Hearing highlights need for Foreign Service training, lack of congressional interest

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:30 PM

At a time when some North African and Middle East states are in chaos and America is posting large numbers of civilians in war zones, the United States is sending Foreign Service officers abroad poorly equipped to deal with the critical situations they face.

That's the takeaway of a report by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center, which was discussed at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

"There is little question that under-investment in diplomacy over the last decade or so has left our Foreign Service overstretched and under prepared," the report says.

Yet, despite the gravity of the situation, the hearing had a distinct lack of urgency. The poor attendance by senators was indicative of scant attention too often provided issues involving federal employees - except, of course, when they can be convenient whipping boys.

Former ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, president of the academy, supplied a shot of energy when he told the hearing that "our government lacks sufficient trained Arabic-language-speaking officers to fully understand and assess what is happening - to go beyond the glib, English-speaking reporters in Tahrir Square to take the full measure of what Islamists, younger people, the demonstrators and the jobless are saying off camera."

"We lack these capacities because for years the Department of State has lacked the resources to train enough officers in language skills," he said.

Although the hearing focused on Foreign Service officers, training is a universal issue in the federal workplace and often among the first items to be cut. For State Department workers - and the nation - it's also a matter of national security.

In a forward to the report, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, said the study "emphasizes that on-the-job training alone is no longer a sufficient method, if it ever was, to develop a US diplomatic service that is second to none."

The Senate federal workforce subcommittee hearing was chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). He was alone on the dais, except for a brief appearance by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), was a no-show because, he said, he attended a Budget Committee hearing.

Coburn arrived a half-hour late, told witnesses to expect even less money for staffing and training, and was gone in about eight minutes. He asked no questions.

It was a far cry from the days when Akaka and former senator George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) operated as a team. Voinovich, who was the ranking Republican on the panel when he retired in January, was deeply involved in the subcommittee. He and Akaka often worked closely on legislation affecting federal employees.

Akaka doesn't have that kind of a partner now.

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