More than nuclear missles, this country's first line of defense is its foreign policy. For this we need a robust State Department to implement a robust foreign policy.
But the State Department has been allowed to sink into malnourishment. For years, it has not had the resources, in either money or people, to do the reporting and conduct the diplomacy that are properly expected of it.
Other agencies, most prominently Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, have tried to fill the gap. They have money that State does not. They can do things (travel, entertainment of foreigners) that State cannot. The CIA has sometimes paid for routine expenditures that State would otherwise have done. One example is how the CIA has occasionally subsidized the participation in international conferences of impoverished African countries.
Many other agencies are now stirring the foreign policy broth. Fifteen to 20 are commonly represented in larger embassies; 21 congressional committees have some claim to jurisdiction over legislation affecting foreign policy. The bureaus of the State Department itself have so proliferated that the departmental officers reporting to the secretary will not all fit in his conference room. Ambassadors have become more coordinators than diplomats. The secretary of State is more a coordinator than a policymaker.
Major forces behind the proliferation of other agencies abroad and assistant secretaries at home are Congress and domestic interest groups active on issues such as agriculture, business, labor, and the environment.
This is not likely to change until State acquires the political clout of competing domestic groups, a daunting task. Short of this, the department could help itself enormously by improving its image on Capitol Hill. Institutionally, it does not know how to do this. It is foreign-oriented and tends to deal with Congress as it would a foreign power.
Congress and the State Department don't really understand each other. Each frequently exasperates the other. Congress does not provide the resources State needs to do its job because State is not popular and State's is one budget that can be cut without offending constituents. The result is that State's infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate almost to a third-world level.
Its communication systems are years, perhaps decades, out of date. Many of its buildings are security hazards; some are physical hazards, too.
The groundwork for much diplomacy is laid through entertaining foreigners, something most American embassies cannot afford on the scale desirable. The recruitment and retention rates for Foreign Service officers are low. It's a vicious circle that will not be broken until the Foreign Service is given the same resources that military and intelligence agencies in the same embassies are given.
All of these things and more have been pointed out time after time. Now yet another report raises a slim hope that perhaps, maybe, something will be done. The report, from a prestigious independent task force, comes at the start of a new administration. The task force, a joint effort by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was headed by Frank Carlucci, who has been secretary of defense, national security adviser, and an ambassador.
Its members included Lee H. Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Carla A. Hills, former US trade representative; and a number of other former members of Congress, ambassadors, and assistant secretaries of State.
In Colin Powell's first appointment on his first day as secretary of State, he spent an hour with the task force. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, backed up by White House chief of staff Andrew Card, has said the Bush National Security Council staff will be smaller and less conspicuous than in the past.
This in itself is of high significance. One of the things that most damaged the State Department was the growth of the NSC staff in size and influence under Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration.
For best results, President Bush should join the campaign to boost State's resources.
At a minimum, Secretary Powell, Ms. Rice, and Mr. Carlucci need to apply a full-court press to secure congressional approval of a resources-for-reform agreement: If the State Department will streamline itself, then Congress should provide additional resources to the department.
The stars will not be in such a favorable alignment again soon.
Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society