Diplomacy and the budget: Keep US consulates open

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AT the very time the Reagan administration has been eager to show the American flag around the world, flags are being lowered over a number of US diplomatic posts abroad. Seven US consulates, primarily in Western Europe, were shut down last year; another seven are to be closed this year. The State Department says that in time it may have to close the doors on several more US overseas posts.

This unfortunate dimunition of America's diplomatic presence overseas is a casualty of the rising US budget deficit and the fight between the executive branch and Congress over where the cuts should be made.

Both foreign aid and State Department operations have felt the pinch, made tighter by the falling dollar and the need to replace Soviet support personnel in the Moscow embassy.

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US foreign affairs spending amounts to less than 2 percent of the federal budget but has virtually no constituency to defend it. No lawmaker yet has been elected on the basis of his generous foreign aid record.

Secretary of State George Shultz's vigorous protestations - calling the continuing cuts a ``tragedy'' that will force the US to ``start withdrawing from the world'' - may be as close as Congress comes to hearing a lobbying cry on behalf of the US foreign policy establishment.

Still, there are sound reasons Congress should think twice about backing American diplomacy into a tight fiscal corner:

US diplomatic posts are the most visible symbols of the American presence abroad; they are a valuable source of US information on everything from investment to travel.

Such missions directly serve the US national interest. In addition to promoting trade and acting as official eyes and ears for Washington, consulates provide valuable protection for traveling US citizens.

The foreign affairs budget, already cut by 27 percent just last year, is comparatively small. US overseas aid, effective in both direct humanitarian help and in boosting standard of living and literacy rates, is the smallest among major industrial nations in percentage of gross national product. The State Department operations part of the budget, supporting State's personnel and diplomatic posts, totals $2.5 billion, or about half of the annual aid package to Israel and Egypt.

A few planned US consulate closings have been staved off. The consulate in Frankfurt was saved when West German and US banking interests strenuously objected. For some consulates the cuts are an old story. The US consulate in Bremen, West Germany, was closed last June for the second time in five years. The US consulate in G"oteborg, Sweden, opened during George Washington's administration in 1797, closed for budget reasons in 1980. It was reopened two years later after almost half the city's residents signed petitions of protest. The G"oteborg facility is scheduled to be closed again this year. West Germans and Swedes may well wonder whether the US knows what it's doing.

The US family of embassies and consulates provides too many valuable services and is too important a symbol of US interests abroad to be allowed to rise and fall at the whim of US budget cutters looking for an easy slash.

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