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Foreign Service leadership being ‘decapitated’ and ‘depleted at a dizzying speed’

When President Trump reported on his trip to Asia, he heaped praise on himself and said the nation’s “standing in the world has never been stronger than it is right now.”

Using “I” 42 times in his 23-minute speech Wednesday, he declared “NATO, believe me, is very happy with Donald Trump and what I did,” as he touted previous accomplishments.

Trump’s unmatched self-adulation might cloud his view of the hard work by foreign service staffers and their increased difficulties because of his administration’s hiring freeze.

Noting a recent Time magazine cover “with its graphic of wrecking balls and warning of ‘dismantling government as we know it,’ ” American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson is cautioning against “mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us.”

Specifically, Stephenson is worried about State Department staffing cuts that weaken the Foreign Service and the nation’s international status — a notion State officials reject.

“There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” she wrote in a letter to her members in the December edition of AFSA’s Foreign Service Journal.

Congress has taken note.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Management, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained the two agencies are the only executive offices still under the hiring freeze Trump began in January.

Their letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as my colleague Carol Morello reported, said “questionable management practices at the Department of State; the attitudes of some in the Administration on the value of diplomacy; declining morale, recruitment and retention; the lack of experienced leadership to further the strength and longevity of our nation’s diplomatic corps; and reports of American diplomacy becoming less effective paint a disturbing picture.”

Contrary to America becoming stronger internationally, as Trump suggested, the senators said, “These factors lead us to conclude that America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.”

Stephenson said the “ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 [in June 2016] to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today — and are still falling.”

If the military had similar cuts, “we would be on the border of being defenseless militarily,” said retired ambassador Thomas Boyatt. “We are on the same threshold diplomatically right now.”

At the entry level, Stephenson expects about 100 new foreign service officers to join State in 2018, compared to 366 in 2016.

“These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger,” she said, calling the cuts “a decapitation of its leadership ranks.

“The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.”

State pushed back, saying the Foreign Service is not being gutted and “all hiring freezes are temporary.” State data indicate there are 13,873 Foreign Service employees today, compared to 13,980 in 2016 and 2,300 exemptions to the hiring freeze as of late October.

“The Department is making sure we have the staff we need,” the statement said. “The Secretary has repeatedly said [his] highest priority for the Department is making sure our indispensable career diplomats must have the tools they need to do their jobs for decades to come. The State Department has never had a comprehensive, employee-led review of its functions, and there’s no better time than now to see how we can improve them.”

Reflecting declining spirits at State, one longtime foreign service officer decided to quit because she no longer feels appreciated, let alone indispensable. She’s still on the payroll, so she spoke only if not identified.

With more than two dozen years serving around the world, she’s had a “great, brilliant, fun career.” But “when your expertise is not being viewed as valuable,” she said, it’s time to go.