Protecting America’s first line of defense

In commemorations across the country this month, millions of Americans reflected on the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the incalculable loss of life, energy and talent; the courage of the passengers and crew aboard the doomed jetliners; and the gritty determination of the brave rescue workers who rushed into harm’s way. We also thought about the sacrifices that we have asked the men and women in our nation’s military and intelligence services to make — sacrifices that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, and which have seriously degraded al Qaeda’s ability to attack us with that level of ruthlessness again.

But 10 years of war, combined with a changing global threat environment and an economic downturn more severe than any since the Great Depression, compel us to ask tough questions about how best to prevent future attacks and ensure our nation’s security in the 21st century.

By the end of the year, nearly all American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq and a slow drawdown of forces will have begun to reduce the troop levels in Afghanistan. While the strain of repeated deployments will affect the military for several years to come, policymakers and Congress will have an opportunity to absorb the lessons learned from a decade of combat and to ensure that our troops and intelligence officers have the resources necessary to continue carrying the fight to al Qaeda and to operate in today’s complicated threat matrix.

But even as we seek to lift some of the burden from our overstretched military and intelligence agencies and try to find savings in a defense budget that has doubled in the last decade, we must not lose sight of the extraordinary service rendered by America’s diplomats and development professionals. The men and women of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are America’s first line of defense and will be asked to do even more in coming years — in Afghanistan, Iraq and a changing Middle East.

By September 2001, a decade of budget cuts had left the State Department, USAID and the Foreign Service without the staff and equipment necessary to meet the nation’s foreign policy challenges, even as the need for American diplomats increased in the wake of the Cold War.

The new requirements brought on by the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks resulted in the addition of nearly 1,100 new positions during the tenure of Secretary of State Colin Powell. However, these new hires did little to combat the “hollowing out” of our foreign affairs agencies, as members of our aging diplomatic corps continued to retire and many of the additional hires were assigned to process visas in our embassies in Kabul, Baghdad and additional consular officers. Nor was the hiring momentum maintained, and towards the end of the tenure of Powell’s successor, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, a report produced by the American Academy of Diplomacy called for the hiring of nearly 5,000 new Foreign Service officers. The proposal was endorsed by eight former secretaries of State, who noted in a bipartisan statement that “Avoiding one war or defusing one major crisis would save many times” the additional cost of reinforcing the ranks of our diplomats and development professionals. The former secretaries also noted that the current shortages had forced the military “repeatedly to divert personnel to deal with issues from nation building to agricultural development.” 

Rice and Secretary Hillary Clinton worked with Congress to increase the size of the Foreign Service by 17 percent during 2009-2010, but this was not nearly enough to meet the need. In an August 2010 report to Congress, the State Department asserted that it needed an additional 1,250 personnel, and that critical posts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East were short-staffed.

Unfortunately, the final 2011 State Department budget did not include money for additional hires beyond replacing personnel lost to attrition, and the House version of the FY 2012 bill guts the State Department’s operating budget by $3.9 billion below last year’s level and $3.1 billion below the president’s request, including a halt to new hiring at USAID and any expansion of facilities overseas associated with that hiring.

Throughout his tenure at the Pentagon, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates constantly pressed for greater resources for the State Department and USAID, noting that the Defense Department had more people in military bands than the entirety of the Foreign Service. While many have focused on the impact of defense cuts through the work of the supercommittee or sequestration, the disparity of resources directed to our diplomatic and development corps — along with the increasing breadth of their responsibilities — may have the most profound impact on our national security. 

Schiff is a member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.