Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - Pre-Deployment Musings

Very wisely, Anne made almost no reference to her job in her website, even though I suggested to her once that she would probably have some insight into the kinds of people who might have difficulty handling the pressures of working in Iraq.  Even with the most careful sanitizing, there are real privacy concerns involved in describing workplace dynamics.  I plan to follow her example, since a discussion of my work also will almost inevitably lead to statements that could be construed as unauthorized expressions of U.S. Government policy.  In addition, details about my work will likely not be broadly applicable, but of narrower interest, perhaps just to my successor.  Before I actually arrive, however, I have some tentative conclusions, drawn from my reading and comments offered during the Iraq training, about the structural challenges of working in Iraq.  I have no way of knowing if I am right, but I hope these mental preparations will allow me to adjust faster once I get on the ground in Baghdad.


The March 10, 2008, issue of Time magazine carried two articles with the front-page title, "How much does experience matter?" which included a fascinating account of an experiment at Florida State University on whether experience enabled nurses to respond better to an emergency situation.  In the example cited, although the experienced nurse quickly took the right steps to assess the situation correctly, both the experienced and inexperienced nurse made the same mistake and ultimately killed the simulated patient.  (The article did not say whether any nurse in the study was able to save the patient.)  A second article found little correlation between historians' assessments of presidential records with the amount of experience that the presidents had in government.  Both articles implied the intuitively obvious conclusion that success depends more on character and judgment rather than experience, and that experience could just as often incline someone to make the wrong decision, rather than the right one.  The lead scientist for the study also noted that one has to continuously move out of one's comfort zone in order to get better and for experience to reliably lead to improved performance.


I will certainly be out of my comfort zone in Baghdad, which means that I will certainly learn a lot but could also potentially fail to perform as required.  As I went through the two weeks of Iraq-related training, however, memories returned of past experiences that could help soften "entry shock."  The training reinforced many lessons from my past, whether the medical course or the introduction to Arabic.  I had continuously had first aid and medical training, beginning as a Boy Scout through my Army experience and most recently with 40 hours of first responder training at Embassy Jakarta.  I had also had a 47-week course, thirty years ago, of intensive Arabic, largely forgotten, and the description of cross-cultural dynamics was similar to what I had learned for other assignments.  As I cradled the M-4, I almost automatically formed the good stock weld and sight picture that I first learned in basic training and had reinforced during quarterly familiarization firing, during an assignment in Italy when I was in the Army.


In common with many Foreign Service colleagues, I was also not unfamiliar with danger.  Although I would certainly be alert and adopt good personal security procedures, I know that danger has a random element and requires a degree of fatalism to function.  The security trainers, when talking about "choke points," cited the case of LTC Nick Rowe, who had been assassinated in Manila just two months after I started my assignment at the Embassy there.  My wife and I sampled the Sunday brunch at the same Marriot Hotel in Jakarta that was rocked by a huge suicide bomb explosion that killed 12 people on August 5, 2003.  (Our assignment ended in 2002.)  During a Belfast assignment, a bomb cracked the window of our home and a truck loaded with 500 pounds of explosives crashed through the perimeter gate and stopped in front of the consulate (which unfortunately was located across the street from a police station).  The difference in Baghdad, of course, is that the danger will be more constant and more elevated.


Finally, although I have served in five different embassies and a consulate general, Embassy Baghdad has a number of unique characteristics, adjusting to which will be another learning experience.


Embassy internal dynamics:  Although I have primarily served in large embassies, Embassy Baghdad's size dwarfs any other.  My challenge will be to make sure that I connect to colleagues in other sections and develop the personal connections that will lead to smooth implementation of policy.  Another challenge will be to ensure that internal paper flow and coordination will not be a distraction from working with the Iraqi government in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy goals.


Civ-Mil relations:  Although I worked closely with the U.S. military in previous assignments as a political-military affairs officer (particularly when I was assigned to Embassy Tokyo), the U.S. military presence and role in Baghdad is unlike that in any other country.  My sense is that the State Department's relationship with the U.S. military was particularly strained in the early years under the Coalition Provisional Authority.  Melding the differing cultures and priorities of the State Department and U.S. military is surely an ongoing challenge.


FS-Civilian relations:  Although we are used to working with civil service colleagues in Washington and civil service colleagues from other agencies while working at embassies, Embassy Baghdad also hires from outside the State Department's regular ranks to fill one-year assignments in Iraq.  Tapping the expertise of these new employees and ensuring that they are well integrated into my unit's operations will be another challenge.


Maintaining continuity:  I have never served in another embassy where virtually the entire staff changes over annually.  My very first challenge will be to pick up the reins smoothly from my predecessor and to build on his achievements without slowing down too much during the transition period.  I will also have to develop and strengthen systems to ensure continuity.


Security:  Balancing security requirements against the need for operational effectiveness will be an ongoing challenge.  My whole reason for being in Baghdad is to have face-to-face interactions with Iraqi government officials; otherwise, I could do my job remotely from Washington.  I realize that, however important, meeting my Iraqi government counterparts will always be difficult to do and possibly some of the time impossible.