Thursday, February 07, 2008

Houston Chronicle: President's Bid to Rebuild Diplomatic Corps is On Target But Off Schedule

Consul-At-Arms found a great editorial in Tuesday's Houston Chronicle.

Smart power
President's bid to rebuild diplomatic corps is on target but off schedule.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Trained and deployed well, diplomats sometimes can do more than an army. One of diplomacy's chief aims, after all, is working things out without killing anyone.

So President George W. Bush's budget proposal Monday — which would fund 1,076 new diplomat jobs — is a huge advance for U.S. security. Both Bush and Congress, which has turned down far smaller proposals, need to fight hard to get this request passed.

Since fiscal 2005, as our military commitment has surged, the number of foreign service workers has remained essentially flat. It's a deficit as dangerous to American interests as neglecting our military.

Bush's budget request calls for an $8.2 billion increase for the State Department in budget year 2009. The plan would boost embassy construction spending by 41 percent and add almost 20 percent more for security worldwide.

Most significantly, though, it would add 1,076 jobs to the State Department, including spots for diplomats, security experts and replacement employees to allow 450 State Department workers to undergo intensive language training.

It's a stunning increase from Bush's meek request last year for only 256 diplomat jobs — a request that Congress nevertheless shot down.

To even make this year's request, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to return to White House budgeters three times to plead her case. Her argument: the State Department needs to become an agent of "transformational diplomacy," focusing on partnering with, rather than coercing, countries to respond democratically to the needs of their own people.

Plenty of states, of course, haven't the slightest interest in partnering with the United States in any context. But many, especially since the launch of an ill-planned war in Iraq, have radicalized directly because of the perceived brutality of U.S. foreign policy.

Unfortunately, we have few diplomats fluent enough in Arabic to debate the point on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language international news channel based in Qatar.

For more than four years, this country has fought wars on two fronts, lost thousands of servicemen and women and cost hundreds of thousands of foreign lives. Yet the United States has not bothered to fully staff its core international diplomatic force.

Numerous American embassies struggle along at 70 percent staffing. Last year, 10 percent of diplomatic job openings for 2008 were cut.

How Congress justifies neglecting this arm of national security forces is a mystery. But a recent barrage of critiques, including two speeches by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, may have spurred Bush to finally fight for proper diplomatic funding.

The sum Bush is asking for diplomats would be minor in the military's budget. Yet the additional funds would muster serious smart power: civilian teams to rebuild post-conflict societies; spokesmen to intelligently voice U.S. goals abroad; negotiators to press solutions in the most stubborn conflicts.

Adding new jobs would strengthen the diplomatic corps by a significant percentage. But that's the minimum reinforcement owed to the thousands of soldiers the United States sends around the world to risk their lives.

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