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An Intolerable State

February 04, 2001

The United States, the world's richest and most powerful nation, is burdened with a foreign policy apparatus ill-organized to deal with post-Cold War realities. The State Department suffers from mismanagement and a shortage of skills and resources. Its facilities are often insecure and dilapidated, its communications equipment often obsolete.

This limits the department's effectiveness with Congress and the public. Morale among foreign service officers has fallen. Unless the apparatus is revitalized, U.S. interests overseas will suffer. Policymakers will be denied the political and economic information they need, global threats and opportunities will be overlooked. Renewing foreign policy has become an urgent national security priority.

These are the dire but fully believable conclusions of an independent task force report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies and addressed to President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Many of the organizational and other shortcomings that the report describes have been noted previously. The purpose of the task force was to distill those findings into an action plan for the new administration.

What it proposes is a "grand bargain" between Congress and the White House. The president and the secretary of State would pledge to work with Congress to reform the department. Congress would commit the resources needed to make changes possible.

One compelling need is to fill the gaps in the ranks of foreign service officers. Rising resignations, many prompted by falling morale, have left the department short by about 700 officers. Between 1994 and 2000, resignations by foreign service generalists doubled, while resignations of specialists quadrupled. This loss of talent and expertise will take years to replace.

"Shabby and insecure" facilities at home and abroad are an embarrassment, a hardship and a danger. It's disgraceful that a country debating what to do with trillions in projected federal revenue surpluses can't find the relatively modest means to upgrade the 88% of its embassies that don't meet security standards. And it's absurd that the world's leader in technology can't provide them with the best in classified communications networks.

The president and the secretary of State should consult regularly with key members of Congress to implement a resources-for-reform strategy and keep congressional leaders informed about progress. A Congress left skeptical by unfulfilled reform promises is unlikely to provide additional resources.

The task force estimates that about a 6% increase in the international affairs budget could fix much of what's structurally wrong, boosting morale as well. Dealing with a growing list of nontraditional threats to security--the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international drug trafficking, environmental degradation, the spread of infectious diseases--will be more challenging.

The basic need is for leadership, and Powell moved quickly in his first days at the State Department to let its employees know that he respects them, expects much from them and will fight for the resources they need to do their jobs. Now Bush needs to assert a deep interest in reform and in getting the required appropriations increases through Congress.

The president sets foreign policy. But to make it work takes a State Department that is staffed with talented people, provided with adequate resources and modernized to be operationally relevant to the dangers and opportunities of the post-Cold War world.

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