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Peter Van Buren

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America's Increasingly Irrelevant Concierge Abroad

Posted: 08/22/2012 12:45 pm

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. What should be staggering news pointing out a crisis in government is in fact barely worth a media mention, in that State's lack of personnel is silently tracking its increasing irrelevance to the United States. State is sliding into the role of America's Concierge abroad.

Numbers are Much Worse Than at First Glance

In fact, broken down, it is much worse. At the senior levels, the leaders of America's diplomacy, the number is 36 percent of positions vacant or filled with "stretch" assignments, people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial midranks, the number is 26 percent unfilled. Entry level jobs are at 28 percent, though it is unclear how some of those can be filled with stretch assignments since they are already at the bottom.

In fact though, it is much worse. Within State's Foreign Service ranks, there exists the Consular Bureau and everyone else. Consular stands quite separate from other Foreign Service Officers in that Consular employees have very specific, worker-bee jobs processing passports and visas and are not involved in "traditional" diplomatic tasks such as maintaining inter-government relations, writing reports, negotiating treaties, rebuilding Afghanistan and all that (Consular operations are also almost 100 percent fee-funded, and thus operate free of the shrinking foreign affairs budget). These Consular jobs are filled because they have to be, cash cow that issuing visas is for increasingly foreign-tourism-dependent America. That means broken down by function, it is likely that there are even larger gaps in vacancies in traditional diplomatic roles than even the sad percentages suggest.

These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked, in 2008. The GAO says in its report that "although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it "lacks a strategy to fill those gaps.'"

(State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees into Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). That's a 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap. Another perspective: why some Civil Servants might pass on the chance to become FSOs.)

In response to GAO, State only said it agreed that its workforce planning "should be updated" to include a strategy to address staffing gaps and a plan to evaluate the strategy. Yawn.


So What?

State's somnolent response to what should be a crisis call (anyone wish to speculate on what the response might be to a report that the military is understaffed by 36 percent at the senior levels?) tells the tale. It really doesn't matter, and even State itself knows.

What vibrant, it-really-matters institution could persist with staffing gaps over time as gaping as State's? If an organization can continue to mumble along with over one out of four slots un/underfilled, that kinda shows that you don't matter much.

And such is now the case with the US Department of State.


The Militarization of Foreign Policy

The most obvious sign of State's irrelevance is the militarization of foreign policy. As I've wrote in May 2011, "There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier." Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America's intercourse abroad, the State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.

"At the same time," I wrote, "Congress continues to hack away at State's budget." The most recent "round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State's total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years." No more office supplies for you! "What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy," I wrote.

As Stephen Glain wrote in State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire, the U.S. military combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of U.S. ambassadors.

Glain's point is worth quoting at length:

This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world's most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.


While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander's horizon is unlimited. "When we spoke, we had more clout," according to Anthony Zinni. "There's a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don't have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you're in a given country, you don't see beyond its borders because that is not your mission."


America's Concierge Abroad

The increasing role of the military in America's foreign relations sidelines State. The most likely American for a foreigner to encounter in most parts of the world now, for better or worse, carries a weapon and drives a tank.

State's attempt to stake out a new role as America's reconstruction agency abroad has failed in Iraq, failed in Afghanistan, and is failing in Haiti.

Cronyism and lack of tolerance for dissent lead to an almost clumsy lack of thoughtfulness: an ambassador who demands internet access in his bathroom, $200 million wasted on a training program unwanted by its recipients, or the failed attempt to buy Kindles for a whopping $1,320 a piece.

Among the many disclosures made in the 250,000 alleged State Department documents dumped on to Wikileaks was the uber revelation that most of State's vaunted reporting on foreign events is boring, trivial and of little practical value (though well-written and punctuated properly). Apart from a few gossipy disclosures about foreign leaders and sleazy U.S. behind-the-scenes-deals with Middle Eastern dictators, there were few dramatic KABOOMs in those cables. Even now, State is struggling in the Bradley Manning trial to demonstrate that actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures.

That leaves for the understaffed Department of State pretty much only the role of concierge abroad. America's VIPs and wanna-be VIPs need their hands held, their security arranged, their motorcades organized and their Congressional visits' hotels and receptions handled, all tasks that fall squarely on the Department of State and its embassies abroad. "Supporting" CODELS (Congressional Delegations' visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody's on semi-official shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled "Ambassador to Harrod's Department Store" by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling, VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over (including skinny dipping), and demands for this and that by so-called important people that rivaled rock star concert riders -- no green M&Ms!


Best Cappuccino in ‪Tripoli

Take a look at this photo, of Senator McCain visiting our embassy in Libya. The cut line reads "US Amb. to ‪#Libya‬ Chris Stevens - one of America's finest diplomats also makes one of the best cappuccinos in ‪#Tripoli‬."

McCain no doubt meant the comment as a compliment, and looking at the ambassador's face, he is quite pleased with himself to be serving coffee to the senator. Can anyone imagine a photo from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa showing a Marine general in a similar stance?

Well, no, you can't. And that tells the story.


Understaffed, with roughly a quarter of its jobs unfilled and no plan to do anything about it, fits the State Department just fine. It is, sadly, a perfect example of an evolutionary process of government right-sizing, fitting the resources well to the actual job. RIP State, you rest now; it's almost over.

 

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