Disentangling the US foreign-affairs mess

IT is tragic that as American problems abroad have grown, the government's organization for conducting foreign affairs has grown more inefficient. All in all, the United States still enjoys the services of high-caliber people in foreign affairs. The Foreign Service, and our foreign intelligence service, remain a dedicated corps of talented officers.

But even the best people cannot produce good results if poorly organized. Furthermore, even if the Foreign Service continues to recruit highly qualified young people, its insistence on specialization does not always give a promising officer the mastery of foreign affairs needed by an ambassador or undersecretary of state. Thus presidents, if they wonder whether they should continue the diplomatic spoils system, may be persuaded to do so by an argument that they cannot find good career executives.

The Foreign Service still continues to raise up many good executives, however. When the Reagan administration looked for someone to rescue the National Security Council system, the choice was Frank Carlucci, who had spent most of his professional life as a Foreign Service officer.

Conventional Washington wisdom argues that the increased complexity of the world requires increasingly complex organization of the executive branch. This is simply a rationalization. We have also seen increasing congressional intrusion on the executive's conduct of foreign relations, most recently in the scores of crippling Senate amendments to the State Department authorization bill. But this is in turn a reflection of weakness and inefficiency in the executive branch.

Inside the State Department, there are more than two dozen assistant secretaries, each with a bureau determined to have its full say in the world. The result is that people in the State Department spend more time negotiating with their colleagues than they do with foreign governments.

A similar situation exists in the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and the Pentagon's own huge version of the State Department.

A president looking at his government as a whole will also find that the overall number of foreign-affairs agencies has increased in recent decades. AID and the USIA have come out from under the State Department's wings. The Commerce Department created its own Foreign Commercial Service; today there is not a single Foreign Service but five - those of AID, the USIA, and the State, Agriculture, and Commerce Departments. Embassies shelter attach'es from up to 20 federal agencies. And the Central Intelligence Agency looms ever larger.

The question is not whether a John Poindexter or a Carlucci can coordinate the efforts of this mess of agencies and services, but whether even the ablest of presidents could himself do so. The answer is no.

We must rationalize and simplify our foreign-affairs machinery. A wise presidential candidate will see this now and begin to talk reform - a reform which, given the need for legislation, can take years, but which can enjoy support from a public deeply concerned about American standing in the world. (The unwise candidate will urge a new commission to study the problem.)

The wise candidate will also see that the battered, maligned, and indeed inefficient State Department must, as the only agency concerned with overall advancement of interests abroad, remain the key agency in the conduct of foreign affairs.

In no other major country, certainly, must one insist on the need for a ministry or department of foreign affairs. The need to do so here reflects the extent to which the foreign-affairs apparatus has become a many-headed monster - and the extent to which the State Department has fallen on bad days. Just now it is faced with crippling budget cuts that may stop the intake of junior officers, will definitely close 15 posts abroad, and will make the Foreign Service up-or-out promotion system still more Draconian, while cutting off the bonuses for outstanding senior officers which were the quid pro quo for heavy forced retirement.

Sadly, while the cuts will also reduce some fat and overlapping in department functions, they will not reduce the numbers of assistant secretaries and their bureaus. Only a president can insist on this, as well as on the need for fewer competing agencies, before the Congress that created them. Any president who pushes reform will be opposed by those looking for jobs with which to reward the party faithful, by the hundreds on Capitol Hill whose jobs depend on overseeing all these bureaucrats and agencies, and by members of Congress and senior staff honestly doubting the need for real change.

A reform-minded president may, then, need a little help from events. The scandalous spoils systems run by Boss Tweed and Roscoe Conkling helped advance civil service reform a century ago. The bankruptcy of American foreign policies - resulting, among other things, in the near-bankruptcy of this country - may provide the next president the convincing reason for reform in the diplomatic service.

Peter Bridges has served as deputy executive secretary of the US State Department, executive secretary of the Treasury Department, and ambassador to Somalia.

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