IF THE State Department were a country, you could almost say it had fought a battle for national survival, and lost. Assorted parts of the government have taken their lumps in recent years -- years in which two presidents depicted the federal bureaucracy as an enemy -- but none more than the agency that is supposed to conduct the country's foreign relations. The result is an institutional crisis and, worse, a degree of national self-crippling that is no less certain and menacing for being hard to measure.
The president set the stage by his single-minded emphasis on military power as the basic source of American strength -- and by his readiness to turn to covert operations. Subtly and not so subtly he helped spread the notion that diplomacy is for sissies. New respectability, or at least new currency, was given the conspiratorial right's view that the State Department is the preserve of elitists with their own suspect agenda. Other trends, meanwhile, were legitimizing congressional inroads on the executive branch's foreign policy prerogatives. And the president was creating a budgetary context in which key international expenditures -- for the State Department, the United Nations and its regional offshoots and specialized agencies, the development banks -- were being yielded up to trench warfare.
Last week was a bad week but a predictable one. The Senate approved 86 far-ranging foreign policy amendments, 26 in one hour, in what Sen. John Danforth protested as ''a cacophony of confusion.'' The ranking Republican on Foreign Relations, Jesse Helms, who detests the State Department, led the wrecking crew while Foreign Relations Chairman Claiborne Pell, who has a soft spot for the department, stood by helplessly when he was not joining the mischief. At the same time, it was disclosed that the State Department is drawing up yet another budget-shrinking plan, whose gross dimensions -- a permanent loss of 8 percent of departmental jobs -- scarcely hint at the further deterioration of efficiency, good planning and morale that is likely to result.
A disaster so extensive and systemic is not easily corrected. Moreover, no one in either the administration or Congress is visibly offering the large view requisite to a comprehensive solution. But surely there are a few persons in both places who could at least join to hold the line and keep matters from getting worse -- aren't there?