Just inside the main entrance to the State Department building are two black marble plaques inscribed with the names of 155 American diplomats who died while representing their country abroad.
For the first 189 years of American independence 73 names were recorded, most as a result of tropical diseases, natural disasters and shipwrecks. But since 1965, another 82 names have been added, virtually all of them the victims of terrorists’ bombs and bullets.
“There was a day when going into the Foreign Service meant going to a place where life is more pleasant than it is here,” said George S. Vest, the veteran diplomat who serves as director general of the Foreign Service. “Today overseas, you face terrorism and harassment.”
Foreign Policy Suffers
The escalating danger, which has been met by sometimes Draconian security measures that have turned embassies into fortresses and imposed unaccustomed restrictions on the activities of diplomats, has taken a toll on American foreign policy, according to present and former diplomats.
And it is just the most dramatic example in a catalogue of problems that have sapped the spirit of the U.S. Foreign Service and raised troubling questions about the effectiveness of the nation’s diplomats in performing their central mission: reporting on events and trends around the globe.
“Morale is worse now than I can remember,” said Alfred L. Atherton, former ambassador to Egypt and former assistant secretary of state. “The signal has gone out from the (Reagan Administration) that it doesn’t see the Foreign Service as a national asset. (Secretary of State George P.) Shultz has tried to protect the service, but he is crying in the wilderness.”
Compounding the Foreign Service’s woes is a breakdown in recent years of the old national consensus that politics should stop at the water’s edge. More and more, domestic politics is intruding into the day-to-day business of diplomacy.
Moreover, the Foreign Service is caught in a clash between the ancient conventions of an all-male diplomatic corps and the sociology of the late 20th Century, when Foreign Service officers come in both sexes and spouses are often unwilling to become unpaid appendages of the embassy.
And finally, the U.S. diplomatic corps suffers from self-inflicted wounds caused by its complex and frequently misunderstood personnel system, which seems to penalize rather than reward officers who learn difficult languages or accept unglamorous assignments.
Even the severest critics of today’s Foreign Service maintain that the vast majority of the nation’s diplomats are dedicated and capable. The critics aim their complaints at government policies that often put needless obstacles in the path of Washington’s representatives abroad.
In an era of bloated bureaucracies, the professional Foreign Service is astonishingly small. Career Foreign Service officers number only 4,534, slightly more than a quarter of the State Department’s total payroll of 16,248. This cadre, with salaries ranging from $28,000 to $85,000, provides the institutional memory of U.S. foreign policy--the nonpartisan experts who bridge the gaps between Administrations.
At least since John F. Kennedy was in the White House, however, presidents have grumbled that the Foreign Service pursues its own agenda instead of wholeheartedly advancing the policy of the Administration.
When the Reagan Administration took office, it turned the argument on its head by forcing out professional diplomats who it said had followed too closely the policies of the outgoing Administration of President Jimmy Carter. In effect, the new Administration criticized the diplomats for not having tried to thwart what had been the old Administration’s policy.
Henry Precht provides a case in point. As Iran desk officer at the State Department, he achieved a brief moment of glory in 1980 when he responded in undiplomatic fashion to an Iranian embassy official who said that Iran’s government was protecting the hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran from even harsher treatment by their Islamic militant captors.
With a one-word barnyard expletive, Precht seemed to sum up a nation’s frustration and anger.
When the Reagan Administration arrived the next year, however, Precht, who had been on the State Department’s “fast track,” was denied expected promotions because Republican ideologues thought he was too closely associated with the Carter Administration’s failed Iran policy.
“I lost Iran, as they say,” Precht said in a telephone interview. “There was a perception that I was too much a Carter man.”
Precht, now the director of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, said that before he became “a Carter man” he had served in the embassy in Tehran in the early 1970s, managing the steady stream of advanced arms that President Richard M. Nixon’s Administration had sold to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s government.
“It may have been crazy, but it was the policy of Nixon and (Secretary of State Henry A.) Kissinger, and we carried it out faithfully,” he said. “I don’t want to make myself a martyr. I realized that I had become involved politically, but I still think I had something to offer to the Foreign Service. I fault the professional service for not protecting its own.”
Reagan also decreed that at least one deputy assistant secretary of state in each bureau must be a non-career political appointee. In most cases the “political deputies,” as they are known somewhat derisively in the State Department, have been placed in jobs created especially for them. The number of deputy assistant secretaries has ballooned to an all-time high of 46 at a time when tight budgets have forced staff cuts overseas.
Moreover, the ambassador corps around the world has become more political during the Reagan Administration. More than a third of today’s ambassadors have come from outside the professional Foreign Service. That figure was less than a quarter in the final year of the Carter Administration, and the historical average is 30% or less.
Monteagle Sterns, a former ambassador to Greece, said that tension between the Foreign Service and the White House was inevitable in the American system, with politically elected and appointed bosses supervising a corps of career professionals.
“All elected officials like to think in terms of opportunities,” Sterns said. “Presidents want gung-ho, can-do guys like (former White House aide) Ollie North. . . . The Foreign Service is paid to think in terms of risks. . . .”
There can be no doubt that career diplomats, no matter how cautious, face very real risks every day. In the past 15 years five American ambassadors have been assassinated. Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for more than a year. And a car bomb shattered the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 16 Americans.
In response, the U.S. government has closed off many of its chanceries behind high walls and has ordered its diplomats to avoid unnecessary risks. In practice, that often translates into sharply reduced contacts between U.S. diplomats and the citizens of the countries where they are working.
Many diplomats say the precautions have become so strict that they often cause more damage to U.S. foreign policy than does the terrorist threat they are intended to combat.
“We risk getting too much caught up in the security syndrome overseas,” said L. Bruce Laingen, the senior American official held hostage in Tehran from November, 1979, until January, 1981. “We hide out in our chanceries and don’t get out to meet people as much as we should. There is a risk of overspending on security.”
A former ambassador who asked not to be named was even more blunt. The recent emphasis on security, he said, “is not just a case of the tail wagging the dog--it is a case of covering your ass.” Congress and the upper echelons of the State Department, he explained, want to make sure they cannot be held responsible if a terrorist succeeds in attacking a U.S. embassy.
Twenty years ago about 2% of the State Department’s professionals were security specialists; today the figure has grown to 13%.
Many Foreign Service officers recognize the need for the precautions. “It doesn’t raise your spirits when they throw up a new fence around the embassy,” said an American diplomat stationed in the Persian Gulf area, “but it would be irresponsible not to put up that fence.”
He added that the threat of terrorism takes a psychological toll even in embassies that have not been the target of direct attacks.
“I get nervous every time I have to fly from Europe to the Middle East,” he said. “I do worry about my family--what happens to them if the embassy is blown up. I avoid events that have a high concentration of Americans. I don’t go to American parties at all because they are too big a target. I vary my route to work every day; sometimes I walk and sometimes I drive. I look at the car very carefully before I get in.”
Beyond the damage caused by increasing partisanship and growing physical danger, the Foreign Service is reeling from the effects of a new personnel system that was worked out by the State Department and approved by Congress in 1980.
The system is designed to make room for new blood in the department by forcing the retirement of Foreign Service officers after 20 years if they have not qualified for the top three ranks. Most department employees support that objective, but many say the system has created a whole new set of problems.
An aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), perhaps the most severe critic of the State Department on Capitol Hill, said: “If Sen. Helms was as anti-Foreign Service as some at the State Department maintain, he could not have come up with a more brutal personnel system than the one the State Department designed for itself. Once your kids are in college, you get separated from the service.”
The damage goes far beyond the financial security of middle-aged department cast-offs. According to present and former diplomats, the cutthroat competition for the few spots at the top makes officers reluctant to take unglamorous jobs that do not catch the attention of the promotion board. In practice, promotions go to persons with “well-rounded” backgrounds, and that often rules out experts on specific countries or regions.
“One of the prices that is being paid for this system is a reluctance to take on hard languages because they realize that would make them too narrow to get into the senior service,” said Perry Shankle, president of the American Foreign Service Assn, an organization of retired and active Foreign Service employees.
Atherton, one of the nation’s most distinguished retired diplomats, added: “I took a year off to study economics. Today it’s like pulling teeth to get an officer to take a year off for training, because it puts him out of the promotion competition.”
A recently completed study shows that the ability to speak a foreign language is no longer a key to success in the Foreign Service. Of the individuals promoted to the senior ranks of the Foreign Service in 1983 through 1985, only 28% were able to speak Arabic, Chinese, Turkish or any other difficult language. In the same three years, almost 20% of those promoted to the top ranks spoke no foreign language at all. The rest were proficient in French, Spanish or another “soft” language.
The promotion squeeze has become a problem, concedes William I. Bacchus, a senior State Department official concerned with legislation and one of the authors of the Foreign Service personnel law. But it is only one problem, he said.
“My concern,” he said, “is not that we are shoving too many out but that too many people will leave voluntarily in the middle grades because of terrorism or because the pay is too low or because their wives aren’t happy.”
Wives--and husbands--pose a special challenge. Shankle, a veteran diplomat, said his wife, who is not a Foreign Service officer, wanted to work wherever he was posted. “But she would always be at the bottom because she was always starting over,” he said.
Only in the early 1970s did the State Department drop the rule that required one spouse to leave the service if two Foreign Service officers married. The department has been struggling ever since to accommodate two-career families.
One answer was the establishment of “tandem couples"--husband and wife diplomats in the same embassy. The number has increased from 183 in 1980 to 289 last year.
Husbands and wives may work together only in posts that are large enough to provide jobs for both, with neither supervising the other. That causes grumbling among other officers that tandem couples get more than their share of the posh postings in London and Paris.
But Evangeline Monroe, a member of a tandem couple, said one partner must often accept an undesirable assignment so the other can get a top-level job.
“Being a member of a tandem,” she said, “you can’t expect both partners to make the right career move at all times.”