The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a confirmation hearing Tuesday for John Negroponte. He has been running America's spy agencies as the nation's first director of national intelligence. But President Bush recently asked Negroponte to head back to his roots — at the State Department — to be top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
If confirmed, he will fill just one of many key vacancies in the senior ranks of the diplomatic corps.
It took more than half a year to find a replacement for Robert Zoellick, who left the deputy secretary's post last summer to head to Wall Street. Since then, President Bush has received other resignation letters from the State Department — so many that conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote recently that the State Department under Secretary Rice is "a mess."
Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, called the criticism ridiculous and insisted that this turnover is only natural.
"Look, this is a time in an administration — six years in — where a lot of people have been here from the very beginning and these jobs are grueling in terms of the physical and psychological demands, so you are starting to see people move on," McCormack said.
Among those moving on are Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Henry Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator; and John Hillen, the assistant secretary for political-military affairs.
Rice's counselor Philip Zelikow left at the end of last year and the State Department's top economic adviser, Josette Shireen, is leaving to head the World Food Program.
New York University professor Paul Light, who tracks presidential appointees, says the attrition rate at the State Department reflects a broader trend.
"I'd estimate that a quarter to a third of the Bush administration's political appointments are vacant right now, or being vacated," Light said. "People just don't want to serve in the last 18 months of a second-term presidency — not the most gleeful of positions."
Light was surprised, however, that it took so long to get a deputy secretary of state appointed. He said that was either a sign that Rice has a reputation for not being an inclusive administrator, or that the president isn't so inclusive in his decision-making.
"I think the latter is likely to be the case," Light said. "That the president has not shown a great desire for the opinions of lower-level State Department political appointees."
Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has a similar take on the situation.
"Earlier in the administration, I heard people in the White House say that the State Department needs to be reminded that they work for President Bush," he said. "That could be an argument for not having the State Department be very strong, because of the sense that the stronger they are the more they will divert from the policy the president has set out."
Alterman says the White House, the vice president's office and the Pentagon have eclipsed the State Department on a number of key issues facing the United States today.
"What I haven't seen a lot of in this administration is 'to solve this problem, we have to throw more diplomats at it,'" Alterman noted.
Senators on the Foreign Relations committee do want to see the State Department staffed up.
In an opening statement prepared for John Negroponte's confirmation hearing, Sen. Richard Lugar raises concerns about key vacancies in Rice's State Department.
"We are a nation at war in two countries," the Indiana Republican says. "And every gap in civilian leadership is felt."
Lugar is appealing to Negroponte to help fill in the gaps as soon as he's confirmed and arrives at the State Department.