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The World

U.S. foreign service understaffed, report says

June 06, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have overstretched the U.S. foreign service, damaging its staffers' morale and threatening its performance around the world, a coalition of advocates for diplomats charged Tuesday.

The Foreign Affairs Council, a group of 11 nonprofit organizations, said in a report that the State Department would need to hire 1,100 foreign service officers simply to restore the capabilities it had when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her post at the beginning of 2005.

"The foreign service is at the front end of a personnel crisis, and if something isn't done ... we're going to have a very, very serious situation a year or so from now," said Thomas Boyatt, a retired U.S. ambassador and the council's president, at a news conference.

The council said Rice has required diplomats to carry out a more aggressive mission of "transformational diplomacy" to prod other countries to adhere to democratic principles.

But at the same time, envoys have had to cope with wartime strains, inadequate language and skills training and more overtime work.

In addition, about 750 have been required to take one-year stints in sometimes dangerous postings where they are not allowed to bring their families, the group said.

Over the last two years, the Bush administration failed to anticipate the rising need for foreign service personnel in global hot spots, including Baghdad, where about 200 foreign service officers work in a 1,000-person embassy, the largest in the world, the council said.

At the same time, Congress has rejected the administration's requests for additional personnel in the last two budgets, the council said.

About 200 foreign service jobs abroad are unfilled, according to the report, and about 900 other training slots needed to give diplomats language and other job skills have not yet been created. The foreign service has about 9,000 employees.

Officials of the advocacy group said the recent shift of diplomats from Europe to the Middle East and elsewhere had left embassy staffs in Europe sometimes unable to get their work done on time.

Despite the morale problems, however, statistics don't indicate that foreign service officers are quitting their jobs at higher rates, Boyatt acknowledged.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, Congress cut the staffing and budget of the foreign service by about one-third.

During President Bush's first term, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, alarmed by the short staffing, added about 1,000 officers.

But now those have been "vacuumed up" in Iraq, Afghanistan and other new danger spots, Boyatt said.

Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said department officials agree with the need for an increase in staff and would like in particular to restore training slots.

Foreign service officers "are making a noble and worthy sacrifice trying to help the people of these countries," he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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