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Diplomats: Good will up since Obama win
Question of the Day
Buoyed by a groundswell of global good feeling after the election of Barack Obama, current and former U.S. diplomats see a new chance to advance American interests if the next president keeps his promises to devote more resources to the diplomatic corps and foreign aid.
In e-mails to The Washington Times, diplomats from four continents said good will toward the United States has increased dramatically since Mr. Obama’s election and is already making a difference in their daily work.
John K. Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, said it was crucial to bolster the resources devoted to diplomacy to sustain the positive new feelings.
“The expectation of the Foreign Service is that President-elect Obama will follow through on his campaign pledges by asking Congress for additional funding for diplomacy and development assistance,” Mr. Naland said. “Those funds are needed because, without adequate numbers of properly resourced and well-trained diplomats and development professionals, no amount of personal diplomacy by the president, vice president or secretary of state will single-handedly restore our nation’s role as the world’s leader in global affairs.”
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The Bush administration, initially bolstered by foreign support after Sept. 11, lost overseas backing after it invaded Iraq. The U.S. image also has suffered from the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and because of security measures that have made it difficult for foreigners to visit the United States.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama made a number of promises to boost diplomacy.
In March, he said he would “invest in our civilian capacity to operate alongside our troops in post-conflict zones and on humanitarian and stabilization missions. Instead of shuttering consulates in tough corners of the world, it’s time to grow our Foreign Service and to expand [the U.S. Agency for International Development].”
Mr. Naland said the U.S. “foreign affairs agencies are hobbled by a human-capital crisis.” He cited a report last month by the American Academy of Diplomacy - a body including all living former secretaries of state - that recommended that staffing be increased by 43 percent at the State Department and by 62 percent at USAID.
The current shortages make it difficult for diplomats to take time off for training, he said. At the same time, more training is necessary given the expanded duties assigned to diplomats in recent years, from nation-building to lobbying for free trade.
“Try something completely new and different, learn a complicated language in 15 minutes, parachute in and instantly hit the ground running, get to know everyone immediately, get everyone to do everything perfectly,” was how one Foreign Service officer in Iraq described the expectations for U.S. diplomats today.
A Foreign Service officer in Latin America said he would “certainly look forward to a significant increase in staffing.” He also urged the next administration to show greater support for multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations.
American diplomats are eagerly awaiting a new secretary of state. Democrats mentioned for the post include Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Several former and current U.S. diplomats cautioned that high hopes about the next U.S. president overseas may dissipate quickly if U.S. policies remain the same.
Perhaps the greatest challenges lie in the Middle East, where attitudes toward U.S. policies have been negative.
Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, said the U.S. election has “put us in a very positive light that will have to be augmented by public diplomacy that reflects our values and our interests.”
Mr. Djerejian, author of a new book, “Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador’s Journey through the Middle East,” urged Mr. Obama to stress “conflict resolution over conflict management” when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute in particular.
“Eighty percent of popular opinion in the Middle East is their perceptions of our policy,” he said.
The Academy of Diplomacy has urged the next president to reduce the number of political appointees as U.S. ambassadors.
Few career diplomats expect that to happen, given the large number of major contributors to the Obama campaign, but they said the selection process should be more rigorous than in the past.
“I don’t expect to see only qualified people appointed to political ambassadorships,” said Ronald Neumann, the academy’s president and a former ambassador to Afghanistan.
“But it remains true that it is in America’s national interest to do so, and that the appointment of the unqualified for reasons of political payoff is scarcely ‘change you can believe in.’”
About the Author
Nicholas Kralev is The Washington Times’ diplomatic correspondent. His travels around the world with four secretaries of state — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — as well as his other reporting overseas trips inspired his new weekly column, “On the Fly.” He is a former writer for the weekend edition of the Financial Times and ...
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