Rice Defends Diplomatic Corps Despite Some Who Balked at Iraq Duty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday defended the commitment of the nation's diplomats, despite recent pushback by many foreign services officers on a proposal to require tours in Iraq.

Last fall, several hundred diplomats convened for an hour-long "town hall meeting" to discuss an order that would have mandated some service at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and outlying provinces. Some questioned the ethics of sending people against their will to a war zone, with one calling the forced assignments a "potential death sentence" to loud applause.

"I was deeply offended myself, and deeply sorry that these people who had self-selected into this town hall went out of their way, to my view, cast a very bad light on the foreign service," Rice told a House panel.

The State Department eventually found enough volunteers for the 48 vacancies, and the call-ups were never enforced. But the agency could face another round of protests as it opens up its "bidding cycle" this spring for jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that will be vacated in the summer of 2010.

Fearing a new staffing crisis at hardship posts amid uncertainty about how the next administration will approach Iraq, the department is separating the process of filling jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan from that of other positions.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he thought the protests against a mere four dozen vacancies for the heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad was pathetic considering the lengthy combat tours by service members.

"I thought it was a sad commentary when you have tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines laying their lives on the line who are re-enlisting for that combat and you have State Department people standing up and saying they were not going to go to Iraq," said Hunter, R-Calif.

In response, Rice said the comments made were isolated and prompted a visceral response by the rest of the diplomatic corps, including those serving in dangerous posts outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I will tell you, the blogs were lit up in the Department of State by people who were offended. . . who were absolutely offended by those comments," she said.

Rice said not only did she find enough volunteers to fill the posts, but four diplomats gave up ambassadorships elsewhere to serve at the Baghdad embassy under Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.