In August 1998 terrorists blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing scores of Americans, foreign national employees and civilians. The nation mourned as yet another funereal scene unrolled at Andrews Air Force Base. In the aftermath of the tragedies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi the usual commissions were appointed to ensure that this would never happen again. This week the president and the secretary of state get a second chance to make good on that commitment.

The first panel to investigate the August 1999 bombings was headed by William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one-time ambassador to Great Britain. The panel's report recommended expenditures for overseas security of $1.4 billion per year for 10 years.

But in its FY 2000 budget request, the Clinton administration asked for a sum far less than Adm. Crowe had recommended, and Congress followed the administration's lead. The Office of Management and Budget insisted its hands were tied by the exigencies of the balanced budget. I was the senior State Department official responsible for the security of personnel and buildings during the period 1993-1996, and it was immediately and painfully clear to me after the bombings how many things we ought to have done in prior years that we had left undone because they seemed "too hard."

Experienced observers argue that the State Department has been slow to make use of the security upgrade money it does have. Admittedly the worldwide scope of the challenge is a daunting one for State's heavily layered, risk-averse system. The urgency of the situation cries out for flexible procedures.

The American Foreign Service Association--the Foreign Service's representative bargaining agent--has recently registered its sharp concern to the secretary of state. The association fears that once again the safety of its people will be lost sight of, just as happened following the Beirut bombing. After that disaster, a panel headed by Adm. Bobby Inman recommended stringent standards and billions of dollars for security over many years.

By late 1993, the stringent new Inman security standards were in place, but not the funding to implement them. In a personal sense, my sharpest regret is that I too easily accepted the conventional wisdom that the necessary appropriations were not to be had, either at the OMB level, or from Congress.

Now, more than a year after Dar and Nairobi, there is risk that this pattern of default will repeat itself. Congress still cannot be expected to appropriate more than the administration asks, and OMB asserts that State couldn't spend more if it were appropriated (a convenient but only partial truth). Thus the stage was set for a quiet encounter in the Oval Office. This past Monday Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her appeal to the president over State's FY 2001 budget proposal. Well-informed sources insist that Albright raised the security issue with the president, but they acknowledge that the secretary also had several other items on her wish list, including money for family planning, democracy, Kosovo and the states of the former Soviet Union.

We do not know what priority the secretary gave to security, or what decision the president might make. The difficulty that confronts him, as it did Albright, lies in accepting the legitimacy of a false choice between high-profile policy priorities on the one hand and the safety of their subordinates on the other. We respect, virtually without question, the priority that our uniformed military leaders accord to "force protection." How odd that we do not feel the same about unarmed civilian public servants.

Congress will have an opportunity to measure up to its responsibility in due course. But that opportunity may never present itself if the executive branch pre-positions the decision in the negative. The executive can resolve the cruelly false "policy vs. people" choice in a puff of smoke and flash of mirrors. As recently as this year's monster omnibus appropriations bill the administration acquiesced in countless corporate welfare handouts and scores of local boondoggles. Would it not be acceptable to exercise the same ingenuity in order to safeguard the lives of public servants overseas?

Both the president and the secretary of state were on hand at Andrews Air Force base in 1998 to honor the fallen heroes in flag-draped coffins being returned from Dar and Nairobi. Now is the season for them to recall those images.

The writer is president of the Institute for Public Research at the CNA Corp. and former undersecretary of state for management.