By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007; A26
Diplomatic posts at the State Department and U.S. embassies worldwide will be cut by 10 percent next year because of heavy staffing demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, Director General Harry Thomas informed the foreign service yesterday.
The decision to eliminate the positions reflects the reality that State does not have enough people to fill them. Nearly one-quarter of all diplomatic posts are vacant after hundreds of foreign service officers were sent to embassies in Baghdad and Kabul, and Congress has not provided funding for new hires. Many of the unfilled jobs will no longer be listed as vacancies.
Citing “severe staffing shortfalls,” Thomas asked each assistant secretary of state to prioritize jobs in his or her bureau and identify the least critical 10 percent by next Monday. “If we cannot realistically fill all of the positions currently vacant,” he wrote in a cable sent throughout the department, “good management dictates that we . . . focus on the most essential.”
The cuts come as the Bush administration has stepped up diplomatic efforts in hot spots such as the Middle East and North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called for an expanded U.S. diplomatic presence in “critical emerging areas,” including Africa and South Asia.
Pressure to fill about 250 foreign service jobs in Iraq led to a highly publicized dispute within the foreign service last month as Rice warned that she would mandate Iraq assignments if enough volunteers did not step forward. Those positions and nearly 100 “high priority” jobs in Afghanistan have now been filled for next year — making them virtually the only U.S. embassies in the world at close to 100 percent of authorized staffing levels — but Rice left open the possibility of “directed assignments” to other hardship posts if necessary.
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.
“We believe that . . . we had a justified need for those additional positions in those years,” Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, said in an interview. “On the other hand, Congress has to make choices, and they made them. I’m not going to say they are the wrong choices.”
Kennedy said Rice has repeatedly pushed for additional positions, but others have criticized her for failing to focus on management issues. While her predecessor, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, paid close attention to management details, said one senior Democratic congressional staffer who works on State Department funding issues: “I think they really suffered after Powell left from [not having] anyone over there advocating for their operational budget. It’s not until recently, over the last couple of months, that we’ve been hearing about it.”
“The administration has not really fought” for diplomatic staff increases “the way it has fought to get all of the additional resources that the Defense Department and the military have needed since 9/11,” said Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats. “We have seen a shrinking of the diplomatic component of foreign affairs and a dramatic expansion of the military component.”
Kashkett noted that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — not Rice — spoke out recently to call for more resources for diplomacy.
In a Nov. 26 speech that both shocked and pleased foreign service officers, Gates noted that “funding for nonmilitary foreign affairs programs . . . remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military. . . . The total foreign affairs budget request for the State Department . . . is less than what the Pentagon spends on health care alone.”
Although the State Department’s operational expenses in Iraq are funded out of the same supplemental appropriations that pay for the military there, personnel costs come out of the department’s regular budget. Funding levels remained static under a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2007 that covered all departments except defense. In its fiscal year 2008 request, the administration has asked for 262 new diplomatic positions.
In addition to creating staffing strains, the shortfalls limit the number of foreign service officers who can be diverted into language and other training that numerous studies have said are crucial to meeting new diplomatic challenges.
Kennedy said the administration does not view the high staffing levels in Kabul and Baghdad as permanent and that the 10 percent cuts elsewhere would be reconsidered next year. “It depends on how many we have in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the budget request fares,” he said.
The effect of the cuts is to remove “non-priority” jobs from the list of openings that foreign service officers can bid on for upcoming assignments.
“Practically speaking,” Thomas said in his cable, “this will mean that some positions advertised on the open assignments list will now be ‘frozen’ (approximately ten percent).” He asked assistant secretaries “to the extent possible . . . to focus domestically” at the State Department before overseas positions, and to place priority on “mid-level positions, our greatest deficit category.”
The cuts do not affect consular positions, which are funded by visa and other fees.