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America's Other Army


AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service

Diplomats fight their stuffed-white-shirt image

By Nicholas Kralev

George Herbert Walker III, a Missouri businessman who headed a financial-services company for 14 years, wanted to serve his country overseas.

So in early 2002, he turned for advice to his first cousin, George H. W. Bush, the current president's father.

"He thought it would be a good idea," Mr. Walker recalled recently. "He didn't want to tell his son what to do, but told me to write the president a letter. I didn't name a country, but there are many countries we have a fragile relationship with."

Today, Mr. Walker, who is in his early 70s, is the ambassador to Hungary --- a NATO ally and supporter of Bush administration policies with several hundred troops in Iraq.

Like many political appointees, he was immediately struck upon taking up his posting in October with the stark contrast between modern diplomacy and the lingering image of the Foreign Service as a collection of stuffy white males in striped pants.

But it is not the image that disturbs American diplomats so much as the misperceptions that come with it.

"There is often a lack of public understanding of what we do and incredible willingness on the part of many people to believe some of the myths about the Foreign Service - that it's a less-loyal organization than others - which I find astonishing," said Evans Revere, a senior officer and director of the Japan desk at the State Department.

Foreign Service members say the fact that their work takes place abroad leaves them without a political constituency in Washington to defend their interests.

They have often heard the criticism that they get too close to their host countries and are out of touch with the interagency process in Washington.

In response, they cite the "challenges" of working with some policy-makers from other government agencies, as well as in Congress, whose members consider themselves foreign-policy experts on the basis of long-distance exchanges or brief visits to foreign countries.

Foreign Service professionals are also wary of "political" ambassadors with no experience in diplomacy, although they acknowledge that most of them have more clout and better access to the White House than many career ambassadors.

Mr. Walker certainly has the access, and those who know him say that he effectively represents the United States as a whole, not just the Bush administration.

"I told the people here that I knew they didn't like political ambassadors, but I'll work very hard to gain their trust and respect," Mr. Walker said.

'Wits and bare hands'

As the largest diplomatic corps in the world, the U.S. Foreign Service is engaged in virtually every corner of the planet, and its work touches millions of lives every day.

Not only do its officers deal with news-making crises and participate in high-level negotiations, but they also quietly help nations train their police, improve their educational system and develop a free press. In interviews with more than 260 Foreign Service officers at about 30 embassies and consulates on five continents, most reported great satisfaction with their work and said they feel that their efforts are generally valued abroad.

But they said this is hardly the case in their own country, where they feel underappreciated. While acknowledging that the respect enjoyed by the U.S. military is well deserved, several said the sacrifices made by Foreign Service members for their country should not be ignored.

"When soldiers do their job, generally they are armed. We have our wits and bare hands," said a Foreign Service officer who has served in South Asia and other hardship posts. She said her colleagues risked their lives every day just by going to work in buildings that could be blown up at any time.

David Welch, the ambassador to Egypt and a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, said he senses a "disdain" for diplomacy among many in the United States - and particularly some Washington pundits.

"If you asked people, they would probably tell you that we are not the toughest and most resolute in defending our interests," he said. "But 'diplomacy' is not a bad word - it means exercise of American power by other means."

Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration and a one-time Capitol Hill staffer, said there has always been a chasm between the Foreign Service and Congress.

"The State Department is viewed as a foreign country on the Hill - I can assure you of that, having been on both sides," said Mrs. Albright, who worked for Edmund S. Muskie, the late Democratic senator from Maine, in the 1970s.

But Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the interest in foreign policy since the September 11 attacks had generated new respect for diplomats among congressmen.

"There are occasionally people whose district or ideology is such that they think the United Nations is a complete waste of time and diplomats are striped-pants cookie-pushers," he said in an interview. But overall, "I don't find that spirit in Congress - on either side."

Foreign disservice?

Every interviewed Foreign Service officer expressed outrage with accusations by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who last year said that the State Department is "out of sync" with President Bush's "views and objectives" and is deliberately undermining his foreign policy.

"We can no longer accept a culture that props up dictators, coddles the corrupt and ignores secret police forces," Mr. Gingrich wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. A sidebar to his article was entitled "Foreign Disservice."

Apart from their emotional reaction to those charges, both career diplomats and political appointees said the notion of an entire government agency working against the president's policies is not realistic.

"That's so patronizing," said a senior official in a previous Republican administration. "That's such an insult to the president. He is not going to sit there and let the State Department undermine his agenda."

Most Foreign Service officers said they entered the service because they wanted to serve their country. "Our job is to promote, protect and defend America's interests and provide services to American citizens - and that's what we do," said an officer in London.

In interviews, half a dozen political ambassadors appointed by Mr. Bush, more than a dozen other political appointees in the current and former administrations and five secretaries of state backed their career colleagues.

"I disagree with Gingrich emphatically," said Howard Baker, the ambassador to Japan, who is a former Republican senator and White House chief of staff under President Reagan. "I think the Foreign Service is loyal and dedicated and serves the president well."

Mr. Walker said the Foreign Service officers who work for him at the embassy in Budapest are "team players" and "very serious" about their jobs. "Everything I've asked for all of a sudden has appeared --- it's amazing," he said.

Realizing that Mr. Gingrich is by no means alone in his criticism of the Foreign Service, many officers said such opinions often reflect a misunderstanding of what they do.

As representatives of the United States in a foreign country, they said, they are responsible not only for making American views known to that country, but also for ensuring that the U.S. administration knows and understands the views of their host government.

When they give Washington recommendations, they noted, they follow their own judgment in terms of what best serves U.S. interests.

"One of our jobs is to provide policy advice, and sometimes good policy advice is something someone doesn't really want to hear," Mr. Revere said. "But once a decision is made, the Foreign Service swings into action very loyally."

That rule is valid no matter who is in the White House, the officers said, though several admitted there was more friction than usual in the run-up to the Iraq war.

"Let's be honest," a senior Foreign Service officer said. "On issues like the Iraq war, when almost every government around the world said, 'You should work harder on consultation, cooperation and having a bigger U.N. role,' it's not what people [in Washington] wanted to hear."

The State Department maintains a "dissent channel" through which Foreign Service officers can express dissenting views directly to the secretary and other top officials without the knowledge of their immediate superiors, but officials said it gets very little use.

Changing masters

Most of those interviewed said they are quite comfortable working for different administrations, even though they do not always agree with their views.

"You signed up to represent the United States, not yourself. Even if you don't like the policy, you still carry it out," said Stephen McFarland, deputy chief of mission in Caracas, Venezuela. "But you owe it to yourself and the Foreign Service to make your views known and to express them in the right way."

Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking job at the State Department, said he has been able to reconcile his personal beliefs with various policies he has had to implement during his 28 years in the Foreign Service.

"I've never come to the point where I had such a moral issue with anything we were doing or felt that I hadn't had my say," said Mr. Grossman, who also held senior positions during Mrs. Albright's tenure.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, has been in the job since Mrs. Albright's last year in office. He said speaking for different administrations is "not so hard" because "there are certain common national interests we all pursue."

"My fundamental belief is that the people who are elected get to decide our nation's policies, and they need from us in the Foreign Service the best advice, tools and execution," he said. "But they don't need us to substitute for people who were elected."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said most Foreign Service officers feel the way Mr. Boucher does, but there are a few who are not as "dedicated as I would like" them to be.

He said that Jack Pritchard, the State Department's former special envoy for talks with North Korea who resigned in the summer over the administration's refusal to talk directly to the North, "is an example in point."

"Jack was here for a couple of years," Mr. Powell said in an interview. "He was an expert in these matters, and he thought we ought to be moving in another direction, and I said, 'No, the president wants us to do it this way.' And he left, and now he's writing long, tortured articles about how we are doing it wrong.

"Fine - you do it on the outside. But if you are in here, do it our way."

Out-of-State experience

In an effort to address the criticism that Foreign Service officers are out of touch with the rest of the federal government, Mr. Powell has encouraged them to take occasional assignments in other government agencies, such as the National Security Council, the Pentagon or even Congress.

Many officers agree with the secretary that experience outside the State Department will improve their understanding of how Washington works and will make them better equipped to provide useful advice to senior policy-makers.

But they also say Washington insiders should realize that watching CNN and making brief trips abroad does not provide sufficient understanding of how other countries work.

"Frequently, Washington has a tough time getting beyond the Beltway, in the sense that they think they know how a country will react to whatever it is they want us to say," an officer in Europe said. "That is not always a correct perception. Getting them to give the constituent post enough authority and flexibility to take an approach that would work there is not always easy."

Mr. Hyde agreed that the input of the Foreign Service should be encouraged, because "when you make foreign policy, you need people who can interface with the other countries in the world."

But he said that sometimes policy-makers have the right to question a diplomat's instincts.

"People trained as diplomats always think that things can be negotiated, and usually they are right - but not everything," Mr. Hyde said.

"They want to keep relationships with foreign governments serene. They have to be reminded who they work for and what their mission is, although the right kind of people don't need too much reminding."

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