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State Dept to Baghdad employees: Stop “whining” about the salad bar

The State Department in Washington has a message for the 16,000 employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: If you can’t get arugula in the cafeteria, just deal with it and stop complaining to the New York Times. A huge section of Tuesday’s State Department briefing with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was taken up with discussion ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The State Department in Washington has a message for the 16,000 employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: If you can't get arugula in the cafeteria, just deal with it and stop complaining to the New York Times.

A huge section of Tuesday's State Department briefing with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was taken up with discussion of the New York Times article that said half of the employees at America's largest embassy might be sent home. According to the Times, embassy employees and contractors are so restricted from doing things in Iraq, it has become a waste of money to keep them there. The story contained many gripes from embassy staff, whose supply chains have been disrupted due to the departure of all U.S. troops in December.

The State Department in Washington has a message for the 16,000 employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad: If you can’t get arugula in the cafeteria, just deal with it and stop complaining to the New York Times.

A huge section of Tuesday’s State Department briefing with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was taken up with discussion of the New York Times article that said half of the employees at America’s largest embassy might be sent home. According to the Times, embassy employees and contractors are so restricted from doing things in Iraq, it has become a waste of money to keep them there. The story contained many gripes from embassy staff, whose supply chains have been disrupted due to the departure of all U.S. troops in December.

"Within days [of the troop pullout], the salad bar at the embassy dining hall ran low. Sometimes there was no sugar or Splenda for coffee. On chicken-wing night, wings were rationed at six per person," the Times reported.

Nuland, pestered by reporters on whether a poorly stocked salad bar was a big problem, said that it shouldn’t be and that whoever complained to the Times was out of line.

"Does the State Department consider, you know, not enough arugula to be a hardship in Iraq?" one reporter asked.

"Frankly, I saw that story and it looked like some whining that was inappropriate… on the part of embassy employees…with regard to the quality of the salad bar," Nuland responded,

She went on to whine a bit herself about the Times story, which she said "exaggerated" the degree to which the State Department is "considering" reducing staffing at the embassy.

"First, let me say that, with regard to our diplomatic presence, there is no consideration being given to slashing our diplomats by half. What we are doing — and Deputy Secretary [Tom] Nides is leading this process — is looking at how we can right-size our embassy in Iraq and particularly how we can do more for that mission through the hiring of local employees rather than having to be as dependent as we’ve been in the past on very expensive contractors," she said.

"So we’re trying to do our best to save the American taxpayer money in the way we support our diplomatic personnel."

Nuland said the exact numbers for reductions haven’t been determined and reductions would definitely involve contractors and maybe also diplomatic staff. Nides has been working on this "informally" for months, she said, and in the last couple of week initiated a more formal "bottom-up review."

"And then when did the magic light bulb go off in somebody’s head that 16,000 contractors might be a few too many?" one reporter asked Nuland.

"Well, we’ve been working on right-sizing this mission all the way through, as we looked at the transition," she said. "Obviously this is a time of transition for us too."

Nuland also didn’t deny that Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffries is slated to step down in the coming weeks.

"Ambassador Jeffrey is on a regular diplomatic assignment. It was of a particular duration. Frankly, I don’t have at my fingertips here when his assignment is completed," she said. "But obviously, in the context of regular rotation of ambassadors, when his tour is completed, or in the context of his tour being completed, the president will nominate a new ambassador for Iraq who will have to have the consent of the — of the Senate. So we’re not at that stage yet."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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