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Penny wise and pound foolish on Embassy Row

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Reducing our services to the US: Having less money has meant a reduction in consular and commercial services to US citizens and companies. At our consulate in Frankfurt, for instance, US service men and women had to wait up to six weeks last summer to obtain routine passport services and to report the birth of their children. Normally, passports are issued the same day the application is received, while reports of birth are completed within 10 days.

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Our commercial operations have taken even more drastic cuts. At a time of staggering trade deficits, our commercial officers are sitting in their offices rather than out helping our nation's companies sell their goods. Money has become so tight that soon, my commercial counselor tells me, we may not even have the money to return phone calls, let alone promote our exports.

Impairing our ability to communicate: For the last two months of the fiscal year we had to halt language training for nearly all embassy employees. Of course, many of the embassy's personnel already speak German. But others need this program to improve fluency.

For the embassy support staff, the program has meant an opportunity to learn the rudimentary German necessary for day-to-day life. A two-month suspension of training can be absorbed, but a longer cutoff could leave our diplomats talking mainly to Germans who speak English. These aren't the ones we need to reach!

In a nutshell, we can't continue doing business this way. Whether we like it or not, the United States since World War II has been a great power, with great-power responsibilities. But seen from my vantage point in the field, we seem on the verge of discarding these responsibilities; not as a conscious act of withdrawal, but as an incidental, perhaps unintended, byproduct of the budget debate.

I recognize that it is important to come to grips with the deficit. The importance of this task, moreover, is well understood by our friends over here.

In talking with my German contacts, however, many have concluded that the US is lessening its interest in Europe and the world beyond. Some even believe that the Western European allies are being punished for a lack of support of US policies.

I have assured them that neither perception is correct, that our declining presence is a consequence of steps being taken to balance our budget. This they understand.

What they can't understand is how we could compromise our ability to comprehend foreign events and influence them.

What they can't understand is how we could lower our profile in a country crucial to our national security and economic prosperity.

What they can't understand is how we could reduce our effectiveness in a world often hostile to our interests.

If we persist in running down the United States' ability to protect its allies, its interests, and itself, I doubt history will prove any more understanding.

Richard Burt is US ambassador to West Germany.