Nearly half of U.S. diplomats unwilling to volunteer to work in Iraq say one reason for their refusal is they don't agree with the Bush administration's policies in the country, according to a survey released Tuesday.
Security concerns and separation from family ranked as the top reasons for not wanting to serve in Iraq. But 48 percent cited "disagreement" with administration policy as a factor in their opposition, said the survey conducted by the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.
In addition, nearly 70 percent of U.S. diplomats who responded to the survey oppose forced assignments to Iraq, a prospect that sparked a storm of controversy last year when the State Department announced it might have to require such tours under penalty of dismissal in the largest diplomatic call-up to a war zone since Vietnam.
The results suggest the State Department may be facing a far more serious revolt over Iraq among its ranks than previously thought, and call into question its ability to fully staff diplomatic missions in Iraq, as well as those in Afghanistan and other dangerous posts deemed critical to the administration's foreign policy goals.
Deep frustrations among respondents
The survey was conducted late last year among the 11,500 members of the U.S. diplomatic corps and found deep frustration among more than 4,300 respondents over Iraq, safety and security issues elsewhere, pay disparities and the leadership of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top deputies.
"The results of this survey raise serious questions about the long-term health of the Foreign Service and, with it, the future viability of U.S. diplomatic engagement," said union President John Naland. "This argues for immediate action to deal with the concerns highlighted in the survey."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the findings, noting that the poll was "self-selective" and not necessarily reflective of the entire foreign service. He also defended Rice's record in fighting for diplomats and the department, which he said she had brought "back to the center of U.S. foreign policy formulation and execution."
"As far as I know, it's not a scientific survey and a scientific survey sample, and that people self-select when they do these things," he told reporters.
Seeking to understand membership issues
Union officials countered that the survey was not intended to be a scientific poll but was rather aimed at getting a general sense of where its membership stands on the issues.
The 4,311 respondents ranked Iraq staffing and security concerns and compulsory service in war zones as their fourth and fifth most serious concerns, behind only pay issues, fairness in assignments and family friendliness.
The survey found 44 percent of respondents are "less likely to remain" in the foreign service until retirement due to developments in those areas over the past few years.
Of the respondents, 68 percent, or 2,778, said they would either "oppose" or "strongly oppose" mandatory assignments to Iraq. Only 34 percent said they would "support" or "strongly support" such a move.
The State Department last year began identifying candidates for so-called "directed assignments" to Iraq but shelved the plan after enough volunteers came forward to fill nearly 50 vacant posts. The move had triggered an outcry among diplomats, one of whom drew applause at a town hall meeting when he likened such tours to a "potential death sentence."
Of respondents who said they were unwilling to serve voluntarily in Iraq, separation from family was identified as a reason by 64 percent, security concerns by 61 percent and policy disagreement by 48 percent. The other main factor, difficulty in doing the job, was identified as a factor by 42 percent.
McCormack declined to comment on the implications of the percentage who said they had policy differences, but noted that "when we signed up for these jobs, we signed up to support the policies of the American government. If people have a problem with that, they know what they can do."
The survey results, to be published in the next issue of the Foreign Service Journal, do not give a total number for respondents who would not consider volunteering for Iraq.
More than 1,500 diplomats have volunteered to work in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 but the resistance to forced assignments generated bitter criticism and some commentators accused the foreign service of cowardice and treason.
Under their contracts and oaths to uphold the Constitution, U.S. diplomats can be required to serve anywhere in the world under penalty of dismissal with limited exceptions.