- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009



Five years ago, while traveling in Africa, I found myself in Kampala, the capital of the agriculturally rich but historically troubled country of Uganda, riding in the cab of a particularly able local taxi driver.

As we approached the American Embassy, where I was scheduled to interview the ambassador, I was noting in my mind how huge and forbidding were our new embassies designed for the terrorist age, when the driver abruptly stopped. His visage changed. In fact, he refused utterly to go on.

“I’m scared,” he said finally, referring to the huge and impenetrable prison-like grayness of the building, which was surrounded by guards who looked like terrorists themselves.

I nodded as I found myself acknowledging this perverted era of “diplomacy” that we were seeing across the globe. Finally I got out of the car and walked the 100 or so yards before going into the building - while he stubbornly waited exactly where he was.

As our new president and his administration move from their first poignant week in office and into full throttle - and as more is said and written about the demands of diplomacy after eight years of ascendant brute force, I have had occasion to relive that revealing little memory.

Not only has our architectural diplomacy changed in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Dark Ages, but the very essence of our cultural relations with the rest of the world has changed. While the headlines scream “Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran,” the fact is the core of our diplomatic problem can be found in the sheer lack of able men and women involved in diplomacy.

To name one example: The number of lawyers at the Pentagon today is larger than the entire U.S. diplomatic corps, according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by J. Anthony Holmes titled, “Where Are the Civilians?”

To bring the problem facing President Obama into even more dramatic perspective, look at the figures quoted by our respected former ambassador to Spain and Italy, the scholar Richard Gardner. We now spend 1 percent - yes, 1 percent - of the national budget on foreign affairs, he bemoans. “State Department budget, foreign aid, everything - 1 percent!” The ratio between defense-related spending and foreign-affairs spending is 16- or 18-to-1.

He said this at the Council on Foreign Relations recently while quoting a new report, “A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future: Fixing the Crisis in Diplomatic Readiness,” which opens with the arresting statement: “Currently, the secretary of state lacks the tools, people, competencies, authorities, programs and funding to execute the president’s foreign policy.”

And even as nothing but bad news is coming out of America’s latest war, former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann noted that: “I first visited Afghanistan as a young man in 1967. When I returned as ambassador in 2005, AID (Agency for International Development) was 90 percent smaller than it had been in 1967. … In 1967, we had an AID that built roads. Now we have five engineers worldwide in AID.”

The disintegration of our diplomatic corps, which of course is centered in the State Department, whose job it is to engage, convince and deal with other countries and their governments, has not garnered a lot of attention, until now. It has not been seen as sexy, like declaring that war is finished on the deck of an American ship; it is not brutish, like American troops breaking into Iraqi homes at 2 in the morning and shooting everybody in sight. It is civilized.

But after the Clinton administration’s utterly foolish abolishing of the U.S. Information Agency, which had explained America to the world since President Dwight Eisenhower founded it in 1953, and after surviving somehow the George W. Bush years of American savagery, there is suddenly hope.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not exactly the kind of person who will like the idea of overseeing a failing institution. No shrinking violet, she! Within veritable seconds of her swearing-in last week, our new top diplomat was proving she was not going to rule over some ruined kingdom passed on to her.

And while there are differing critiques on her immediate appointment of two high-powered envoys to the Near East - former Maine Sen. George Mitchell to the Arab-Israeli peace process and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan - we could not, in fact, have better men to deal with these problems.

Both are highly intelligent, utterly dedicated and, perhaps most important given the dangerous era we are in and the worldwide lack of respect for George W. Bush’s America, not about to take a lot of nonsense from anyone. Both were also against American involvement in Iraq, and Mr. Holbrooke, when a junior embassy officer in Saigon, was prematurely against the Vietnam War as well. His stubborn insistence that we engage to stop the Serb holocaust against the peoples of the former Yugoslavia makes him one of the most noble, if personally difficult, officials on the scene today.

But these new men and women face the work of a generation. They face undoing the “work” of the last 20 years, when the Clinton administration lazily lost the promise of the end of the Cold War, and they face a power equation today in which authority has flowed to the Pentagon and away from the State Department. Ironically, it will be up to Mrs. Clinton to undo much of her husband’s work, if she will. But at least we’ve begun.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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