WASHINGTON – Four years ago, more than 1,600 State Department (search) professionals, at some risk to their careers, signed a letter protesting what they saw as deplorable conditions that permeated department headquarters and many of its almost 300 missions abroad.
"We are entering the uncharted waters of the 21st century in a rusted-out diplomatic hulk that is no longer seaworthy," the letter said. It cited poor morale, an overextended staff, a crumbling infrastructure and an information technology system regarded as the weakest in the government.
The situation is looking better these days, and Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), down to his final days in office, is receiving much of the credit.
"Morale is robust," says a November report by the independent Foreign Affairs Council, which monitors American diplomatic operations. The study notes that when the department was looking for volunteers a year ago for the soon-to-be-opened U.S. Embassy in strife-ridden Iraq, more than 200 foreign and civil service employees asked to be considered for the 146 positions.
John Limbert, head of the American Foreign Service Association (search), the union of career diplomats, says the Powell years have been extraordinary.
"The reason is simple: On his first day in the department he promised to lead, and he did," Limbert says. "He restored pride to a demoralized cadre that had been coping with neglect, disrespect and severe personnel and budget cuts.
Alphonse LaPorta, a retired ambassador who once headed AFSA, said Powell put his military background to use, demonstrating a "commander's responsibility to be personally involved in the well-being of the troops."
For the State Department, the 1990s were a lost decade. Congress cut the State Department and international aid budget for six consecutive years.
Former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., railed against the "bloated bureaucracy" of the State Department. Former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, dismissed diplomats as people who rent "long coats and high hats."
But a high-morale, smooth-running State Department does not necessarily translate into support for American policies abroad. U.S. policies in Iraq have scant backing overseas, the result, says Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., of diplomatic ineptitude.
Since 2001, Congress has been generous in responding to the department's funding requests. Powell's stature has helped but so has the strong sense that diplomacy counts more now than in the relatively placid '90s.
Interest among young people in the diplomatic service has risen sharply. A first-rate recruitment and marketing program has fed this trend, the Foreign Affairs Council says. Some 2,000 employees have been hired above attrition rates.
The State Department is also replacing unsafe U.S. embassies at a much faster rate than before. On information technology, State has replaced its hardware infrastructure and put the system on a four-year replacement schedule.
Powell's personal touch also has improved morale, officials say. When in town, he has sworn in all ambassadors and classes of foreign service recruits. He routinely has met with summer interns and appeared at receptions honoring retirees. On foreign trips, he invariably has taken time to schmooze with embassy staffs.
Mary Ryan, who once headed the Consular Affairs bureau, recalled the time when Powell showed up for a photo with 16 passport officials. Powell told the group how important their work was and to pass on that message to subordinates.
"I was scraping them down off the ceiling, they were so excited and happy," Ryan recalled.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has written that anti-American sentiment "is rising unabated around the globe because the State Department has abdicated values and principles" espoused by Bush "in favor of accommodation and passivity."
Stuart Eizenstat, a top Clinton-era State Department official, defended the loyalty of department professionals.
"They bend over backward to follow every U.S. president's leadership," Eizenstat said.