Since then, many 3161s have been hired for work in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my case, I was hired as a 3161 to work in the Office of Private Sector Development in the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office of the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Although I eagerly took a 3161 position with the Baghdad Embassy in 2005, I came to learn very early on that the State Department was incapable of recruiting the necessary talent for the reconstruction of Iraq. Ironically, there is no shortage of military personnel in administrative positions in the Green Zone. This is all the more tragic considering that there are not enough soldiers capable of conducting combat in Iraq. Indeed, although most of the military personnel who directly work on reconstruction are quite capable, the sad fact is that most are not experienced practitioners of nation building. Likewise, the Department of State simply does not have enough bodies to manage reconstruction. Tellingly, many of the Foreign Service Officer slots have long gone unfilled. As of this past spring, the economic section of the Baghdad Embassy had only half of the required upcoming slots filled. The Department of State which ideally should represent some of the best and brightest of America, especially those willing to venture overseas in the service of their country, simply cannot entice its own personnel to make the necessary sacrifices even for a minimal tour of service. For the first year of Iraqi sovereignty, when the US Mission in Iraq came under the leadership of the Department of State, the embassy needed to use the promise of the traditionally easier embassy assignments. That is, if one accepted a posting in Iraq, one was promised that the next assignment could largely be of one’s choice whether that be London, Paris, or some other convenient location. Even with this enticement, slots proved hard to fill. In the spring of this year, the State Department increased the hazard pay in Iraq to a 35% boost instead of 25% in an effort to increase incentives to come to Baghdad.

As for the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office made up of temporary direct hires like myself, it too has faced immense difficulties in recruiting needed talent. This has largely been a result of a tremendous bureaucratic disconnect between the offices in Baghdad and DOS recruiters in the US. The Department of State has not made an enough of an effort in advertising open positions. Given inherent government inefficiency, this is not surprising.

However, this manpower deficit is not just due to recruiting problems. It is largely due to a culture in America that shuns government work in general and overseas work in particular. Americans do see their country as being exceptional in the world for it is a place of immense opportunity, freedom, and wealth. It is not surprising that in a country where the most prestigious achievement is to be successful in business, government work and overseas service are not highly valued.

What is needed is a dramatic cultural shift capable of answering the dangers of the post 9/11 world. Service for the country overseas must not be simply the purview of the more adventurous and eccentric Americans. If the City on the Hill is to be protected, there must be those who are willing and eager to venture to the periphery. Why not seek one’s fortune and career success overseas? Granted, a cultural shift like this cannot happen overnight but it can start with the leadership in Washington. The President himself can make such a call to service along with prominent leaders from both parties.

President Kennedy once made a similar call for service. It is time for President Bush to do the same. He must articulate the stakes in Iraq and urge all those willing and able to take up nation building in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. America must embrace a culture of overseas service. September 11th proved that we must not ignore the troubled places of this world and it will take many courageous skilled men and women to keep the present and future threats in check. Indeed, although Iraq and Afghanistan are the current hotspots, it is not unlikely that we will find ourselves engaged in nation building elsewhere. It is absolutely necessary that America develop such a culture. Without it, the days of America’s leadership role in the world are numbered.

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