Obama's Berlin rally off-limits for American diplomats

The Barack Obama campaign rally has been declared off-limits to State Department personnel in Germany, according to a ruling that determined it to be a “partisan political activity”.  The ruling has some Foreign Service employees outraged at what they see as an improper restriction on their political activity, but any appeal would take too long to resolve the issue:

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin has instructed Foreign Service personnel stationed there not to attend Sen. Barack Obama’s public rally today, which the State Department this week labeled a “partisan political activity” prohibited under its regulations for those serving overseas.

Government employees serving in the United States are permitted to attend such events under the Hatch Act, which bars other partisan activity, such as contributing money or working in behalf of a candidate.

But “we always maintain that no U.S. government Foreign Service person overseas should be seen to be advocating one side or the other,” State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy said, adding that “it has nothing to do with who” the candidate is.

Kennedy noted that the State Department has no precedent for this, as no other political candidate has ever held a campaign rally outside the United States.  State points to the Obama campaign’s staging of the event for its determination of its partisan nature.  That puts it in conflict with its long-established regulation that forbids American employees of the Foreign Service abroad from “engag[ing] in partisan political activities abroad”.  In fact, it also forbids spouses and families from doing so as well, although State refrained from forbidding them from attending the Obama event.

Their union, AFSA, called it an “unnecessarily narrow interpretation” of the regulations, but it’s hard to see how the State Department could have ruled otherwise.  Obama’s presidential campaign is staging this event, which clearly marks it as partisan political activity.  AFSA believes that the manual intends to proscribe more active participation, such as campaigning by the employees themselves for candidates, and points to the Hatch Act allowing state-side State employees to attend political rallies.

However, State has an interest in keeping its foreign consulates as non-partisan as possible, or at least their appearance.  Employees in the US do not have the responsibility of representing the nation, as do employees stationed abroad.  Embassies and consulates should represent all of the people of the US, and that requires more discretion from their staffs.  If they want to see Obama speak, they can be reasonably sure to catch the event on television.

Addendum: Jim Geraghty notices that the Post reports the event’s status as a political event as fact, an interesting editorial decision.