Powell gets early State salute


Transition: `Underrespected' State Department sees early signs that hands-on Colin Powell may provide needed spirit and organization.

January 20, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An unattended phone rang a few days ago on the seventh floor of the State Department, so Secretary of State-designate Colin L. Powell, waiting to have lunch with the outgoing secretary, Madeleine K. Albright, did the obvious thing.

He walked over and answered it, astonishing the lower-level staff member on the line and generating a tale, circulated through the building and confirmed by Powell aides, that symbolizes what many diplomats believe will be a direct and productive relationship with their new, hands-on boss.

For years the State Department has labored under pinched budgets, vulnerability to overseas terrorism and what critics say is bureaucratic inertia bred by cloistered secretaries more interested in policy and politics than in practical administration.

Powell, who worked his way from second lieutenant to be the nation's top soldier and who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff oversaw the victorious Persian Gulf war, is widely viewed as likely to infuse the department with better organization, esprit de corps and financial wherewithal -- whatever his talents as a diplomat.

"We're extremely hopeful," says John Naland, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union representing department personnel. "The State Department employees definitely feel that they've been undersupported, misunderstood and underrespected for years. We hope that the coming of Colin Powell is going to provide a real opportunity for us to get both more resources and reform."

The State Department, with hundreds of overseas missions as well as thousands of employees in Washington, is the country's face and eyes on the world, imparting U.S. views to distant capitals and collecting foreign information that helps drive policy back home.

Some argue that, had diplomatic budgets been higher over the past decade, U.S. military forays in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and other places might not have been necessary.

"If there were more money being spent to revitalize the State Department, it would reduce the strain on our military, because we could prevent some of these things instead of having to respond to them when they blow up," says Robert Oakley, former ambassador to Zaire, Pakistan and Somalia. "We're more dependent on the world than we ever were. And therefore, we need to pay more attention."

It is a view expressed by anyone who has ever run the State Department. But Powell has shown repeated signs of endorsing it more forcefully than his predecessors, and many contend he will be in a better position to do something about it after, as everyone expects, he is confirmed by the Senate.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Powell compared the Pentagon's modern, well-appointed Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo with "some of the dilapidated embassies" in the region.

"You would wonder whether the same government was taking care of them," he said. "We need not just a little increase" in the diplomatic budget. "We need a step increase. And as soon as I have put together the specific programs and the dollar details to support these programs ... I can promise you I'll be back. Put it on your calendars."

Such words cheer the rank and file in the department, where budget constraints have left more than 1,000 positions vacant out of about 15,000, where mid-level analysts often complain that their work is ignored or flouted and where many embassies are vulnerable to attack and so technologically outdated that diplomats can't even send confidential e-mail.

"Given the shortage in the Foreign Service ranks now, the department's having real trouble staffing its hardship posts and has had to, in some cases, offer special financial incentives and things like that," says Robert Pelletreau, who was assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in President Clinton's first term.

The status of the department's resources and morale, which have been eroding for years and declined steeply after the end of the Cold War, is now "pretty dire," Pelletreau says.

Hundreds of employees have signed a petition asking Powell to increase resources and rely more than his predecessors did on department expertise for policy-making.

"There is a good feeling among the professional State Department cadre about Powell," a mid-level staffer says. "They see him as one who knows how to understand an organization like this and how to take care of the people in it."

Powell has already spent much time at department headquarters, meeting with several people from each regional bureau, listening as much as talking.

One well-noted signal was Powell's unusual inclusion in each briefing of officials from the department's beleaguered intelligence bureau. Albright recently suspended the deputy intelligence chief, Donald Keyser, over a missing classified laptop computer. Many saw the decision as unfair, and it prompted Keyser's boss, J. Stapleton Roy, to resign in protest.

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