Hard Times at the State Department
I listened to part of the webinar by outgoing AFSA president Barbara Stephenson. She said the temporary draw-down at the embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan are being made permanent. Other embassies are also being reduced. The Iraq reduction is something like 75%. This means that many positions will not be filled, and that many officers will not be going to the posts they were assigned to. In addition, it sounds like the administration has requested further budget reductions for the State Department. Even after the many senior Foreign Service officers who left because of polity disagreements under Secretary Tillerson, there still many senior officers who do not have assignments because of the staff reductions at many embassies.
I would guess that at least part of the problem is that the Republican administration views the career Foreign Service as too liberal. There is probably some truth to that perception. But while many officers may personally lean Democratic, they do let their personal politics enter into their work representing the US overseas, just as military officers perform their duties without reference to their personal politics. Within the US government, Foreign Service officers will argue for policies that they believe are best of the US, which might mean arguing against some conservative policy proposals, but once the internal debates are over, the officers will soldier on and argue for the policies that have been agreed on when they represent the US to foreign governments.
It’s sad that after the Iraq war, the Defense Department under Sec. Robert Gates argued for more State Department officers in Iraq. He pointed out that there were fewer FSOs than there were members of military bands. He argued that often diplomacy was better than military force. Now, we don’t even have a Secretary of Defense.
It’s hard to replace senior Foreign Service officers because much of their value comes from years of serving in countries that are of concern to US foreign policy. They know the language, the culture, and often many of the senior officials running the country. When they leave with their 20 or 30 years of knowledge and experience, it will take 20 or 30 years to replace them.