Stephen Glain’s new book, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, is a brilliant, sober, sad and important biography of the Department of State since World War II. The choice of word here–biography–is significant, in that instead of a simple history of State, Glain traces its decline in old age as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. This does not bode well for America. Mini review: Be afraid.
McCarthy: Beginning of the End
Though not casual reading, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire‘s detailed text will gift the reader with a thorough history of America’s overseas activities since the end of the Second World War. Told largely through tales of bureaucratic infighting between State and Defense, with Congress often coming on stage at critical moments to drive a dagger into State’s corps(e), it is not a pretty story. Author Glain, for example, chronicles the rise of the national security state post-war, but leaves it to McCarthy to devastate the State Department at a time when its prescience might have altered relations in East Asia forever, possibly preventing the Korean War:
The damage done to the State Department by McCarthy’s attacks [and the destruction of State's China hands like Service, Davis and Vincent] was irreparable. Those who did pursue diplomatic careers would find a culture of caution that impaired lateral thinking. (McCarthy’s) real legacy is the diminution of the Department of State into the intellectually inert and politically impotent agency that it is today. p.76
Limping into Vietnam, Glain shows how State never reached Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and instead allowed itself to be a forgotten extension of the military because it could never break free from its own bureaucratic in-the-box conception of international relations:
A 1972 RAND study scolded US diplomats for not doing enough to prevent the militarization of Washington’s pacification efforts in Vietnam. “The State Department,” the study said, “did not often deviate from its concept of normal diplomatic dealings with Saigon, not even when the government was falling apart. Similarly, State… made little effort to assert control over our military on political grounds… State’s concept of institution building in Vietnam turned largely on encouragement of American democratic forms, a kind of mirror-imagining which proved hard to apply to the conditions of Vietnam. p. 233
Jesse Helms and George W. Finish the Job
Despite the sparring between State and Defense over what to do in the Balkans in the 1990′s, which showed some hope for diplomacy, it was the one-two punch of Jesse Helms’ decimating State’s budget from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed by the almost complete militarization of everything after 9/11, that effectively ended State as a significant Washington player.
No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the US Government thinks about itself. The shock of an attack on the US changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action.
The shock was because 9/11 was not supposed to happen, again. Everything about the US government was as of 9/10 still configured around the mistakes made concerning Pearl Harbor. My favorite CIA Station Chief kept, framed, in his guest toilet, a copy of a cable sent by the US Embassy in Tokyo on December 7, 1941 (the attack took place December 8 Japan time) claiming war was far off. He maintained that from that December morning forward the purpose of the U.S. government was to make sure Pearl Harbor never happened again. Then it did.
On 9/12, every part of the U.S. government, with a special emphasis on those who worked abroad (State, CIA, DOD, et al), was to shift was a passive mode of listening and reporting to an action mode. The President would probably have preferred that each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. The intelligence agencies, whose 1960s and 70s comical attempts at assassinations and dirty tricks were so well documented in the Church Hearings, suddenly saw the sharp, sudden end of the debate on whether they were to conduct clandestine or sort of clandestine ops or not. State froze like a deer in the headlights, and almost lost the one action-oriented bureau in the agency, the visa office, to the new Department of Homeland Security.
George W. Bush administration is particularly singled out by Glain as having forced the air out of State. Reminding readers how the early days of Iraq occupation were run not by skilled Arabists from the State Department, but by recent college grads from the Bush campaigns, Glain writes:
American militarism came about the same way that free societies succumb to authoritarian rule: with a leadership that rewards sycophants and the like-minded, co-opts the ambitious and punishes those in dissent. p. 381
In 1950 State had 7710 diplomats abroad. In 2001, they had only 7158. The world had changed around the Department (personnel figures from Career Diplomacy, by Harry Kopp and Charles Gillespie, Second Edition).
Rise of the Combatant Commands
Roughly the last quarter of Glain’s book covers the post-9/11 period. His key contention is that the vacuum in foreign relations has been largely filled by the military combatant commanders, the men who head CENTCOM, SOCOM and the rest:
The combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of US ambassadors. p. 350
Glain’s point is worth quoting at length:
This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1, p. 405], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.
While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. “When we spoke, we had more clout,” according to Anthony Zinni. “There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.” p. 351
With stature as defacto leaders abroad, the combatant commanders also stripped State of its already meager resources. In particular, Glain focuses on the non-battle to move foreign military assistance money out of State’s hands, and dump it into the Pentagon’s coffers:
Section 1206 funding: for the first time since president Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the US military would fund such activity directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state. To no avail, Senator Patrick Leahy, implored Rice not to relinquish such vital funding authority as requested by the Pentagon… Legislative aides involved in the debate were staggered by Rice’s passivity. p. 399
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mantric utterance of the “3Ds”–defense, diplomacy and development–suggests at least passive acceptance of such a lopsided collusion. p. 404
In 1940, the U.S. place in the world was simple. Diplomacy was Euro-centric, and the State Department was a collection of gentlemen committed to proper discourse. As World War II broke out, State had just 840 diplomats stationed abroad. The world that emerged from that war still played the old game, albeit with some different players. State participated in the overall mad growth of the U.S. government, and by 1950 had 7710 diplomats assigned outside the U.S. New countries emerged, power shifted, colonies disappeared, and State blithely sat back and reported on it all. Millions of pages of reports on everything under the sun were written, likely billions of pages. You can see contemporary reports on WikiLeaks, or delve into the historical pile, where State is currently declassifying and publishing things from the Carter administration.
Glain offers no prescription for a Department of State resurgence, ending his biography with the institution at near death. State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire concludes with a depressing coda, warning America what the almost complete militarization of its foreign affairs really means:
US relations with the world, and increasingly America’s security policy at home, have become thoroughly and all but irreparably militarized. The culprits are not the nation’s military leaders… but civilian elites who have seen to it that the nation is engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle of low grade conflict… They have convinced a plurality of citizens that their best guarantee of security is not peace but war. p. 407
Despite the fanatic growth in size of government under the Bush administration, State remained a sidelined player. With 7158 employees stationed abroad in 2001, by 2010 the number had only grown to 8199, diplomats supplemented by civil servants and others on “excursion” tours abroad.
History can be quite naughty, and State may yet be handed another chance at transformation before slipping away to become not much more than America’s concierge abroad, arranging hotel rooms for Congressional delegations and aiding tourists with lost passports. But that is unlikely, leaving the military as America’s representative abroad. Be afraid.
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