Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat before senators on Capitol Hill Wednesday to urge a State Department budget increase of 8.5% and the hiring of 1,100 new staff. Unusually, some lawmakers wished she'd have asked for even more. Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, told Rice that her request was "small compared to the overall needs." and that U.S. diplomacy was still getting "shortchanged."
A number of recent government studies have demanded the State Department radically transform its approach to diplomacy, in line with the fact that America's most urgent foreign policy challenges today lie far beyond the genteel diplomatic circuit of the industrialized world. A former top Republican congressional aide who this month completed an assignment as an adviser to Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Iraq blasted the State Department's performance there in a valedictory memo. "The foreign service is not competent to do the job that they have undertaken in Iraq," wrote Manuel Miranda, citing "an excuse-making culture," "willfully negligent if not criminal" management, a "built-in attention deficit disorder," and "information hoarding." (The State Department has dismissed Miranda's charges as the opinion of one individual, saying they are not shared by the vast majority of officials serving in Iraq or Washington.)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did talk about tackling some of the deficiencies cited by Miranda when she spoke to students at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service Tuesday. She's changing the training, focus and culture of the foreign service, she said. Rice wants to beef up career development programs for mid-level managers. She wants to phase out the foreign service tradition of having a cadre of generalists in favor of being able to deploy diplomats and civilians who have the specialized experience to address the specific needs of a post-conflict country. Rice has also talked about how she is trying to transform how the State Department shares information, so foreign service officers have "quick access to the knowledge and real-time information they need." All of these recommendations speak to the underlying faults that Miranda points out in his memo and only State Department officials seem to see any substantial improvement since the plans were first announced in 2006.
Feingold, for example, wants to see the State Department put more resources into disaster assistance, education and health programs, which he sees as a major part of "building strong nations" and "restoring stability in post-conflict situations." At the moment the State Department and its separately-funded fiefdom, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), are contracting out the vast majority of this work. Rice says she wants her diplomats getting their hands dirty in development work, but lawmakers are growing impatient at what they see is a lack of will to fund the major overhaul and hiring binge that this would require. Indeed, in 1970 USAID employed 4,500 foreign service officers; today it employs only 800.
Just getting foreign service officers to go to the more undesirable corners of the planet where they are most needed has been an uphill battle. In November, the State Department was short volunteers to serve in the embassy in Iraq and was threatening to "direct" diplo-speak for "order" 48 foreign service officers to Iraq. At a town hall meeting to discuss the staffing gap, one 46-year diplomat described a posting in Iraq as "a potential death sentence." After the hubbub, enough volunteers stepped forward, so no one was ordered to go to Iraq. But the incident laid bare the cultural aversion some tweedy diplomats have to the realities of the changing world beyond Foggy Bottom. After the town hall, Rice, says a close adviser, was even more determined to make sure the department had the right people serving in the most difficult places. "We are trying to do things, quite literally, that have never been done before," Rice told the audience at Georgetown. "America must recruit and train a new generation of foreign service professionals with new expectations of what life a diplomat must be."
All of this, of course, costs money. The Bush Administration has increased the State Department budget by 25% since 2005, but the department is still moving at a snail's pace toward achieving its goals. Even with next year's requested bump, the average embassy will still have a staffing shortfall this year of 20%. The State Department has never recovered from a hiring freeze on new foreign service officers in the mid-1990s when more diplomats were retiring than were brought in.
With the State Department short-staffed and unprepared for operating in dangerous places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have expressed frustration in recent years that the military has been forced to shoulder most of the load in post-conflict zones. To address this, Rice is proposing the creation of a Civilian Response Corps. Similar to the military reserves, the new program would comprise doctors, lawyers, engineers, agricultural experts, police officers and public administrators, led by a team of diplomats, that could deploy with a military unit with 48 hours notice. Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Richard Lugar of Indiana originated the idea in Congress in 2003, but some lawmakers are wondering why, five years into the war in Iraq and seven years since the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan, it has taken so long to get these resources out of the gate.