Diplomacy Under Fire and the USAIDification of the FS

By Patricia H. Kushlis’ blog, Whirled View

I spent nearly an hour Monday morning listening to NPR’s special on the trials and tribulations of the State Department and the Foreign Serviceand whether or not the people and the institution will be able to meet the challenges required in the 21st century under the Obama administration.

The good news was that the broadcast lasted far longer than the all too usual 20 second sound-bite – the media’s Twitter equivalent – so the program could and did go into far greater depth than is usually the case when anything but the latest crisis, earthquake, typhoon or shoot’em up is put before the public and repeated ad nauseum 24/7.

The program was entitled “Diplomacy Under Fire” and divided into four segments. Kudos to NPR for producing and airing it – this is just one tiny part of the foreign affairs education or reeducation that needs to take place in this country if we’re ever to restore our relations with other countries on a firm, not to mention, more economical footing.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other, the program’s contents left much to be desired. That problem begins with the initial false dichotomy posed by interviewer Deborah Amos: Namely that critics argue that State has not earned its keep while supporters argue it has been starved for years.

In reality, both observations are correct.

How is it possible, pray tell, for State to “earn its keep” if – as is the case – it has been starved for years? This year’s budget of $36 billion – according to the NPR program – is less than the military spends on health care.

State has also been horribly mismanaged by a series of political appointees – excluding Colin Powell. They not only drove the institution into the ground but also destroyed the flexibility of civilian foreign affairs bureaucracies once outside State’s hierarchical iron thumb through an ill-considered consolidation while refusing to obtain the requisite financial and organizational support from either the White House or the Congress to make the nonmilitary side of this country’s foreign affairs equation function adequately.

But here’s the major weakness with the NPR broadcast: the argument made by former top US State Department diplomats including the now retired Nicholas Burns, Ambassadors Marc Grossman and Ryan Crocker that the qualities and skills needed for America’s diplomats today are substantially different from those of the past.

This, I might add is all the more ironic coming from Burns, whose only overseas assignments were as a Vice Consul in Cairo and at the American Consulate in Jerusalem during the 1980s. Burns otherwise spent his Foreign Service career in the State Department working – among other positions – on Soviet or Russian Affairs without ever serving in the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation or anywhere else in the Former Soviet Union. He never studied Russian either. At least, Crocker has the boots-on-the-ground experience and the Arabic language fluency to back up what he believes needs to happen to reinvent the Foreign Service whether I agree with him or not.

The USAIDification of the Foreign Service

Unfortunately, the skills and qualifications Burns, Crocker, Grossman and others interviewed identified for the new Foreign Service have all to do with civilian development work, democratization, agronomy, anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism.

Management of these programs has become the new mantra: the traditional State Department skills of political and economic reporting (reporting, representation and negotiation in Grossman’s words), analysis or even running embassies and consulates are out. Gone too is negotiating ability. The need for public diplomacy and consular experience and skills were barely touched on despite a couple of human interest story interviews.

But scientists – even nuclear ones – are in: the Foreign Service is now recruiting at scientific conventions. Don’t ask me why except to fill the few new science attaché positions which never should have been abolished in the first place. Besides I thought that US nuclear policy and management was the purview of the Energy Department.

What’s the problem with these new requirements, you might ask?

The problem is that the “new” skills highlighted by Burns, Crocker and others in the broadcast are those traditionally housed in USAID. Been there for years. Bizarrely, USAID – let alone the agency’s formidable organizational and leadership (or lack of leadership) problems – was not mentioned once in the broadcast.

I realize that USAID has become a shadow of its former self and I’ve heard that it is so strapped for experienced staff that it is calling retirees back to run missions overseas – but the NPR program about the need for new State Department Foreign Service Officer skills never even suggested that USAID existed or that funding for a substantial number of new USAID positions is forthcoming.

The George W. Bush school of foreign aid – like everything else – farmed almost all AID work out to contractors – often retired USAID officers who made more as contractors than they ever had as government employees – or to the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation which doles out funds to countries that likely don’t need them anyway.

Moving right along: the foreign language deficit

This is where I think NPR and its interviewees came closest to hitting the target. From what I saw over the years, six months of language training in a difficult language like Arabic, Korean or Russian doesn’t cut it – except on a visa line where the language is limited, cut and dried.

Hard language training is expensive, time consuming and not for everyone. Besides the Foreign Service has been so short of officers to fill positions since the Iraq invasion it has been sending people out language and skills qualified or not. The inadequacies of pre-departure training – cultural, security and linguistic – for war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan have been scandalous. Yet this is where people need that kind of training most.

As Ambassador Crocker said in the NPR interview, there are places where knowing a language well makes all the difference in the world. His three decade career as an Arabist allowed him, he said, to work out differences directly with Iraqi President Maliki who speaks no English. But don’t be fooled despite a much expanded Arabic program at State: the State Department still has a major deficit in fluent Arabic speakers and other “critical” languages as well. As a linguist once told me, it takes twenty years to grow a tree as well as a fluent speaker of a hard language. Neither shoot up over night.

I know from my own experiences in the Soviet Union and Greece that I could not have done my job without adequate fluency in Russian and Greek. And in Athens with its anti-American terrorist threat alive and flourishing when I worked there in 1970-71 and again from 1981-84, knowing Greek reasonably decently was a personal security protection as well.

The risk averse Foreign Service

Well, yes. And?

I’m not at all convinced that Foreign Service Officers and staff belong in war zones despite what the good Ambassadors said about the requirements for and demands of the new Foreign Service. There’s no way that the Peace Corps, for instance, sends its volunteers into conflict areas – or if war breaks out – keeps them there. Use a little common sense, please. The Foreign Service is composed of civilians, not the military. The need for weapons training should not be part of the mix.

Personal security training, however, is a different story.

Where I do agree with the Ambassadors and American University professor Gordon Adams – also among those interviewed – is that the ridiculously tight US Embassy security provisions and Fortress Embassies in too many countries overseas are impediments to effective engagement with the people and that since the 1984 Beirut bombing, the US has been too focused on keeping employees safe as opposed to getting the job done. Let’s face it, engagement requires some personal risk – always did. Why bother to send representatives overseas only to keep them behind high walls, outside cities and away from the people they’re supposed to meet.

If one wants perfect safety, global adventure of any kind should not be in the cards.

Diplomacy Under Fire” was first aired in July 2009.

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