Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Columns

A quick and painless way to save $50 million


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In these times of economic worry, most of us search for ways to save money—especially that which we are forced to pay in taxes, such as the billions wasted on non-productive, bloated government.

So, the FAA furloughs a handful of air traffic controllers; saving $11.98, while further degrading already insufferable commercial air services. Homeland Security does their part, by further slowing down airport security inspections; the White House stops public tours, saving another $7.31; while the Feds turn loose hundreds of criminal foreigners held in our jails, saving about 3 bucks a day on their ration of bean burritos.

And then our exemplary Leader-in-Chief, donates a few thousand to help our national debt, which is a trivial part of the millions he’s paid as President (true, when considering such as the extraordinary value of housing, servants, transportation, etc. which are furnished to him at no charge, and thus are indeed real “income”.)

While back-room politicians (there’s another kind?) argue endlessly and pointlessly about how to make meaningful and necessary cuts to the budget, there are, right there in front of us all, quick and easy ways to save big bucks. I’m going to speak here to just one—the Department of State.

The State Department’s budget is the fourth largest item in the Federal Budget (following only Defense, Health & Human Services, and Education). They requested some $70 billion for FY 2013, with which to do what? Seriously ? what?

In my studied opinion, $60 billion of that is wasted on patently useless embassies, and incompetent boorish ambassadors, which frequently, if unintentionally, work against our national best interests.

Folks, it’s past time to stand up an demand major changes to our antiquated, destructive, system of ambassadors and embassies. Consider just the following:

Intelligent, qualified ambassadors were necessary in the days of sailing ships and goose quill pens, before the age of instant communications (beginning in the mid-19th Century). Today, a desk officer in Washington, or the President himself, can communicate, in real time, securely, and with video, with whichever foreign leader he chooses: there’s no longer any need for a “politically appointed, luxuriously established ambassador in that process.”

There are, essentially, two major parts to U.S. representation in a foreign nation: an embassy, and some consulates. All useful work (if any) is done in the consulates; palatial embassies and grand “residences” of ambassadors are little other than monuments to one’s imagined national importance, along with a very expensive way for presidents to reward friends, supporters, and cronies.

There can be an argument for retaining a bare bones consulate in some nations; there can be no justification for retention of the regal embassy and its emperor (i.e., ambassador). An estimated 80 percent of the cost of U.S. representation in any nation is tied to the embassy and ambassador; those billions can be cut quickly and with no potential negative effect on the conduct of U.S. diplomacy (indeed, in many places, our image would thereby be improved).

We now have U.S. diplomatic installations in some 200 nations; most of those include one of those archaic embassies and useless (even sometimes destructive) ambassadors.

There’s one such in Paris, France, which is possibly the least necessary of them all, and to which President Obama is planning to send Marc Lasry, whose only qualification for the diplomatic posting seems to be in that he has been one of the major fundraisers for the Democratic Party.

Chances are that Lasry will live (and act) like royalty, dining on the finest pate, escargot, Camembert, bubbly and Congnac, while doing nothing other than throwing lavish social events in his ornate, and very costly, palace. Whatever real work, involving U.S. interests, is being done, takes place in a cubicle at the rear of the third floor, in some insignificant consulate office.

There are other palatial embassies, most of which are ruled over by ambassadors appointed for purely personal or political reasons. Popular personalities are often selected for the cushier posts (e.g., Caroline Kennedy is now considered for Japan), although they offer nothing other than star power.

When William Saxbe was appointed as ambassador to India (c. 1975), it was rumored that it was “necessary, political exile.” One of tobacco-chewing, emperor Saxbe’s first priorities was to force the U.S. Air Force to assign an aviator to his embassy staff, so that he’d have a driver if and when he got a personal aircraft (such as was then enjoyed by the useless ambassador to France).

The Indian government, however, prohibited use of such aircraft by the U.S. Ambassador; so Saxbe never got his personal jet ? although a couple of years of a fighter pilot’s valuable career were subsequently wasted. Talk about your “ugly Americans!” Saxbe’s two years in New Delhi probably set U.S. relations with India back two decades. That’s what your tax dollars buy from our politically run, ineffective, bumbling, incompetent Department of State.

At the other end of the spectrum of embassies, come such as that of the Republic of Palau, a Pacific Ocean island chain with a land mass (250 islands; 8 inhabited) so small (177 square miles) that there are 197 larger nations on earth.

We have an ambassador there (Helen Reed-Rowe), whom surely doesn’t have either a palace or a personal jet, yet she (a career foreign service employee) is far better suited to be an ambassador than Lasry, Saxbe, or dozens of others posted in major nations. Incidentally, women, and racial minorities, are increasingly appointed as ambassadors; sometimes that’s a bad thing, as when they’re sent to nations that look down on women or some ethnicity, or as in the potential case of Caroline Kennedy, when they have no qualifications at all for the job.

Incidentally, a woman (Debra Jones, an experience Foreign Service officer) has been named to replace the slain ambassador to Libya – where we shouldn’t have even a consulate, and where women are considered to be significantly inferior to men. Libya is today about as lawless and dangerous as is Somalia, where we don’t have a diplomatic mission.

So why do we persist in sending another ambassador to Libya? Could it be because they have oil? That’s personal politics, rather than diplomacy. It would have been wiser to appoint Jones to Paris, and Lasry to Tripoli, but wisdom is not a prerequisite for running the Department of State?and, anyway, Lasry might turn down an opportunity to sit on the sand in a tent, munching on roast leg of camel, rather than ensconced on silk pillows in a palace, picking at peacock stuffed with Beluga caviar.

Bottom line is that we waste about $60 billion a year on archaic, useless, often diplomatically destructive embassies and ambassadors. Small, unobtrusive, efficient missions, staffed by trained professional foreign service personnel (there are many such), could effectively handle such as problems encountered by U.S. tourists, and do so for less than $10 billion annually. By eliminating ambassadors and embassies, we not only save big bucks, but actually improve our image abroad. Let’s do it! “Off with their heads!”

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Of Cabbages and Kings is a syndicated feature by j.g.nash. Relevant comment may be sent to him at jgn@jgnash.com.

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