Senior diplomats in short supply

The Foreign Service needs more senior public diplomacy officers, a top State Department official told a congressional panel on Tuesday.

"On the public diplomacy side, there is some positive news, but it's a grim picture overall," Amb. Scott DeLisi, director of career development and assignments in State's Bureau of Human Resources, said before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

Public diplomacy officers create and manage programs designed to inform audiences in other countries how American history, values, and traditions shape the country's foreign policy.

The dearth of public diplomacy officers is occurring at the agency's highest pay grades -- Foreign Service Schedules 1 and 2, DeLisi said. "At the lower grades, we have a bubble of new, young public diplomacy officers," he said. The surge in entry- and mid-level hires is a result of the department's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, a three-year plan launched in 2001 to boost recruitment.

The Foreign Service overall is short at least 1,000 officers "just to fill the jobs we have," DeLisi said. DeLisi, who spent most of his career in the field and assumed his current post just a year ago, called the situation "frightening." Even with those slots filled, many officers are not getting the training they need to be successful overseas, he noted, adding that the agency also would benefit from the creation of additional positions. "We need more [officers] in China, India, parts of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Indonesia," he said.

Within the Foreign Service, officers choose among five career tracks: consular, economic, management or political affairs, and public diplomacy. Traditionally, it is almost impossible for officers to switch tracks once they've been hired. But because of the lack of public diplomacy officials, more than 100 officers from other areas are now handling that specialty, DeLisi said. "In today's world, we all have to be public diplomacy officers."

DeLisi's comments echoed those of Amb. Harry K. Thomas before the same panel in July. Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service and human resources director at the State Department, said at that time that growing commitments abroad were increasing the need for officers everywhere. "Clearly it's not only Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Earlier this month, State announced that a sufficient number of diplomats had volunteered for duty at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for 2009, rendering it unnecessary for the department to order diplomats to serve in the country.

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