Retired diplomats call for boosts in State Department hiring

Former ambassador Thomas Pickering signed the letter. Former ambassador Thomas Pickering signed the letter. AP file photo

The looming federal budget crunch, coming as the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, should not slow the State Department’s push to hire more Foreign Service officers, a new report from retired diplomats said.

“We would prefer to avoid cuts in both people and programs,” said the authors of “Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity,” released Thursday by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center. “But if the choice is necessary, people are more important than programs. Reduced programs can be refunded fairly rapidly. It takes years, if not decades, to train and develop trained skilled and experienced personnel.”

During the past four years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made “important, if uneven, progress in achieving added human resources,” they write. The State Department gained 3,500 positions and the U.S. Agency for International Development netted 933, though the analysts suggest that too many of the hires are administrators in Washington and not enough are out in the field.

The threat of reduced personnel is a “prescription for failure” at a time of changing, multifaceted international tensions, said the report, signed by ambassadors Thomas Pickering, Thomas Boyatt and Ronald Neumann, along with Stimson Center President Ellen Laipson.

The fiscal 2012 budget funded State and USAID hiring growth through the overseas contingency operations accounts, the report noted. But Congress has marked up the fiscal 2013 budget below the Obama administration’s request of $55 billion, with the Senate seeking a $3 billion cut and the House seeking $7 billion. “Meanwhile, bills have been introduced in the House that would reduce hiring at the foreign affairs agencies to 50 percent of attrition,” the authors wrote.

To achieve “the right number and right kind of foreign policy personnel,” the report recommends for fiscal 2014 adding 722 in Foreign Service positions, adopting new rules to allow retirees to work more hours, creating 490 new positions for language training, recruiting more experienced midcareer officers at USAID, and streamlining hiring by rationalizing “the unnecessarily convoluted methods currently employed.”

At a panel discussing the report, Pickering stressed that in the new era, the missions of the military, diplomacy and development are “intimately entwined.” (He is currently leading an investigation of the administration’s handling of the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four Americans, including an ambassador. He told Government Executive that because his team of five is only partway through their report, they are not ready to discuss it with the press.)

On the budget issues, Pickering worried that “the public has very little knowledge of what the Foreign Service does overseas or how they contribute to national security. Many get their views of it from 1930s movies showing cocktail parties and diplomats wearing tailcoats.” He also expressed concern about a “politicization of American leadership” in which too many foreign posts go not to trained diplomats but to the politically connected. “Since when is brain surgery open to anyone who gives enough money to a presidential campaign?” he asked. Bad diplomacy “can be as damaging as bad brain surgery.”

Boyatt, who chaired the project, said most of the budgetary pressure comes from “knee-jerk reaction from the Republican side,” including tea party activists. “But as they become more experienced in this area, they change their views,” just as the Obama team did after promising to close the U.S. base at Guantanamo, he said. “They run into reality.”

The issue of administrative bloat, Boyatt said, is a sensitive subject that divided the panel. “The growth over the past four years has a Washington bias and an administrator bias,” he said. People bring in their cronies.” George Schulz, secretary of State under President Reagan, “brought in one person, while rumor has it that [Hillary] Clinton brought in 160. Since there is no more civil service exam,” he continued, an official “can write a position description to fit the college roommate of the daughter of someone on the 8th floor.”

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