These are not the best of times at the U.S. State Department. Whether they are the worst of times though is subject to debate. But regardless of divergent views about overall conditions at Foggy Bottom, most expert observers agree that morale among America’s 11,500 Foreign Service officers is sagging under tight budgets, dangerous conditions in Iraq, and a perception that the Bush administration simply doesn’t place enough value on diplomacy.
“Morale has never been worse—it’s appalling,” a current Foreign Service officer with nearly 30 years of experience, who did not want to be identified, told The Washington Diplomat in an interview. “Much of it is attributable to short-changing the State Department budget for a long, long time.”
Many people interviewed for this article—including current and former Foreign Service officers and outside observers—said former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revered by the State Department’s rank and file, an adoration that current Secretary Condoleezza Rice doesn’t enjoy. They said Powell fought for budget increases and won them, only to see the resources depleted by State Department responsibilities in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He recognized the budget problem and was able to use his personal stature to reverse it,” the current Foreign Service officer said. “We’ve been treading water since then.”
The official said Rice has sought only modest increases in funding—outside of what is needed for State Department budgets in Iraq and Afghanistan—and she is viewed as less of an advocate for the department than as a functionary of President Bush, who many believe has little regard for diplomacy in general.
A major task force report commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Council and delivered in June 2007 titled “Managing Secretary Rice’s State Department: An Independent Assessment” praised some of Rice’s initiatives, including her push for “transformational diplomacy,” or using U.S. diplomacy and assistance to enhance democracy and freedom around the globe. But budget constraints have hampered that and other Rice initiatives, according to the report, largely because U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed most of the new resources.
“Since early 2005, funneling an endless stream of human and financial resources into Afghanistan and Iraq has colored every aspect of management at the State Department,” the report charged.
Between 2001 and 2005, more than 1,000 new positions and program funding increases were obtained through Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. Since then, the report found that all of those positions and people have been absorbed by assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other difficult posts.
“Of singular importance is eliminating the shortage of personnel,” the report stated. “Positions for training must be protected from raids to meet operational crises.”
Aside from budget issues, a Washington Post report in mid-Novem-ber characterized the Foggy Bottom malaise in part as a result of Rice being aloof and unresponsive to the concerns of rank-and-file Foreign Service officers. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack had rejected that notion a couple of weeks earlier.
“She cares deeply about the Foreign Service,” McCormack said during a State Department briefing on Nov. 1. “She cares deeply about State Department personnel…. She talks to the people who aren’t in the big offices and don’t have the fancy titles, but the people who are, day to day, working on issues.”
Rice also drew the ire of many Foreign Service officers when she informed them in October that they might be forced into duty at the massive new U.S. Embassy in Iraq, even if they did not want to go. Rice tried to quell the resulting revolt among State Department employees—one of whom described the compulsory service as a “death sentence”—and in mid-November, the department announced that volunteers had filled all 48 open jobs at the embassy for the next year and that it would not order any Foreign Service officers to work there against their will.
Prior to that, some 250 “qualified” officers had been notified that they would be called up to serve in Baghdad if those positions weren’t filled. Rice, in a cable to officers, reminded them that they are obligated under oath to serve wherever in the world they are needed. Spokesman McCormack also tried to inject some realism into the backlash over Iraq assignments at a Nov. 1 briefing.
“It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes of the State Department only occupying, you know, magnificent embassies in Western Europe and going to receptions and writing cables that nobody reads,” McCormack told reporters. “That just is not the Foreign Service that I know.”
Nevertheless, the possibility of a forced call-up exposed a rift among U.S. Foreign Service officers. As detailed in a poll by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), on the one side were many veteran officers who echo the sentiment expressed recently by Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker that diplomats who put themselves ahead of serving the United States are “in the wrong line of business” and that joining the Foreign Service “does not mean you can choose the fight.”
On the other hand, there are many officers who, according to AFSA, “feel equally strongly that the Foreign Service needs to preserve some balance between the demands of hardship service and the demands of family-friendliness and career planning.”
But since the announcement rescinding the Iraq call-up, many in the Foreign Service have also expressed resentment over the entire controversy for implying that officers were shirking their diplomatic responsibilities. AFSA President John Naland said that “if State had gone through the normal assignment cycle, this is how it would have turned out,” referring to the volunteers who emerged. “After all the bad publicity indicating that the Foreign Service would not step forward, it in fact turned out—as most of us thought—that they did step forward as volunteers to staff Iraq.”
If State had gone ahead with the call-up, it would’ve marked the first time “directed assignments” were used since the Vietnam War. Kenton Keith, a member of the U.S. Foreign Service during that war, said there is a sense among some retired officers that current gripes from officers resisting service in Iraq are hollow complaints.
“I recall it was something of a foregone conclusion that most of us who came into the Foreign Service would go to Vietnam and a high percentage did—you knew what you were signing up for,” said Keith, now a vice president at the Meridian International Center.
Keith, who pointed out that he was not among those pressed into service in Vietnam, said that although young diplomats generally can’t avoid compulsory service in war zones, they should be adequately prepared for them.
“If they are asked to do duty in difficult posts then they should do it, but the department has a responsibility to prepare them,” Keith said. “And it is not proper to send them where there is nowhere to do their work.”
Keith was part of a team of diplomatic experts that compiled the Foreign Affairs Council report earlier this year. Keith said that in his view, morale has sagged at the State Department because of four main factors: budget constraints; diminished quality of life, or “fewer perks” for officers; a gradual lowering of compensation for Foreign Service officers deployed to difficult areas; and a sense that the department has lost traction in interagency battles.
The issue of compensation is indeed a sticking point for many officers, according to those interviewed for this article. Foreign Service officers get an 18.5 percent increase in their paycheck for living in Washington, one of the world’s most expensive cities. When they are deployed to other regions, their paycheck may actually be reduced.
That angers many who feel they should be rewarded, not punished, for leaving the comfort of Washington for less desirable postings, even if the quality of life is cheaper.
McCormack credited Rice for trying to solve this problem and addressing it in budget requests on Capitol Hill. “I don’t know if Foreign Service officers know that,” the spokesman said. “It sort of gets to this idea that somehow the secretary is not working on behalf of the Foreign Service. It just couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Peter Tichansky of the nonpartisan Business Council for International Understanding also helped to write the Foreign Affairs Council’s report. Tichansky has never served as a Foreign Service officer but spends a lot of time at the State Department trying to convince officials there that promoting U.S. business interests abroad is good for the country as a whole.
Tichansky said he doesn’t see many people moping around the State Department complaining about their job or the direction of the agency. “We see mostly a very enthusiastic and focused professional effort,” he said. “The strain over there is real but whether that is particular to some leadership issue, I just can’t tell.”
He added that there is no doubt nerves are frazzled at the State Department, but most officers seem ready to ride out the bumpy terrain with hopes for a smoother course in the years ahead. And he said the State Department brass should do whatever it takes to show its diplomats that they are planning for that better future.
“The Department of State is comprised of some of the most talented Americans, and it’s an agency that needs to be nourished with adequate budgets and training and career development,” Tichansky said. “You need to have people who are very secure in their jobs.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.