WASHINGTON — Spending a day at the State Department is a little like taking one of those "if it's Thursday it must be Rome" trips, but with a macabre twist. First, one diplomat highlights his region's disease epidemics, violent border disputes, military takeovers and endemic corruption. Then, another ambassador details the disasters in his part of the developing world. And on and on. About halfway through you find yourself thinking, if only the planet can hold on another 30 or 40 years, I'm outta here.
An added downer of the day for my group of 20 national opinion writers was being stood up by the Madame Secretary herself, Hillary Clinton, who abruptly cancelled our briefing without explanation. I realize we're not that important, but at least she could have offered up some emergency excuse: a new war broke out, a diplomatic crisis with China, a big sale on pantsuits. Something.
Instead we got to hear from Jacob Lew, deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, whose official vita says he serves as Secretary Clinton's "alter ego." Which had us wondering whether he might at some point whirl around in his chair and emerge as his boss.
Lew's primary message was that investments in overseas food security, development and global health are as vital to a stable world as having a powerful military. He urged Congress to think of the State Department budget as a "national security budget" as sacrosanct as that for the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security.
Lew's admonition has the benefit of being well grounded. A world that talks and trades, that is healthy and fed, is undoubtedly safer. The only glitch is that the State Department doesn't build tanks and fighter planes in every congressional district in the country, meaning, unlike the Defense Department, there is no domestic constituency for State, beyond hapless American travelers who once lost their passport. This makes the State Department budget vulnerable, and officials are clearly worried about 2012.
As to the world, I learned some horrifying things, such as that 25 million people have now died of AIDS, with another 2 million dying annually. Ambassador Eric Goosby, coordinator of the Office for Global AIDS, informed us that the U.S. targets the women of sub-Saharan Africa for prevention education (condoms, condoms, condoms!) because, if they targeted men, "it might not work at all," Goosby said bluntly.
This theme was parroted by Donald Yamamoto, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, who said straight out, if you don't support women's business efforts, you're not going to have economic development in Africa.
It's girl power at its saddest.
On to Southeast Asia and Ambassador Scot Marciel, who offered the understatement of the day when he called the U.S. effort to deal with the military junta in Burma "tough sledding." Maybe if we called the country Myanmar, its name, communications would be easier.
A little closer to home, our guy for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, was more optimistic, noting that every one of our hemispheric neighbors but Cuba is now headed by an elected government. Still, the Western Hemisphere has the greatest disparity in wealth of anywhere in the world — a destabilizing condition in any society, including our own. And Valenzuela just doesn't see Latin America investing in education in a way that allows it to be competitive in the 21st century.
Then Ambassador Richard Holbrooke spoke to us about the difficulties facing American strategic interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But only off-the-record, so never mind.
And there you have it, a sampling of my day trip into the world's human suffering and security threats. It's quite a pile.
State Department officials, feeling perennially understaffed and underfunded, are fond of noting that America has fewer diplomats than musicians in Defense Department military bands. It's a sad song in this dangerous world, to be sure.