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Unfair Brickbats for the Foreign Service

THE Foreign Service of the United States, that corps of federal officials that provides staff to US embassies and to parts of the State Department, is undergoing severe criticism. The latest example is an article in Newsweek of Oct. 30 that compiles a catalog of the corps's shortcomings based on the suspected espionage of Foreign Service officer Felix Bloch, the exclusionary style of Secretary of State James Baker, the questionable ambassadorial appointments of the Bush administration, and such past attacks on the service as those by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and President John F. Kennedy.

The enumerated faults include being unimaginative in recommendations on policy, irrelevant to the decision process, timid, ignorant of American politics, prone to favor foreign positions over American, and obsessed with careerism.

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To the extent that caution is a traditional companion of diplomacy and that Foreign Service officers are paid to observe other countries, this list has a basis in fact. Beyond that the criticisms reflect a serious lack of understanding, by many critics, of the purpose and functions of the Foreign Service. The corps of personnel is organized to report on the political and economic circumstances in foreign countries essential to policymaking, to protect US citizens abroad, to administer the visa functions, and to support other US agencies overseas. In the State Department, Foreign Service officers provide to the geographic and functional bureaus the international perspectives essential to their work.

The work today is complicated by terrorism concerns and by expensive and often difficult living conditions abroad. Added problems are those arising from America's social revolution: the dilemmas presented by two-career families and the class-action suits against personnel practices brought by women and minorities.

The Foreign Service is not intended as a policymaking branch of the government. Its personnel, usually at the deputy assistant secretary level, work face to face with the political appointees of an administration who are responsible for policy. A few Foreign Service officers show special talent for this political interface and rise to policymaking positions.

The critics of the Foreign Service represent several perspectives. Brilliant and often impatient younger men and women, for whom the career failed to satisfy a desire for a quick progression to influence, regard the organization as unimaginative and bureaucratic. The charge of ``clientitis,'' paying more attention to foreign than to US interests, often comes from appointees in administrations who are not happy with assessments they receive from embassies abroad that run counter to policy assumptions; they blame the messenger rather than the message. Suggestions of unreliability originate with those who look with suspicion on officials who have served other administrations in the implementation of controversial policies.

Even less justified are the accusations of those who use the Bloch case to suggest a basic strain of disloyalty to the nation. In contrast to the numerous cases of espionage in the military, one must go back to the controversial Alger Hiss case of the 1940s to find a similar case involving the State Department. And worst of all are those repetitions of clich'es, such as the Oct. 19 reference in the Washington Times to ``its stuffy image as an elite club of sherry-sipping aristocrats in striped pants.'' Such references are not only superficial; they do a disservice to those men and women who are carrying out a national endeavor, often at great risk.

The Foreign Service is a lonely branch of the nation's government. It has no natural domestic constituency; few will stand up for it in the Congress. The important functions of consular and visa services and administration breed more complaints than praise. The concept of a professional service prepared to apply its expertise impartially to administrations regardless of party is not well established in the American political culture.

The US Foreign Service is not unique among diplomatic establishments in major democracies in its negative image and lack of recognition. But the frequency and depth of the denigration and suspicion directed against the US service seem more severe and unfair. Critics cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, question the loyalty of the service when its members work actively on behalf of a policy and, on the other, condemn them for a general lack of initiative. Neither can the nation have it both ways, perpetuating the denigration of its Foreign Service while at the same time expecting proud and effective US representation abroad.

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