More recently, we spent ten days in a medium-sized American embassy, talking with the employees, looking in on the mechanics of American diplomacy. We still envy our friend his adventures, but we now fully understand his reluctance to talk about his work. The international intrigue, the classified cables, the ringside seat at the unfolding of great events-this is the glamorous image of diplomacy, an image carefully nurtured by generations of State Department officials. Close up, the picture is very different; our experience suggests that on an overseas tour of duty the typical diplomat lives a life largely consumed by make-work, devoid of genuine responsibility and contributing little to the advancement of America’s interests abroad.
The embassy we visited was the. United States mission at Rabat, Morocco. Rabat looked like a good place to come face to face with our foreign affairs bureaucracy in action under relatively favorable conditions. Morocco and the United States are old diplomatic acquaintances, with relations dating back to George Washington. Situated on the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco has more than middling significance in the politics of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The government of King Hassan is friendly to the United States, and relatively open and easy to deal with, although relations are complicated by the king’s controversial war against Algerian backed guerrillas for control of the former Spanish Sahara to the southwest.
For a foreign service officer, Morocco is a lucky assignment. Rabat has a California climate, pleasant beaches, tree-shaded streets, most of the Western amenities, and easy access to Morocco’s exotic cultural heritage. Ten newspapers are available-mostly bad, but diversely bad. Casablanca, the commercial capital, is as pleasant as Rabat and more lively. “This is easy. This is paradise. Tourists come here,” a junior officer told us.
So while there is probably no such thing as a truly typical American embassy, Morocco was probably as good a window on the Foreign Service as any. If there were problems, they could not be blamed on a harsh environment or a hostile government; they were likely to be symptomatic of the system itself.
It was during our stay in Rabat that we ran across an article in The International Herald Tribune reporting that President Carter had sent a team from the Office of Management and Budget and the State Department to study the possibility of cutting back the American presence overseas. The President’s interest had been stirred by the reports of two retiring ambassadors, Hermann Eilts (Egypt) and Marvin Warner (Switzerland), who told the President that the Foreign Service was bloated and inefficient.
“When I asked them on retirement, ‘What is your major suggestion for improvement?”‘ Carter recalled, “they both said, ‘We have entirely too many people in the foreign embassies of our country…. We could do a much better job with half as many people.”‘
Eilts had special reason for his distress. As America rushed to embrace its new friend, Anwar Sadat, his outpost had ballooned from a six person “interest section,” occupying space in the Spanish embassy in Cairo, into a sprawling conglomerate of 169 Americans representing half a dozen departments of the U.S. government. (His successor, Roy Atherton, interviewed after his first few weeks on the job, complained that “this place is filled up with State Department straphangers.”)
What happened suddenly in Egypt has happened-if less dramatically throughout the Foreign Service. Morocco is no exception. The embassy in Rabat and its two branches in Casablanca and Tangier now house 138 American and 190 Moroccan employees. This figure does not include a number of people not counted as regular employees on the embassy payroll: a few dozen people on short-term contracts, a Voice of America relay station in Tangier that employs more than 100 persons, a four-man regional security team housed in Casablanca, and 138 Peace Corps volunteers.
Of this force, only 29 people are Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), members of the elite corps that performs the traditional functions most people think of when they think of embassies. The FSOs include the ambassador and his deputy, the political officers who study trends in Moroccan politics and communicate with the Moroccan government, economic officers who study the local economy, and the consular officers who handle visa applications and look after the interests of Americans overseas.
A large delegation belongs to the independent Agency for International Development (AID), which employs 39 Americans and 19 Moroccans on a variety of foreign aid projects. Don’t get the idea that these people are out supervising grain deliveries, training farmers, surveying irrigation ditches, and generally making themselves conspicuous as representatives of American largesse. Almost all of them hold desk jobs in Rabat; they are “program officers” and “project de-signers.” The actual work is carried out by the Moroccan government or by subcontractors such as Catholic Relief Services.
Not surprisingly, we found that the AID people had a particularly tough time explaining what they do all day. One of the agency’s top officials finally put things into perspective for us.
“We could run with 25-to 50-percent fewer people if we were a private business,” he said. “Our problem is the great amount of time we spend justifying ourselves. It’s a bureaucratic process. We make our case and plan new projects for our audience-the agency in Washington. They, in turn, make the case to Congress.
“Not too long ago,” he continued, “AID in Morocco started out promoting a project in range management. By the time the American and Moroccan bureaucracies had negotiated the details, and a proposal had been sent to Washington, and changes had been sent back, and the project had been renegotiated and re-reviewed, and a contract had been worked out with an American university to do the work, and documentation had been sent to Congress and money appropriated, two-and-a-half years had elapsed since the original idea. In that time, details change, of course. And we have a law saying that each change must be sent to Congress to lie there for three weeks.
“It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive, and, in the final analysis, not of much use. The congressman from upstate New York has no way of knowing whether we need three technicians or four. It doesn’t lead to better control.”
It does, however, contribute to AID’s reputation as a singularly sluggish bureaucratic dinosaur. We ran into an AID officer with past service in Morocco who recalled an instance when the Moroccan government asked AID not to contribute to an irrigation project “because they felt AID would hold things up.”
Another six Americans and 29 Moroccans work for the International Communication Agency (ICA)-formerly the U.S. Information Agencythe cultural and propaganda arm of the embassy. They answer press inquiries (infrequent in Morocco), pump out State Department briefing transcripts and clippings from the American press, and run a small library in Rabat. On the cultural front, one of their accomplishments is to feed tapes of American pop music to the hungry Moroccan radio station. An ICA official conceded that this is at best superfluous in a country where John Travolta is already the leading heartthrob. . . “but it’s so easy.” (To its credit, ICA is the only foreign service section that has actually spun off some of its responsibilities-in Rabat, English language training classes and an American bookstore started up by ICA are now self-sufficient.)
The military has two contingents in the embassy. A brass-heavy defense attache’s office has high-ranking representation from the Navy, Army, and Air Force to “interface” with the Moroccan military, arrange sewage hookups for the visiting American warships, and give the embassy’s political officers a “military perspective” on developments in the country. They do not appear to be overworked, but they are augmented by a separate military assistance group-designated the “Moroccan-United States Liaison Office” because of Moroccan sensitivity about American aid-whose mission is to help upgrade and fortify the Moroccan armed services, especially along the nervous border with Algeria. In theory, they keep their skirts clear of involvement with King Hassan’s Saharan war, but in practice, of course, there is almost no way to divorce American aid from that adventure.
The Department of Agriculture has two men and a secretary in Rabat, charged with preparing periodic reports on North African commodities and generally looking out for the interests of American farmers. The Department of Commerce, while not directly represented, speaks through a commercial officer who says he promotes American trade. The Drug Enforcement Administration is also on the scene, represented by an attache and a secretary. And hidden somewhere in this potpourri of officials are the representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency.
All of these sections are dwarfed by the one called “administrative.” Inside the walls of the Rabat embassy are 279 people on the American payroll; 95 of them are there solely to drive cars, fix the toilets, hand out paychecks and provide security for the other 184. It takes seven Foreign Service officers to supervise this effort-more than are employed in the prestigious political section. One young officer we met had recently completed his first assignment in Abu Dhabi, analyzing oil production policies. In Rabat, his expertise se was more urgently needed as a junior administrative officer. “It’s a little depressing,” he sighed, “to think that I may not get another assignment as good as Abu Dhabi for another ten years.”
The demand for administrators reflects a basic fact of embassy life: One reason our embassies in places like Rabat are so large is that they create so much of their own work. For example, administrative chief John Garon was late for an interview with us because he had spent four hours of his workday attending a board meeting of the private American school in Rabat, where most embassy people send their children. Garon’s wife is on the payroll part-time, as an “Embassy Liaison Officer,” a post newly created to help new embassy employees from the states adjust to the inconveniences of life overseas. And the day we interviewed the acting head of the embassy, Peter Moffat, he had been called upon to solve the urgent problem of children making noise when they use the embassy’s swimming pool.
A more significant example of the embassy’s self-generated workload is the amount of official time that Rabat-and, we were assured, the entire Foreign Service devotes to debating The Spouse Question. How do you keep the wife or husband of an FSO from feeling bored and frustrated overseas? It’s a legitimate issue, but not what one instinctively thinks of as a major task of diplomacy.
Whenever the plumbing is working and the spouses are mollified, the diplomats have time to pursue the inter-agency rivalries within the American community. Overseas, as in Washington, officials instinctively devote their primary loyalty to the particular agency that employs them, rather than to any vague notion of overriding American interests. A pathetic example: When we asked an ICA official in Casablanca why he doesn’t charge rent to a private language school that uses his building for classes, he asked what would be the point. ICA couldn’t keep the money, after all; it would have to go to that alien organization, the United States Treasury.
So the Americans who work for the State Department in our embassies spend part of their time attempting to influence the Americans who work for the “independent” AID, ICA, or CIA, and vice versa. Wars between these agencies may start in Washington, but skirmishes are fought vigorously at outposts scattered across the globe. Diplomats assured us that having “a diversity of voices” reporting to Washington from overseas ultimately leads to a more intelligent policy. But, with each embassy reproducing in miniature the feudal structure of the federal establishment, about the only certain effect is to add to the amount of time our emissaries spend negotiating with each other rather than with foreign governments.
In other instances, these divisions lead to a foreign policy apparatus that operates at cross-purposes. The classic case is the tension between AID and the Department of Agriculture over Public Law 480, the “Food for Peace” program of commodity gifts and loans to needy countries. The Agriculture Department supports the program as an outlet for American farmers. AID officials, on the other hand, generally agree that it depresses prices in the receiving countries, discouraging Third World farmers from increasing their own output. In several countries-India and Pakistan, for example-the American government has substantial staffs simultaneously advocating both approaches.
In other countries this conflict has been resolved, not on the basis of consistency or common sense but as a function of factional strength. Mali, one of the poorest nations on earth, receives no Food for Peace grain now. The AID mission in Mali is large, powerful, and committed to a policy of Malian self-sufficiency. But in Morocco the American farmer has prevailed, through the efforts of the Agriculture Department and diplomats eager to show their devotion to Hassan’s government by giving him aid. The country receives $30 million a year under P. L. 480. Having lost this policy dispute, the AID mission in Rabat has dutifully fallen into line to help administer the program-to the extent, according to one insider, of writing deliberately misleading reports telling how well the Moroccan government accounts for the grain. So much for “diversity of voices.”
Back in the early days of U.S. Moroccan relations, the sultan gave the American consul in Tangier a lion, which protocol required the diplomat to accept. He dispatched an urgent message to Washington requesting a budget supplement to feed the beast. Since the message went by clipper ship, it took some months for the State Department reply to reach Tangier. By then, the consul had already exercised independent judgment. He had a hungry lion in his home, and he fed it.
Nowadays before the lion had worked up a healthy appetite, the wireless dish atop AMEMBASSY RABAT would have scooped up detailed instructions on how to proceed. Modern, high-speed communications have done more than anything else to transform the Foreign Service. In theory, they mean the government is always on its toes. In practice, they provide the Foreign Service with perhaps its most important means of multiplying man-hours. Having access to a wireless machine and aerograms and mail pouches, both Washington and its outposts feel compelled to use them-in part because cable, traffic is one of the few tangible measures of individual job performance in the Foreign Service, in part because it is the pulsebeat that proves to Washington that the embassy is alive and on the job. So the Foreign Service spends a lot of time talking to itself.
The economic section of the Rabat embassy, for example, has a list of 28 “routine” reports it must file each year for the benefit of American businessmen, ranging from the statistical seed catalog, “Foreign Economic Trends and Their Implications for the United States,” to a list of Moroccan holidays (this in a country where the king likes to proclaim holidays a few days in advance).
Queries arrive unfiltered and unclarified. The Environmental Protection Agency wants information on the status of an endangered species. The State Department wants a report oil “decision-making in Morocco.” Our embassy in Mali recently got a request for a report on the Malian navy. Since Mali is landlocked, the report may be unusually brief.
The authors of these reports realize that many if not most of them are destined for dusty archives or wastebaskets. Washington doesn’t have the capacity to digest the paper it orders so voraciously. One American in Rabat, harking back to his days as a desk officer in the State Department in Washington, said it wag a slow day when 50 such reports hit his desk. Confronting the pile, he gradually found himself reading only the summaries of the cables. “If I wasn’t reading the full text,” he recalled, “nobody was.”
But in Rabat, the drafting, redrafting, reviewing, analysis, and transmission of these doomed cables forms a focal point of embassy activity.
“If I did a cable,” said a young AID economist formerly stationed in Rabat, “it went to the program officer in draft form, as well as to the director or assistant director and related divisions. It would take two or three weeks to get a single cable cleared and out of the mission.” As we were leaving Morocco, early in July, the embassy was sending cable number 4737 for 1979a description of a new Moroccan tax. That’s an average of 34 cables every working day since January.
For every hour consumed struggling with the wording of an outgoing cable to the State Department in response to a request for the latest on “the status of Moroccan women,” it appeared that at least as much time was spent simply reading the far greater volume of incoming messages arriving from Washington and from other foreign posts. One senior political officer estimated that up to a third of his time was consumed by the effluvia from Washington. At ICA Rabat alone, a secretary said, there is enough incoming classified material to fill two “burn bags” a day.
Many of these cables could be ignored in full confidence that neither the United States nor Morocco would ever notice. The problem for an FSO is that somewhere in the stack of cables on his desk there may be something that bears at least tangentially on the substance of his job-for example, a message warning of congressional review of an aid program that the embassy administers, for which justifications must be prepared and defenses assembled. The only way to find this needle, alas, is to go through the entire haystack. And so the FSO spends hours wading nervously through his inbox, hoping to find the potentially explosive piece of paper and feeling, by dinner time, that he’s been through the mill.
Many of the cables from Washington announce the travel plans of some luminary or amend a previous announcement on the same subject. Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps recently kept the entire Rabat embassy busy for a week when she blew in with an entourage of 40 people for a courtesy call on the Moroccan government and a sidetrip-not to the commercial capital, Casablanca, but to the tourist capital, Marrakesh. (It’s no wonder that Senator Claiborne Pell, the congressional champion of the Foreign Service, says he finds consulates “working very hard” whenever he visits. They’re probably working on his itinerary.)
The prodigious cable traffic between Rabat and Washington means more than unnecessary work and full wastebaskets. It means that despite all the FSOs, attaches, and support personnel in the embassy, responsibility and judgment are almost totally centralized in Washington. We arrived in Rabat under the impression that American Foreign Service Officers negotiate with foreign governments. We left convinced that they are little more than couriers in the negotiating process, delivering cables from home, or, in the case of more sensitive negotiations, playing escort to specialists arriving from Foggy Bottom.
Washington does not reserve the initiative just for special occasions like Mideast peace talks, the general trade agreement, or SALT. Rabat diplomats currently dickering with the Moroccans on terms of a treaty governing peaceful uses of nuclear power are compelled to follow a precise script from headquarters at each negotiating session. And after these preliminaries, the final terms of the treaty will be negotiated at meetings in Washington.
When King Hassan and President Carter agreed last year to expand American-Moroccan cultural ties, ICA decided to institute a modest $500,000 program for the exchange of about 35 scholars. To create a joint commission to run the program, the U. S. government sent in two men from Washington because, an ICA official in Rabat explained, “no one here had negotiating expertise.” One veteran diplomat, now a deputy chief of mission in another African capital, summed up his negotiating career this way: “I entered the Foreign Service at age 21, figuring the first thing I’d do would be negotiate major treaties, and then I’d go from there. I’ve been in 24 years, with two years off for the army, and I’ve never negotiated a treaty.”
It is right, of course, that American foreign policy should be in the hands of the administration elected to make it. At the same time, many FSOs may have been on a short leash for so long that they suffer from paralyzed judgment. The institutional acknowledgment that Washington by-God knows best can have tragic consequences when, as happened in Vietnam and Iran, the administration’s predisposition distorts intelligence from the field or causes timid field officers to censor themselves.
In the wake of those debacles, the Foreign Service now encourages its officers to be “courageous,” and provides an “alternative channel” for dissenting officers to communicate directly with Washington. But nothing in the experience of an FSO prepares him to seize this opportunity. His entire training teaches him to adhere to the script, to be inoffensive, to iron out differences rather than air them. The officers who described the “alternative channel” also made it perfectly clear that only in exceptional circumstances would they use it.
This timidity is reinforced by an evaluation system so clouded in diplomatic hyperbole that the slightest pejorative nuance can have devastating effect. “When you fill out the reports now, everyone can walk on water,” one Rabat section chief told us. “It’s just a matter of determining how far above water. Almost anything negative in a report can be damaging, so the evaluating officer is reluctant to put down anything negative. He might say, So and-so was less good in this field.” If a veteran FSO is not brave enough to candidly appraise the people who work under him because it might destroy their careers, how eager will he be to criticize those above him, and risk his own?
For the sake of comparison with the sprawling American facility in Rabat, we also visited the smaller and more isolated embassy in Bamako, capital of Mali. The Mali mission is about half the size of the one in Morocco (most of it consists of an outsized AID delegation), and Mali receives little of the State Department attention lavished on Morocco. As a result, the Foreign Service outpost in Mali seems to be too small to have achieved the critical mass necessary to generate most of its own work. And many of the problems we had found in Rabat were absent in Bamako.
Morale among the FSOs, for one thing, was strikingly higher. It was not simply that Bamako, as a “hardship post,” engendered a community spirit missing amid the comforts of Morocco. The FSOs in Mali also seemed to take a greater satisfaction in their work. Because the embassy is so much smaller, they are forced to be more selective in the use of their time, readily ignoring petty requests. And since the State Department contingent is not big enough to be specialized, the diplomats share each other’s duties. When the political officer travels around the country he collects rainfall information, checks to see if seeds are being distributed to farmers, notes road conditions-all information important to the economic officer. While he’s on the road, the consular officer frequently fills in for him.
Because Mali is “not as important” as Morocco, Washington gives the outpost more autonomy. The political officer there recently negotiated the establishment of a small military aid program that he, in the absence of a military attache, will supervise himself. One young AID economist in Mali who had previously served in Morocco described the contrast between the two embassies: “Here, I write a cable, and if it’s correct and reasonable, it goes. It’s just that people here have more things to do to occupy themselves than pick cables to pieces. In Rabat, everything was make-work. There was no real program.”
If most of the energy in an embassy like Rabat is spent attending to the needs of three wholly American constituencies-the embassy itself, the bureaucratic factions, and Washington-the time left to confront the natives appears to be spent in a way unlikely to apprise our diplomats of the complete political situation of their host country. The vast majority of external contacts seems to be with other diplomats, either in the native elite or in other embassies around town. To facilitate these contacts, the Rabat mission-like all U.S. embassies-has a “representation” fund, amounting in Rabat’s case to $14,900 plus a $3,000 supplement for the ICA. This money goes for one grand party a year for the entire diplomatic community, and frequent luncheons and cocktail parties aimed at cozying up to the local “opinion leaders,” the editors and educators and government ministers. Even the lowest FSOs are expected to maintain a full schedule of these social activities.
We attended the embassy’s Fourth of July party, the major fling of the year. It seemed a comfortable affair–diplomats exchanged hearty pleasantries around the ambassador’s swimming pool while waiters scooted to and fro under the arbors of bougainvillea, bearing cocktails and canapes. Junior officers mingled dutifully, pausing occasionally to record a prize: a home phone number, a luncheon date. But for one FSO who was required to attend similar functions a couple of times a week, it was a tiring duty. “It will probably be the low point of my week,” he told us before the Independence Day wingding. “I’ve about had my fill of false smiles and superficial chitchat.”
The isolation of the American diplomatic community appeared to be reinforced by an embarrassing shortage of foreign language skills. Neither of us is fluently multilingual, so we aren’t expert critics, but we found no American in the Rabat embassy who could speak the Arabic dialect spoken by the common people of Morocco and in AID we found several people who did not even speak French, the official language. We were told that the funds Washington allows for language training are perennially short.
But the language problem is magnified by the Foreign Service policy of changing diplomatic assignments every two to four years, a rotation rate much faster than that of most countries. The theory is that this protects against what the FSOs call “localitis,” the syndrome of starting to think like a native-rooting for the host country instead of for Washington. Unfortunately, the program also ensures that diplomats do not stay in any one country long enough to learn very much about it. (The rotation system has a related affliction. Normally there is a gap-sometimes of months between the departure of an FSO and the arrival of his replacement “because,” we were told, “everyone likes to change posts in the summer, when school is out.” The result is a break in the embassy’s institutional momentum and memory; the incoming officer, deprived of direct contact with the officer he replaced, may spend his first year learning what his predecessor could have taught him in a few days.)
The sheer size and complexity of the American community in Morocco gives our diplomats little incentive to leave their sheltered embassy lives. We found that American officials in their travels rarely departed from the Rabat–Casablanca axis, in part because they are tethered to their paperwork and in part because they have become so specialized that a general familiarity with the country assumes secondary importance for them. The head of the political section in Rabat said he felt that he and his subordinates should “get out in the country” at least once every three weeks. “But,” he added, “we don’t.” In contrast, the lone political officer in Bamako has visited each of Mali’s important towns two or three times in his first year on the job.
The final, and perhaps most significant, insulating factor appears to be the Foreign Service lifestyle itself. If you want to test the limits of a diplomat’s tact, raise questions about servants, the swimming pools, the big cars and cocktail parties. Congressional critics have belabored these luxuries with hypocritical glee for years, and FSOs are understandably touchy on the subject.
They will admit the perks are there. Yes, the AID employees in water starved Mali have swimming pools and a staff of 16 chauffeurs. Yes, embassy families in Rabat shop at a commissary, live in air-conditioned comfort in the affluent suburb of Soussi, send their children to a determinedly American private school, and seem to spend a fair amount of time hoisting cocktails. Yes, the consul-general in Casablanca and his deputy in charge of Moroccan labor affairs live in the splendid villas occupied by Churchill and Roosevelt during the Casablanca conference.
But, they will argue, the luxuries are a fair reward for the pressures of foreign living; the servants are necessary to liberate you to do the work; a local dignitary would be insulted if you were to “invite him to a two-bedroom apartment, two flights up, and serve stew.”
True as that may be, it is also clear that, in gesture and in fact, our emissaries have removed themselves from the Moroccan rank and file, particularly the poor, rural, illiterate majority. If there is a shortage of a local commodity, the foreign service in Rabat won’t feel it because the military commissary is always well-stocked. If the natives suffer from erratic electricity, what is that to the FSO whose home has its own generator? If there is an erosion of authority in the cities, how soon will it be felt by diplomats who travel between guarded gates in chauffeured cars?
One American attache was amazed to learn that Moroccans were restive about the inflation and government austerity measures brought on by the Saharan war. He learned this from his secretary. Another junior officer recounted to us his horror the first time he took a personal package to the Rabat post office. Confronted with an array of windows, each labeled in Arabic and each with a long, jostling line of Moroccans waiting, he turned around and drove back to the embassy, handing his package to the functionary who usually takes care of such things for the American officials. After being told these stories, it was hard not to think of the Americans who phoned their embassy in Tehran, days before the Shah’s downfall, to inquire about the mobs rampaging in the streets, only to be told, confidently, that the government had everything under control.
We’re glad that President Carter has an inter-agency team out examining America’s embassies. But half a dozen weighty books since the days of the Kennedy administration have already chronicled the growth and torpor of the U.S. Foreign Service. Morocco, as a living example of these problems, also helps to explain why these critiques have had so little effect.
This year, for example, the State Department boldly proposed the closing of the American consulate in Tangier, an outpost consisting of 19 employees ensconced in an expensive and famously atmospheric building. The department said that the “small to moderate” workload of the consulate could be handled in Rabat, or by a consular agent, at an estimated annual saving of $210,000. The proposal coasted through Congress until Senator Richard Stone of Florida objected on the grounds that it would be unfair to “punish” Morocco after King Hassan had taken a “moderate” position on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. While most embassy officials in Rabat will agree that the Tangier consulate could be reduced or eliminated, they officially protested the proposed closure.
All told, State flagged 13 consulates for closure, and, in what has become an annual exercise, Congress restored ten, mostly for reasons unrelated to the smooth exercise of U.S. foreign policy. Turin was spared, for instance, because Italian-Americans objected; Nice was saved because of its strategic importance to those American tourists who can afford to visit the Riviera; Salzburg and Bremen survived, in part, for “historical reasons, sentimental reasons,” in the words of Senator Pell.
Just as often, however, the administration has given up on proposed economies even before it sends them to Congress. In 1978, an appraisal team from the International Communication Agency recommended, in a classified report, that the agency shut down its “cultural center” in Casablanca and abolish most of its positions there. After an internal struggle, the agency finally acceded to a compromise that gave it the worst of both worlds; the ICA library, housed in the agency’s former villa in Casablanca, was closed and its books given away, but the center itself was kept. ICA now has a director and a staff of seven Moroccans in a building decorated with prints of American artwork-and no program.
Given the prodigious capacity of our embassies to create their own work, it is doubtful if any administration will ever make a dramatic dent in the Foreign Service bureaucracy through these traditional methods of “trimming deadwood.” If our experience in Rabat and Bamako is any indication, the problem with the Foreign Service is not that there are hundreds of American diplomats around the world who are doing nothing, who are “deadwood” in the classic sense. The problem is that there are thousands of American diplomats who are visibly busy-fixing the cars, criticizing the memos, reading the transatlantic cables of other American diplomats. This cycle of self-dealing will not be halted by lopping off a consular limb here and there. What is needed are systematic reforms that will dramatically reduce the embassies’ capacity to create overseas jobs for Americans.
One reason the economizers in the State Department must content themselves with nibbling reductions; of course, is that much of the genuine fat in the system is beyond State’s control. An ambassador is nominally in charge of all the American emissaries in his country once they are there. But many of those people are assigned, budgeted, and carefully protected by other departments. If Cyrus Vance thinks the Agriculture attaches are a waste of money or a hindrance to his foreign policy objectives, it will cost him a cabinet-level war to do something about it. A better system might give the State Department-or somebody responsibility for creating, budgeting, and filling all assignments overseas. If an ambassador needed a drug expert or a farming expert, he could still borrow one from the relevant domestic department. The Peace Corps-which would be destroyed by being pulled under the embassy umbrella-could remain independent.
Regrettably, the Carter administration seems to be headed in just the opposite direction. In his recent reorganization proposal for the Commerce Department, Carter has succumbed to that agency’s longtime demand to set up its own independent overseas trade service.
A second problem is that the State Department has concentrated on phasing out the extraneous consulates while failing to question the need for the embassies to which they are attached. State has succeeded-despite the best efforts of Senator Pell-in reducing the number of consular branches from 146 to 111. But the number of embassies has remained substantially constant. If trimming old branches is a good idea, chopping down some dead trees might be even better.
This is a shocking thought for those who accept it as axiomatic that when we recognize a country, we show the flag in the form of a full-dress embassy: we’ve always done it that way. But it doesn’t have to be so. The main difference between an embassy and a consulate is, after all, the presence of an ambassador-along with the extra staff, office space, security, pomp and perquisites that go with the office. Such an august level of representation may be indispensable in Paris or Tokyo-but not in Tchad or Togo. There are a number of ways to eliminate the window-dressing of embassies without impairing our ability to monitor important events, protect our citizens overseas; and maintain contact with foreign governments.
One is a return to regional embassies in areas of the globe where American interests are not deeply involved. Great Britain, for example, does not have an embassy in Mali, but serves that country and several others from its embassy in Dakar, Senegal. America could do likewise, keeping a lower level presence in each country to do political reporting, handle visa applications and so forth.
In some countries we could contract with the embassies of allied countries to use their space and support services, avoiding the expense of maintaining our own buildings, communications equipment, and administrative staff. In exchange, we could provide comparable services elsewhere. Remember that when Ambassador Eilts first went to Egypt, the American presence consisted of six people housed in the Spanish embassy.
In fact, the Foreign Service already does contract out a lot of its work to former Peace Corps volunteers, to foreign nationals and third-country citizens. The guards at embassy housing, the supervisors of foreign aid grain deliveries, and many of the secretaries are contract employees. As long as this system is not used simply to hide the real costs of the bureaucracy, it has significant advantages. Contract employees can be hired and fired more cheaply and easily than those protected by civil service; they can be hired for part-time work; they do not represent a waste of well-trained, well-paid FSOs; they are more likely to have local knowledge and language skills; and they need not sever their ties to the real world to join the insulated world of diplomacy.
While no one would want to replace our embassies with a string of franchisees, the foreign service might profit in several ways from a dramatic expansion of this contract system. Much as large newspapers use “stringers” to keep in touch with far-flung corners of their circulation areas, the American envoy in any country of substantial size or importance could run a network of part-timers empowered (depending on the particular need) to process visa applications, report elementary economic data and local political conditions, and in some cases perform ceremonial functions that now consume the time of higherups. (In Morocco, handing out diplomas at Moroccan universities is a common and dispensible chore performed by American diplomats.) Teachers, businessmen, or aid officials could be enlisted for this work. Indeed, some nations still do this to an extent by maintaining “honorary consuls.”
There are some current activities of our embassies, of course, that should neither be reorganized, downgraded, or contracted out, but rather abolished entirely. In particular, the continued existence of the International Communication Agency seems incontestable evidence that nobody in the Carter administration takes “zero-based budgeting” seriously. The idea that America needs an independent agency to promote what is the world’s most pervasive culture is silly; as for winning hearts and minds, we should know by now that we’ll be judged by what we do, not what we say. The only part of ICA that seems worth preserving is the Voice of America, which, for all its shortcomings, is the only reasonably straightforward news source available to much of the world.
But America will always need someone to do the basic job our embassies-at least in theory-attempt to do: to provide us with accurate information about the world, to protect our essential interests, to promote peace. The important lesson of our stay in Rabat, for us, was a realization of the myriad ways our embassies direct their energies inward, at their own peers and superiors, rather than outward, at the foreign government with which they are supposed to come to terms. Until an administration comes along that is willing to directly confront this fact, our government will continue to be served, in an area requiring the deftest of footwork, by a sluggish, fat-bound bureaucracy. As for the diplomats themselves, the glamor of a life in the foreign service of their country will remain a fragile gloss on a hollow job.