US to Embassy Row: No more Mr. Nice Guy
Washington — The State Department is taking off the gloves. No more Mr. Nice Guy. ''We're sick and tired of being kicked around by foreigners,'' growls a mid-level US diplomat. Adds another grimly: ''We're going to threaten them with whatever they're doing to us.''
The focus of such high emotions? New Soviet missiles? Libyan terrorism? Fidel Castro? No - it is the practice of ally and adversary alike to make life miserable for American embassy personnel around the world: host countries adding surcharges on utility bills, slapping prohibitions on importing or exporting family automobiles, and restrictions on shopping or tickets for cultural events.
Short of declaring a diplomat from an offending country persona non grata, there has been little the US could do to retaliate - until now.
In the future - if Congress gives its expected blessing - the US State Department will be able to retaliate against the red tape, artificially high prices, and life style restrictions aimed at US diplomats from Moscow to Buenos Aires.
In a bill scheduled for mark-up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nov. 17, the State Department will have a new Office of Foreign Missions designed with one object in mind: retaliation.
''It has been a morale problem and a financial burden,'' explained Walter Weiss of the State Department's Bureau of Administration. ''It is a critical bill, not only for State Department morale, but for anyone who serves overseas, '' especially, he said, typists, mechanics, or clerks with low salaries.
''It is our firm belief,'' said the diplomat, ''that when we say we're going to take our pound of flesh, people will back off.''
Some of the common complaints from US diplomats abroad were enumerated by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Percy (R) of Illinois when he introduced the bill on the Senate floor this year - on April Fool's Day. These complaints include:
* US embassies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have to procure ''practically all'' housing, utilities, employees, and tickets for sporting or cultural events through a state ministry ''which often imposes a substantial surcharge for often unnecessary or unwanted services,'' Senator Percy said. The cost, he said, runs to ''hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.''
* Also in the USSR and Eastern Europe, he said, the US is limited to renting office and residential property at ''excessive'' cost, while those governments can freely purchase real estate here.
* Venezuela prohibits the US from buying staff housing in downtown Caracas, which means long daily commutes. Meanwhile, Venezuela owns extensive properties in Washington's fashionable downtown neighborhoods, a short walk from its Embassy.
* In Qatar, it costs the US $33,000 a year to lease living quarters for a single secretary because the government won't permit the State Department to purchase land to build an apartment house. It's the same in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which own townhouses near Washington's Embassy Row.
* In Chile, the tax on gasoline is 48 cents per gallon. In Malta, it's 25 cents. Yugoslavia charges a 27.5 percent tax on heating oil. US Embassy personnel pay it. In Lisbon, there is a tax on construction materials for a new US embassy. Here, foreign diplomatic personnel are exempt from taxes.
* Also in Chile, according to Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D) of Florida, who is sponsoring the House version of the bill, US personnel have to pay an import tax if they sell a family auto brought with them. And in Venezuela, US officers must drive Venezuelan-made cars. Thus, an American reassigned from Chile to Venezuela ''cannot sell his American car in Chile and cannot import it into Venezuela,'' he complains.
Options for retaliation in the new bill include requiring all foreign missions to direct real estate transactions to the new State Department office, levying surcharges on utility bills commensurate with costs paid by the US overseas and even limiting the issuance of diplomatic license plates. The State Department has already anticipated that some governments might not like the new regimen and try to sue: Section 204 (c)(2) ''provides for a waiver of recourse.''
There appears to be abundant congressional enthusiasm for the legislation's main thrust. But a provision in the House version of the bill that would turn over to the State Department some zoning functions has provoked ''a lot of resentment'' from D.C. officials, says a Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert. ''I think we'll get a lot of support (for the bill) once we get over the zoning hurdle,'' says the committee's chief clerk, David Keanney. He says he expects a compromise to emerge from a Senate-House conference on the bill.
Meanwhile, some State Department officers - all of whom were reluctant to be quoted - already see evidence of a new and friendlier attitude from some foreign governments and trace that directly to the mere threat of retaliation. The East Germans and Bulgarians, one official noted with barely concealed humor, want very much to acquire space in a new diplomatic compound under construction in northwest Washington, where real estate prices are astonomical.
''They are turning into very, very reasonable people,'' the official commented.