Can Powell revive demoralized diplomats?

He inherits a State Department burdened by bureaucracy and a personnel shortage.

Two years ago, Theodore Strickler became convinced something was seriously wrong with the US State Department.

A deputy assistant secretary in charge of missions abroad, Mr. Strickler was increasingly frustrated with a rule requiring officials to use legal-size paper when sending diplomatic notes to embassies.

Standard 8.5" x 11" paper made much more sense, everyone seemed to agree. So Strickler, carefully following proper State Department protocol, wrote a "decision memorandum" suggesting that a simple change be made. Then he waited for an answer. And waited. And waited.

Finally, this winter, the State Department switched to standard-size paper. It was a small victory for Strickler - against a labyrinth of numbing bureaucracies and outdated methods that have become emblematic of the State Department.

That is the department that Colin Powell inherits as the new secretary of State - the vast foreign policy arm of the US government, which has by and large been effective, yet which seems to be rusting from the inside out.

"If we can't do something as silly as [changing paper sizes], how can we deal with the really tough issues?" Strickler asks.

Although Secretary Powell is still acclimating himself to a new job - he doesn't even have a full staff in place - he seems intent on making major reforms.

Already he has breathed new life into the hulking marble building in Foggy Bottom, giving at least a quick morale lift to a dispirited diplomatic corps.

He has promised to get more money for the department, take on a more managerial role, and establish a stronger presence on Capitol Hill - by setting up a State Department liaison office.

"I want to try to make things move faster, cut through things more quickly," Powell said in a recent address to State employees.

How much he can accomplish, however, remains to be seen. Powell is wrestling a different beast than he may be familiar with from his days at the Pentagon. Diplomats are not soldiers. And getting money for the State Department is infinitely more difficult. The Department of State, simply, has no constituents.

The State Department's shortcomings are myriad, analysts say, ranging from security to personnel to outdated equipment.

One of the most serious weaknesses has been embassy security, a problem exploited in the 1998 terrorist bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people.

Critics say the department has been on a downward slide for some 50 years and has not adjusted to the end of the cold war. By some estimates, 92 percent of overseas posts have obsolete classified networks that are not compatible with the rest of the government.

"The Department of State suffers from institutional dysfunction, antiquated equipment, and dilapidated and insecure facilities," says a recent report by an independent task force organized by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Failure to address these shortcomings will prompt significant negative consequences for the national interest and thereby will undercut our national security."

To begin with, experts say the department needs far more money than its current $22.1 billion budget, which includes foreign operations and aid. Of that, about $4.6 billion goes to the administration of foreign affairs account, which includes personnel, buildings, travel, security, and communications.

According to Marshall Adair, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the budget needs to be doubled to meet today's standards.

"For too long we have accepted that we can get away with spending 1 percent of our national budget on foreign affairs," Mr. Adair says. "That is hurting us now and it will hurt us more in the future."

Adair and others have proposed a "resources-for-reform" program, in which the department would get money if it could show Congress it was making significant reforms.

The previous secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, also asked for more money, but by and large was ignored by the White House.

State Department officials hope that Powell, a man who commands great respect in the Bush administration, will be able to use his influence to do a better job of boosting the budget. He is also thought to be more concerned about managing the department than his predecessor.

That, in part, has led to better spirits at State where many workers have been dissatisfied with their jobs. Overall there is a workforce shortage of about 700 foreign service officers, and as a result, higher-level officials sometimes get bogged down with administrative tasks, critics say. A petition by Strickler calling for reform recently garnered more than 1,600 signatures.

With Powell at the helm, however, "there is a good feeling that things will get better around here," says one official. "Almost anything would be an improvement."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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