Dicey Diplomacy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's pro-democracy push in radical countries rattles Foreign Service ranks.

Pundits wasted little time predicting the apocalypse after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced her "transformational diplomacy" initiative during a Jan. 18 speech at Georgetown University. There is serious risk it could "implode from an overdose of hypocrisy," former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht warned in the Weekly Standard, alleging Rice's pro-democracy agenda would conflict with State's realpolitik stance with Iran.

In the abstract, Rice's initiative sounds bold: Push Washington's presence out to the edge of the empire by reducing staff in Cold War hangover countries, including Germany and Russia, and sprinkling them throughout strategically important countries in the developing world. There, diplomats will reach past troubled governments to connect directly with their citizens, pushing the message of democracy, free markets and the American way.

In its specifics, however, the plan is decidedly modest. In her first round of diplomatic musical chairs, Rice will shift about 100 positions out of old Cold War bastions and related positions in Foggy Bottom to nations such as China, India, Indonesia, Lebanon and Tajiki-stan. Rice expects to move just 300 others during her tenure at State-that's a total shift of only 6 percent of the 6,400-member Foreign Service officer workforce.

"It's not a radical overhaul," says Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which has endorsed Rice's effort. The negative impact on certain Foreign Service officers is likely to be minimal, he adds. Only "25 people have been directly affected" so far, Holmes says.

That doesn't mean Foreign Service officers aren't worried. Holmes says they see a danger in Rice's proposal to station officials in one-person consulates-so-called American presence posts-some in the hinterlands of unfriendly countries. "How will we protect our people?" he says. "In this day and age, it's difficult to represent the U.S. government overseas."

The idea is "180 degrees counter to existing law and State Department policy," Holmes asserts. After the devastating 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Congress ordered a host of strict security measures for State buildings overseas, including 100-foot setbacks from roads and co-location of as many operations as possible within main embassy compounds, so that State's Diplomatic Security Service doesn't have to struggle to protect a smattering of smaller offices throughout a city or region.

The State Department declined repeated requests for interviews but e-mailed a prepared statement from then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Resources Ruth Whiteside now director of the Foreign Service Institute. "On security, as we always do when we open any new post, whether a new consulate or a small 'presence' post, security is always a part of our planning," she said. "This will be an ongoing process."

But the plan has critics outside the United States as well. For instance, the British Observer newspaper sarcastically noted that Rice's increased focus on "public diplomacy"-pushing American messages directly to a foreign population, bypassing their government-turn diplomats into proselytizers or propagandists, "missionaries for the democratic gospel."

AFSA's Holmes brushes off that concern. The State Department often has bypassed host governments to speak and work directly with citizens, particularly in trouble spots. "We've always done that stuff," he says.

The greatest danger to Rice's plan doesn't necessarily lie in the places and manner in which it is implemented, but in the places it ignores. By highlighting its commitment to democracy overseas, Gerecht notes, the Bush administration makes its selective tolerance of despotic regimes more egregious. In light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how can America's close relationships with the Saudi monarchy and Pakistan's totalitarian leadership be explained? Rice's plan could be judged not by the aggressiveness of U.S. pro-democracy efforts, but by the seemingly unjustifiable exceptions it makes for some countries.

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