Monday, January 30, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently announced bold State Department transformation plans. The secretary called for, among other things, a global repositioning of diplomatic personnel and recalibration of the agency’s mission. The plans will surely stir the hornet’s nest.

Career Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), who handle the bulwark of U.S. diplomatic activity, have a notorious record in resisting change and the legitimacy of presidential and congressional control and direction. Some have been accused of purposely undermining President George W. Bush’s global war on terror and national-security strategy.

The department must play a vital role in confronting the enormous diplomatic and national-security challenges facing America and the free world. With diplomats deployed to many of the globe’s most strategically important areas and dangerous outposts, it is the perfect instrument to carry out the president’s vision of making the world more secure, free and prosperous for the benefit of Americans and the international community.

About 6,400 FSOs perform the nation’s diplomatic business. And the department assigns one third of them to positions in Washington, while the rest serve in U.S. embassies, consulates and missions to international organizations in 180 countries.

Believing current diplomatic staffing is not attuned to contemporary geopolitical realities, Miss Rice would like to eventually shift several hundred FSO positions — most from desk jobs in Washington and comfortable assignments in Europe — to less desirable but more important posts in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. The secretary expects the change will enhance the promotion of American values; help build democracy and prosperity; and fight terrorism, disease and human trafficking.

Unfortunately, her plans will likely encounter difficulty. Presidents and secretaries of state since Franklin D. Roosevelt have learned that FSOs and the American Foreign Service Association, the sole bargaining agent for the 23,000 active and retired FSOs, are more apt to reject, rather than embrace, reform plans and the legitimacy of foreign-policy direction received from elected and appointed officials.

During World War II, President Roosevelt countered State Department intransigence by creating his own personal diplomatic corps, relying on back-channels to communicate directly with U.S. wartime allies. Today’s presidential critics would undoubtedly consider the action “hijacking State Department foreign policy.” Government Accountability Office and State Department Inspector General (IG) reports covering two decades cast doubt on whether the secretary’s plans can succeed without overhauling, or scrapping, the assignment system. The 30-year-old system is driven by employee preferences, as opposed to department needs. As a result, hardship posts in places like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia typically experience significant staffing shortfalls while other posts such as Paris and Berlin do not. One IG report disclosed that more than 50 percent of the department’s nearly 2,000 language-designated positions were not filled with qualified linguists, even though the department had abundant numbers of language-trained resources deployed elsewhere.

Without proper staffing, overseas missions cannot perform important tasks such as collecting national-security information, properly screening visa applicants and engaging local populations in public-diplomacy efforts. Nonetheless, the department did not require hardship post service and rarely used directed assignments to fill staffing shortfalls and critical language-designated positions.

These longstanding problems persist largely because FSOs thrive under the current system and firmly control the department’s foreign policy apparatus and personnel systems. Career diplomats currently occupy powerful slots including undersecretary for political affairs and director general of the Foreign Service. The latter is responsible for recruitment, assignment, evaluation, promotion, discipline, career development and retirement policies and programs for the Department’s Foreign and Civil Service employees.

During the past several years the Hart-Rudman Commission, Council on Foreign Relations/Center for Strategic and International Studies Non-Partisan Task Force, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the New Republic’s Lawrence Kaplan and others have called for substantive reforms to improve FSO discipline and make the department better organized and staffed. However, the Foreign Affairs Council in November 2004 noted, “Countless reports have been produced to make the Department perform its diplomatic missions more effectively, but these reports have been duly filed and forgotten.” If uncorrected, the deficiencies can seriously damage U.S. national security interests, make victory over mankind’s enemies more difficult, place Americans serving overseas at greater risk and greatly diminish the chances for Miss Rice’s commendable reform initiatives to succeed.

It’s apparent to many outsiders that the department must make fundamental changes to the institution and culture and implement new strategies to effectively cope with daunting 21st-century national-security and foreign-policy challenges. It’s about time the folks at Foggy Bottom realized it too.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst and served in the State Department from 1988 to 1997. Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely is a military analyst for the Fox New Channel. Both are contributing authors to the newly released “War Footing.”

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