Wars Hard on State Dept., Defense Chief Says

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expressing concern that the State Department has become stretched too thin by the diplomatic demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gates is arguing for more resources for Foggy Bottom.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We've heard a lot about the U.S. military being stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same goes for the State Department. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is asking Congress for more money. She wants to increase the number of diplomats and technical experts who could help countries recover from conflict.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it's the secretary of defense who has been the most outspoken on the need to build up American diplomatic capabilities.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has become the darling of the U.S. diplomatic community in part for stating the obvious - the foreign service is tiny compared to the U.S. military.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Secretary): The total foreign service today is about 6,600. That was not quite crew one carrier strike group.

KELEMEN: Gates explained to the American Academy of Diplomacy here in Washington why he feels so strongly about the need for a more robust State Department; he talked about the Cold War days, when he said U.S. diplomacy played the key roll in winning hearts and minds, and he raised questions about whether the U.S. can do that today in countering al-Qaida.

Mr. GATES: Are we organized properly and particularly when we're being out-communicated by a guy in a cave?

KELEMEN: The Bush administration has had a hard time getting experts out in the field to help rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq; much of that fell to the Department of Defense. Again, Gates looks back to his Cold War experiences, when the State Department, together with the U.S. Agency for International Development, were real players.

Mr. GATES: At the high of the Cold War, AID had 16,000 employees; it has 3,000 now. And AID was a deployable expeditionary agency; people expected to go overseas and they worked in developing countries and they brought agronomic skills and they brought rule of law. We don't have those kind of people now.

KELEMEN: The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Hass has been thinking about these issues as well. When it comes to nation-building, Hass says the State Department just doesn't have the capacity. And that's not what most diplomats signed up for.

Mr. RICHARD HASS (Council on Foreign Relations): And the State Department kind of doesn't work traditional diplomacy, and we order create a kind of reserve, a nation-building - whatever you want to call it - reserve.

KELEMEN: Ambassador John Herbst has been trying to do just that.

Ambassador JOHN HERBST (U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine): We are creating a key instrument of the future for the State Department, for America's national security.

KELEMEN: He's speaking about plans to have a 250 person active response corps that would be like the U.S. AID Gates remembers, an expeditionary force. Herbst has just 11 people to send in the field now to help failed or failing states with basic government functions.

Ambassador HERBST: We hope to hire some people who have - who, say, are both engineers and who are familiar with different parts of the world and have some languages from those different parts of the world. But we will mold teams who can deploy together. And these teams could be sent in, as I say, after our military, along side of our military, or in the best of circumstances instead of our military.

KELEMEN: It would be organized a bit like the military. In addition to the active response corps, there will be a standby corps of employees across the U.S. government willing to take on periodic overseas assignments. And Herbst is planning a civilian reserve corps that will be like the National Guard -police, economists, or local city officials who could be deployed. All he needs now is a budget.

Mr. HERBST: This has been a struggle, but you know, Machiavelli wrote in "The Prince" that there's nothing harder in government than to create a system.

KELEMEN: His office has been around since Colin Powell ran the State Department. Now that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has joined the lobbying effort, Ambassador Herbst is hopeful that the next U.S. president will have civilian nation-building experts at the ready.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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