Billions for defense, crumbs for diplomacy

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images In late November, a senior U.S. official decried the “gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world.” The official added, “The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department… is less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone.” Coming from an assistant ...

597617_071213_condi_05.jpg
597617_071213_condi_05.jpg

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

In late November, a senior U.S. official decried the "gutting of America's ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world." The official added, "The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department... is less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone."

Coming from an assistant secretary of state, these comments would have been fairly mundane. But the top official was none other than Bob Gates, the secretary of defense. It was a remarkable moment, made all the more relevant by two news developments this week.

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

In late November, a senior U.S. official decried the “gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world.” The official added, “The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department… is less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone.”

Coming from an assistant secretary of state, these comments would have been fairly mundane. But the top official was none other than Bob Gates, the secretary of defense. It was a remarkable moment, made all the more relevant by two news developments this week.

The first is that Congress is poised to fund nearly $700 billion in defense spending for 2008. The second is that the State Department is essentially cutting 10 percent of diplomatic posts around the world because it can’t staff them, thanks largely to the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Congress is clearly the main culprit:

While the Baghdad and Kabul embassies are the immediate cause of the vacancies elsewhere, the State Department suffers from a deeper problem of flat hiring budgets. The size of the foreign service, about 6,500 diplomats, increased by approximately 300 positions a year between 2001 and 2004, but since then Congress has rejected requests for additional hiring for all but consular and security positions.

It’s also fair to say that the administration hasn’t gone to bat for bigger hiring budgets in the same way it has pulled out all the stops for military funding. Rice’s management skills have come under fire in recent months, and in particular the State Department’s liaison office on Capitol Hill has fallen apart after Colin Powell left. So, it may be no coincidence that the budget increases stopped in 2004.

It’s also not clear what the ultimate impact of this hiring freeze might be, since the jobs being frozen are supposedly “non-priority” positions. Rice is said to support cutting back on the U.S. presence in Europe in favor of other areas of the world. Somehow, I don’t think this is what she had in mind. But when it comes to the big picture, it sure does seem strange that even with a friendly counterpart at the Pentagon, Condi can’t seem to convince the shortsighted folks in Congress that the diplomatic machine matters, too.

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