The Cable

GAO: Foreign Service suffering from midlevel staffing shortages

The State Department has gaps in its embassy staffs all over the world, despite several years of hiring increases, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

State "faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008," the GAO found in a report to be released Monday, obtained in advance by The Cable.

The State Department increased its hiring of foreign service officers (FSOs) by 17 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, but those new FSOs as yet don't have the experience to fill the midlevel openings in diplomatic posts throughout the world. Currently, about 28 percent of midlevel overseas positions are either vacant or filled by under-qualified officers, the GAO found. That percentage is the same as it was in 2008.

The State Department says the staffing shortages are due to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plan to increase the overall size of the foreign service ranks by 25 percent, an effort called Diplomacy 3.0, but the GAO says even that plan is not set to meet targets due to the budget realities.

The GAO wants State to update its five-year plan to come up with a way to fill the midlevel FSO staffing shortfalls and State said it agreed with that recommendation.

"State acknowledges the need to close midlevel Foreign Service gaps, but it has not developed a strategy to help ensure that the department is taking full advantage of available human capital flexibilities and evaluating the success of its efforts to address these gaps," the report stated.

The largest staffing gaps are in hardship posts and for consular and office management specialist positions, the GAO found.

The report was requested by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.

"The State Department continues to struggle with staffing, experience, and foreign language gaps, which undermine our diplomatic readiness. State must continue to develop effective workforce strategies and address staffing gaps to effectively respond to quickly evolving diplomatic challenges," Akaka said in a statement. "I commend State for their ongoing efforts to address these staffing shortages. I urge the Department to implement GAO's recommendation."

The Cable

Could the next U.S. free trade agreement be with Tunisia?

House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA) announced last week during a visit to Tunis that he intends to head an initiative to propose a free trade agreement between the United States and Tunisia, which experienced a popular uprising in 2010 and held democratic elections in October.

"One of the most effective ways the United States can offer support to the Tunisian people as they work to solidify democratic gains is by expanding trade and commercial ties," Dreier, who is also the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, said in an emailed statement yesterday. "Spurring economic growth through increased trade would ... help to create the resources necessary for sustainable democratic development and prosperity in Tunisia."

According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier's proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).

As Brookings Institute Saban Center on the Middle East director Tamara Wittes noted, there's a growing feeling of congressional support for Tunisia.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia," she told The Cable. "I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform."

U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs Lionel Johnson agrees that Tunisia has a lot of potential.

"The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise," he told The Cable. "We'd like to see talks begin in early 2013."

Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment.  In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue "with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government," enabling Tunisia to "borrow at almost risk-free rates." The State Department's Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of "smaller but important steps."  

"There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia," Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. "What we're hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement."

Ultimately, though, a free trade agreement stands to make a significant economic impact on Tunisia, which counted the United States among its top five trading partners in 2010.

"There's a lot that the U.S. is already doing with economic and technical assistance to support the growth of the private sector in Tunisia, so an FTA would complement that because it would be mutually beneficial," Wittes explained. "Over the long term, we know that Tunisian economic health is going to come through a robust private sector that will help to cement a democratic transition. This is not an FTA that's going to have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. It will, however, have an important impact on the Tunisian side."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) says he thinks Tunisia will become a strong economic partner for the U.S.

"Most successful middle-income countries want deeper bilateral trade relationships," he said at an event on Wednesday. "Countries that undergo successful transitions often ... become our best allies and trading partners."

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