Last month, the press jumped on a cable U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the cable, reported in The Washington Post, Crocker bluntly told Rice the embassy lacked qualified staff, or simply enough staff at all. The State Department's own personnel specialist, the Post noted, had suggested doubling the number of personnel in the Baghdad embassy who focused on political and economic analysis. "Simply put, we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the Department's best people," Crocker said in the cable.
In truth, Crocker's critique should not have surprised anyone. While the press has focused on the damage done to the military by constant tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department has been stretched nearly as thin. One recent study by the Foreign Affairs Council found that the State Department would need to hire 1,100 new staff to meet its global obligations. (The entire Foreign Service has some 9,000 employees.) And with further American wars unlikely in the near future, Foggy Bottom will become even more critical.
The gutting of the State Department dates back to the 1990s, when a Republican Congress, looking at a post-cold war world, slashed its personnel numbers by roughly one third. Several blue-ribbon studies revealed that the U.S. government cut funding for foreign affairs programs from over $5 billion in 1996 to $3.64 billion in 2000 (in 1996 dollars). According to one report, these cuts also resulted in "decrepit facilities" at U.S. embassies that put American diplomacy "near a state of crisis."
In the post-9/11 era, the administration has struggled to reverse that decline. The demand for Foreign Service officers in dangerous, terrorism-related environments like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has skyrocketed, as has the pressure to train a new generation of Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese speakers, among others.
In theory, the Bush administration has tried to prepare the State Department for this new world. Since becoming secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice has announced a broad revamp of the Foreign Service to emphasize what she calls "transformational diplomacy." As part of this shift, State would transfer more Foreign Service officers away from stable regions like Western Europe to large, important developing nations like India and China. Diplomats who learn difficult languages and serve in developing nations, including dangerous posts, would be promoted more rapidly.
All good ideas, but the reality looks different. Bush's first term, in which State seemed to be cut out of the policy planning loop, hurt morale at Foggy Bottom. (It can't have helped that prominent conservatives like Newt Gingrich essentially labeled State officials a bunch of anti-American traitors.) As the Foreign Affairs Council report revealed, the administration has failed to match these ideas with the funding necessary to increase State's resources--and Congress has not helped, vetoing budgets that ask for more money. When embarrassed by leaks like Crocker's cable, Rice has responded--she has ordered Iraq posts to be filled first, for example. But, at the same time, the constant demand for diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan has siphoned Foreign Service officers from other regions, and the war on terrorism has made so many more posts dangerous that State does not allow families to accompany diplomats to their posts.
Despite facing staffing shortfalls and withering criticism from conservatives, the State Department has tried valiantly. The Foreign Affairs Council's president, Thomas Boyatt, told reporters that all of these problems have not caused more Foreign Service officers to quit than in the past. Still, last week Steven Kashkett of the American Foreign Service Association, the Foreign Service's professional association, told Congress that some 40 percent of State officials who serve in dangerous places suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. (State has even weaker programs for diagnosing and treating PTSD than the military.)
Worse, the growing number of lonely, unaccompanied posts is damaging Department morale and allowing important positions to be filled by young officers, since they are the only ones without families who will go to Islamabad or Sanaa. As one comprehensive Government Accountability Office study found, "positions normally held by mid-level officers are typically staffed by junior officers, sometimes on their first assignment, with few mid-level officers to provide supervision or guidance." In one example, the GAO found that at the embassy in Nigeria, which has some 800 employees, only three were senior Foreign Service officers. These young officers often are just beginning to master languages, and State has not yet created enough incentives to reward fluency. Unsurprisingly, another GAO study found that Foggy Bottom still was not filling enough jobs with people who spoke the local language.
Perhaps in the 1990s, no one would have noticed these problems. But today, it is Foggy Bottom's toughest, most experienced diplomats--men and women like Crocker, who has served from Pakistan to Lebanon--who are responsible for solving the spiraling crises of the war on terrorism. With the military tied down in Iraq, their skills will be even more necessary, since at the end of the Bush administration it looks like diplomacy will become the main weapon against the Irans and North Koreas of the world. Hopefully, there will still be some diplomats left.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.