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Former US Diplomat: Shutdown Hurts US Standing Abroad

FILE - The American flag flies on top of the U.S. Embassy in front of the Reichstag building that houses the German parliament in Berlin.
FILE - The American flag flies on top of the U.S. Embassy in front of the Reichstag building that houses the German parliament in Berlin.

With the partial U.S. government shutdown set to head into its third week, office closures and employee furloughs are making a bigger impact on government services.

But at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas, the State Department said, most public services are so far largely unaffected. The department said it prioritizes protecting U.S. national security interests and the safety of U.S. citizens abroad during a partial government shutdown.

"Consular operations, including visa and passport services, domestically and abroad, will remain open as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations," a spokesperson told VOA. The official said embassies also continue to provide routine and emergency U.S. citizen services.

Some embassy services, such as American Centers and EducationUSA offices, are closed during the shutdown.

While visas so far are unaffected, former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell, a longtime diplomat who was working at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa during a 21-day shutdown in 1996, told VOA that shutdowns typically have a larger impact on staff.

"In a relatively poor country like Nigeria, or for that matter, South Africa, the burden of a shutdown falls particularly hard on locally engaged staff, then called foreign service nationals," he said.

Impression of incompetence

Campbell noted the damage to U.S. prestige during a shutdown is hard to measure but substantial, with people in other countries struggling to understand why the United States cannot manage to keep its government up and running.

"What it does is it conveys the impression of fundamental political incompetence. And as such, it certainly damages the image of the United States abroad," he said.

Campbell said the work of U.S. diplomats around the world is sometimes underappreciated, but vital to U.S. national security.

"We need to get beyond the notion that diplomatic establishments overseas are cocktail parties. They are probably one of the most important sources of information to the United States government on security issues," he said.

Despite the partial government shutdown, the top U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is set to head out on a six-country tour of Gulf Cooperation Council countries in the Middle East next week, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A senior State Department official said Pompeo would reassure U.S. allies that America is not abandoning the Middle East, despite the president's announcement that he plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.