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New Secretary Faces Reforming Under-Resourced State Department

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Sen. Hillary Clinton responded to rumors that she is being considered a possible candidate for secretary of state. Video by AP

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

The next secretary of state not only will face the challenge of repairing the nation's tattered image and grappling with an array of global crises and hot spots, but also must solve a problem closer to home: reforming an under-resourced State Department to handle its growing duties, such as rebuilding war-torn societies, coping with worldwide pandemics and working with other countries to curb global warming.

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"In the last eight years, we have significantly reinvented and transformed every national security agency except the Department of State," said Philip D. Zelikow, who served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Our core Foreign Service officers and aid officers are not large enough to play the role that's been cast for them, nor do we have the training establishment to prepare them for their roles."

Speculation swirled yesterday that President-elect Barack Obama might be ready to offer the secretary of state post to an instantly recognizable star, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). But other contenders apparently remain in the mix, including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; and retiring GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.). And after watching a administration whose tenure was marked by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world appears ready for the nation's new top diplomat -- whomever it may be -- to lead the reinvigorated diplomacy Obama has pledged to deliver.

"The next president and the next secretary come into office at a time when our economy is in recession, our military is tied down and our reputation is tarnished," said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Diplomatic tools are arguably the one set of instruments that are available. It's a natural moment for American diplomacy."

But the past two years have brought a flurry of testimony and reports questioning the capacity of the U.S. government to carry out its foreign policy. They cite the relative underfunding of State Department personnel, especially compared with the resources that have poured into the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They have criticized State's efforts to convey a positive U.S. image abroad. And they have questioned the training and readiness of the Foreign Service to carry out functions beyond traditional diplomacy, such as advising Third World governments on training police officers, setting up judicial systems and holding fair and free elections.

The secretary of state "lacks the tools -- people, competencies, authorities, program and funding -- to execute the President's foreign policies," according to a report last month from the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Henry L. Stimson Center.

"Today, significant portions of the nation's foreign affairs business simply are not accomplished," the study concluded. "The work migrates by default to the military that does have the necessary people and funding but neither sufficient experience nor knowledge."

Senior Bush administration officials have recognized the problem. In a widely noted speech last summer, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke of the need to reinvigorate civilian agencies responsible for diplomacy and international development, arguing that the military has borne too much of the burden of "nation-building" around the world.

Rice has also stressed the need for "transformational diplomacy," referring to her desire to see U.S. diplomats play a greater role in fostering democratic states around the world. To that end, she has moved to transfer diplomats from sought-after posts in Europe to more challenging assignments in Asia and the Middle East. She has also sought to bring more cohesion to the fragmented U.S. foreign aid budget.

But many officials at State think her efforts have not gone far enough or have not received adequate funding, therefore leaving the problem to her successor. "She talked a good game, but she didn't bring in the resources," said F. Allen "Tex" Harris, a retired Foreign Service officer who was long active in the association that represents U.S. diplomats. "Right now, the State Department is over 1,000 jobs short."

During his campaign, Obama spoke repeatedly of his desire to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy, perhaps best symbolized by his willingness to sit down with the leaders of rogue states shunned by the Bush administration. He has also signaled an interest in reviving public diplomacy efforts, and has spoken of doubling U.S. foreign aid to help strengthen financial systems overseas and develop fair and accountable law enforcement.

But the extent to which Obama can move this agenda forward is far from clear, especially given new budgetary constraints and the array of foreign crises that will inevitably demand the secretary of state's time and efforts. Many secretaries of state have preferred to run foreign policy "from the seventh floor" of the Harry S. Truman Building -- where the secretary and his or her top aides have their offices -- rather than delving into nuts-and-bolts institutional issues.

"The United States has suffered over the last eight years a series of blows to its reputation and a series of blows to its position in the world, and the new secretary of state is going to have to come back and do just the kind of rebuilding that the Treasury secretary is going to have to do" with the international financial system, said David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who worked at senior levels in the Clinton administration.

James Dobbins, a former ambassador and an expert on nation-building at the Rand Corp., said the Obama administration, while understandably focused on broad international challenges, must also restore "confidence that the State Department is effective in implementing policy as well as setting it."

"There's been a lot of churning in Washington, a lot of studies, a general consensus that the current structures have not worked well," Dobbins said. "This is not going to be at the absolute top of the agenda, but there is enough of a consensus that things are not working well, that it will eventually get to the top of the agenda."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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