TO WASHINGTON'S cognoscenti, they are cookie pushers. To the public, they are effete and striped-pants bureaucrats. To their colleagues, they are dedicated, hard-working men and women dangerously poised on the front-lines of U.S. foreign and security policy.

Today, they are a highly professional corps united in their grief over the loss of yet another esteemed colleague. They mourn the tragic death last month of America's envoy to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, who died in the suspicious explosion of President Zia ul-Haq's airplane.

Over the last 40 years, more U.S. ambassadors than generals have been killed in the line of duty. But unlike this country's military, the U.S. Foreign Service is maligned, undercut and underutilized.

It is not surprising that American diplomats -- despite their sufferings as hostages in Iran or their numbers killed in Beirut -- lack a domestic constituency. The State Department does not have big weapons contracts to buy the largesse of industry and labor. Its annual budget is peanuts in this capital of pork barrels -- less than one percent of the almost $300 billion spent on defense.

The work of the Foreign Service at home and abroad -- protecting U.S. international political, economic, consular and security interests -- is little understood or prized. Most Americans are wary of diplomatic entanglements, believing -- like Will Rogers -- that "the United States has never lost a war or won a peace." In a country where only a small minority of students study foreign languages or can locate Brazil on a map, there is little respect for the skills and experience of this nation's foreign-affairs professionals.

There is no massive cadre of diplomatic veterans -- despite the increasing danger of their calling -- who can lobby and curry congressional favor. Just the opposite. There is a deliberate and malicious effort by certain congressmen -- led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) -- to make life as difficult as possible for America's overseas emissaries. As a result, Congress has passed one onerous piece of legislation after another -- undercutting basic allowances for housing, children's schooling and health care and mandating unprecedented involuntary retirement of an estimated one third of the service's top thousand officers. Helms recently saw to it that Foreign Service officers' exclusion from District of Columbia income taxes was eliminated even though all other presidential appointees receive it.

Ambassadorial appointments of U.S. career diplomats are regularly held up -- pawns in the narrow political games and peeves of one or two senators. In mid-1985, Helms froze 29 ambassadorial and high-level State appointments to try and force his own ideological henchmen into emissary jobs.

The Congressional Record is filled with Helms' statements impugning the patriotism, competence and integrity of career officers for carrying out the foreign policies of this nation's duly elected political leaders. Ambassador Rozanne Ridgway was defamed by him during her confirmation for State's top position dealing with Soviet and European affairs. He accused Ridgway, while U.S. envoy to East Germany, of trying to sell out a family seeking political asylum and then of dissembling about her role to the Senate. Ridgway was exonerated; she was not even in the country when the incident took place.

It is uncomfortably reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's vilification of the State Department's "China Hands" in the 1950s. And like those wrongly accused of "losing" China to the Communists, tradition dictates that Foreign Service officers suffer these humiliations in stoical silence -- even when the accusations are absurd and groundless.

A survey to test this nation's awareness of its diplomatic corps once showed that most Americans erroneously believe that only foreigners are "diplomats." To the majority of people, the "Department of State" refers to the government of places like Maryland and New Jersey. There was even less public recognition of the phrase "Foreign Service." Many mistook it for the caretakers of our country's trees -- the "U.S. Forest Service."

In light of such widespread ignorance, it is not surprising that the Foreign Service has suffered under the ill-informed attacks of Congress and bureaucratic budget-cutters. It also comes as no shock that there is negligible support to lessen the historically high number of unqualified political appointees. Under President Reagan, close to 40 percent of ambassadorial appointments were political (versus 24 percent at the end of the Carter administration). Other nations, such as Great Britain, shudder at the practice of using political hacks rather than professional diplomats to represent U.S. interests abroad.

Ambassador Raphel's death underscores the fact that there is no such thing as a safe place for a U.S. diplomat. Building expensive, bunker-like embassies -- one of the few supportive Foreign Service measures Congress is amenable to authorize -- will do little to guard our people. Yet Congress wants to reduce hazardous-duty pay and other incentives which, in a very small way, try to compensate Foreign Service officers living in high-risk posts.

Americans are neglecting dedicated men and women who suffer serious medical problems, poor schools for their children, lack of career opportunities for their spouses and the hardship and dislocation of constant moves to foreign countries to serve their nation.

America is safer, stronger, more productive and a more intelligent force for good because of those striped-pants envoys. U.S diplomats deserve the public's support. It is time for the country to give it.

Julia Moore, a former Foreign Service officer and Rusk fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, is vice president of a conservation group.