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Obama Administration Boosting US Diplomatic Corps

State Department officials say the Obama administration is planning a major increase in the size of the overseas U.S. diplomatic corps as part of its commitment to international engagement. The expansion of U.S. diplomacy is a key element of the nearly $54 billion international affairs budget sent to Congress Friday.

The Obama administration has promised the exercise of what it terms smart power in international affairs that puts diplomacy and foreign aid on an equal footing with military action.

Its new budget makes at least a down-payment on that doctrine by financing a major build-up in the U.S. diplomatic presence abroad.

At a briefing for reporters, senior officials said the $54 billion budget for the next fiscal year - a nine per cent increase over current spending levels - sets in motion a 25 per cent increase in the size of the 6,600 member State Department foreign service corps over three years.

The number of overseas employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers U.S. aid programs, would be doubled from the current level of 1,000 employees -- in keeping with a plan to double U.S. foreign aid by 2015.

Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Jacob Lew says the goal cannot be achieved without the requisite number of people abroad to manage the programs. "If you think about the objective of doubling the foreign assistance program, that can't happen without having this expanded, well-trained foreign service corps to be out there implementing it. And they really go hand-in-glove. And that's very much a new direction that we're on," he said.

The officials say the Obama administration plans to cut back on the use of private contractors in U.S. overseas programs, a practice that has been controversial - especially in Iraq where American security contractors were involved in shooting incidents that led to civilian deaths.

The new foreign affairs budget would, among other things, fully fund U.S. financial commitments to international organizations and development banks including the elimination of long-standing U.S. arrears to the United Nations.

The United States has in the past withheld dues from some U.N. activities like controversial family-planning programs, and disputed some assessments for peace-keeping. Deputy Secretary Lew says further arrears are incompatible with the new administration's commitment to multi-lateralism.

"I think the President and the Secretary have been very clear that the United States is going to be engaging very actively in the international arena and the international community. And one of the things we have to do as the largest participant in many of these efforts is that if we have commitments to pay our bills - we need to pay our bills," he said.

The new budget further enhances training for U.S. diplomats in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu - reflecting a shift in emphasis begun by the Bush administration in overseas deployments. It also provides funds for security upgrades or entirely new U.S. embassies and missions in critical posts, among them Kabul, Islamabad, Peshawar, Sanaa and Dakar.