I spent 24 years working for the State Department, including one year in Iraq. Following that I wrote my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and the Department of State began proceedings against me. They sought to bully me, then failed to prosecute me, then tried to fire me. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, I instead retired from the State Department with my full benefits of service. And some residual bitterness. It was like a divorce– I had once been in love, then was shocked into seeing the ugly truth. Leaves a mark on you.
So here in the mail comes an engraved invitation to attend a ceremony “honoring my career of dedicated service to the United States.” You can see the thing below. State only holds these ceremonies every once in awhile, so the fact that I received my invite about a year and a half after retiring is nothing special. The fact that after all the nasty, childish and likely illegal things State did to me to cap off “my career of dedicated service to the United States,” that they still sent me the invite is also nothing special. Everybody who retires gets one of these. There are likely to be several hundred old people at the ceremony. In fact, if you look at the invitation, the event is being held in an auditorium.
I don’t think I’ll be there on January 28.
I suspect for the vast majority of invitees, the decision to attend or not to attend was no big deal. I am sure that almost everyone in the Washington DC area will show up, and many from out of town as well. The ones who do not attend will likely sigh when they get the invite, and mumble “Well, if only we didn’t live so far away,” or “Shoot honey, isn’t that the same week as Sissy’s wedding in Ohio?” Good for them, either way.
For me, the invite prompted a long period of reflection. I thought about going; maybe wear my Free Chelsea Manning T-shirt, the way I did on my last official day of work. About three drinks into the reflection, the idea of doing something childish in the building, some kind of protest thing, seemed kinda cool, maybe to get walked out by security from your own retirement reception, yes?
But in fact I was struck by the boilerplate line on the invitation, the one that mentioned “my career of dedicated service to the United States.” I realized that that was true, though I suspect if the State Department had three drinks alongside of me we would differ on how to define that dedicated service.
For me, the real service I provided the United States began the day I realized everything about Iraq was a lie, and that my continued employment was contingent on me enthusiastically participating in that lie. We were helping the Iraqis. The Iraqis were happy to be democratized. The grinning thugs we gave our money to were smiling because they loved America, not because they saw me and my colleagues as hopeless idiots who for some reason wanted to make them rich in return for little more than a few propaganda photos.
From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to the clarity that so much of what I did during my career was a lie. Shilling for American businesses abroad but calling it diplomacy, telling people we were “concerned,” or that their problems were a “priority,” or had the “attention of the ambassador” when I knew none of that was true. Watching good people inside State go down, while toadies and back lickers were promoted, living a life where people would go home from the office saying things like “I hope the Deputy Assistant Secretary’s staff aide reads my memo. It took me eight days to get the twenty internal clearances I needed to send it forward.” I came to understand that the State Department, as a frontman for America abroad, was little more of a confidence scam, playing at some version of whatever was done in the 19th century in return for nice housing, a cushy life and some money.
I realized that looking at that invitation that I did indeed have a “career of dedicated service to the United States.” Only to me that career truly started the day I returned from Iraq and decided to tell people about what I saw, the previous twenty-some years merely a warmup, and an education.
So, after realizing that my definition of service and State’s differed in such totality, I decided not to attend the ceremony. Besides, in the words of Groucho, who’d want to belong to a club that would have a guy like me as a member?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.
At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you!
What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy. During my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Leader I watched with some sadness as the majority of our engagement with Iraqis in the field was conducted by young Army captains. I was the lone Foreign Service Officer assigned to a brigade of some 3000 soldiers and while I stayed busy and traveled out of the Forward Operating Base almost daily, there was only so much of me, even overweight and often incompetent as I am. I covered a rural area that sprawled like spilled paint, some one million Iraqis.
The bottom line was that for most Iraqis not living and working in the Green Zone, the only Americans they saw wore green and carried weapons.
The militarization issue was always visible at the smallest units of diplomacy in Iraq, the PRTs. The Department of State struggled to field adequate numbers of qualified employees from among its own ranks, forcing the creation of an army of contractors, called 3161s after the name of the legislation in 5 USC 3161 that created their hiring program. The need for 3161s to live on a military base skewed hiring toward self-selecting former military, nearly self-defeating the idea of providing a civilian side to reconstruction.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in its review of the PRTs’ first year of operation found an Army veterinarian developing agriculture programs, an Air Force aviation maintenance manager as a PRT co-leader, and advisers to Iraqi provincial governors who included a former Navy submariner, a Marine ultrasound technician, and an Army drill sergeant. My own PRT staff fit a similar profile, with the exception of my agricultural advisor, a pig farmer from Missouri. He always felt a bit out of place in Iraq when no one wanted to discuss hogs with him.
To be fair, out in the field many of those young Army captains did a pretty good job of engaging Iraqis. Many officers were smart, well-educated and generally enthusiastic about their missions of handing out supplies, reconstructing schools and government buildings and generally promoting the idea that America wanted to be besty friends with Iraq over three cups of tea. The problem, however, went something like this:
Captain: Here’s money for a new village well. We’re friends now, brother.
Iraqi: You invaded our country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son in an air raid.
Captain: That wasn’t me dude. I was in college when that happened.
Iraqi: They looked like you. You invaded my country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son.
Captain: Um, how about some more money to buy sheep? Some medical supplies?
Iraqi: Can you guys please finish your tea and just leave Iraq?
Unfortunately, that was the good news. There were also some young officers uncomfortable with the hearts and minds mission, unable to switch back and forth from their game face to their happy face seventy two times a day. I can’t blame them; diplomacy is not what they were trained to do. Folks don’t seem to understand that if you want a young kid to put down his rifle, you have to give him some other kind to tools to get what he needs. Patton had a clear mission that could be communicated down to the lowest levels: kill Germans until we reach Berlin, then stop. Unless/until we can attain the same clarity in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, we do a disservice to our soldiers as they risk their lives trying to implement our ambiguity.
You see, there is something to be said for having America’s engagements overseas done by civilians. That system—we call it diplomacy—has worked pretty well for what it is for most of the last couple of thousand years. The military does some stuff well, and diplomats do some stuff well. Remember your Clausewitz: war is what happens only after diplomacy fails.
Despite the idea of foreign policy being conducted by diplomats, not soldiers, dating back to the ancients, America increasingly seems to be asking its soldiers to take over the job. Have a look at Afghanistan, where beginning last summer DOD personnel (albeit current civilians) began replacing previously untrained US military personnel and contractors as advisers to top levels of the Afghan defense and interior ministries. The credit goes to a relatively new Pentagon program called the Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA).
Within two months after the first deployment of 17 advisers in Kabul, General Petraeus demanded 100 more before the end of this year. Another such program is the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI), which aims at the defense ministries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It identifies gaps and then supplies teams of subject matter experts to work with a partner nation.
(BTW, if you’re looking for this kind of work, there are plenty of positions.)
In scenic southwest Asia, recent budget maneuvers have sent the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF) back to the Pentagon for the rest of the year at least. The Pentagon was the original owner of that fund. Transferring the money as well as the program’s management to State was a key part of Secretary Clinton’s plan to assert more State Department control of foreign assistance programs.
State tried to take over the PCCF in early 2010; some top senators wanted to give State control over the fund but couldn’t do so last year because State wasn’t prepared to take on the mission.
As you read this, Congress considers how much of the mission in Iraq (and the money that goes with it) will be passed to State when the military effects some form of a pullout from that country later this year. No one is sure what will happen; Senator Lindsey Graham is doubtful State can do it without the military around.
The really hah hah not really funny part of this is that DOD does not want all this money and all these missions. In a reversal of bureaucratic infighting that could yet unset the time-space continuum, the loudest voice on the Hill asking for more money for State is SecDef Gates. “The State Department has an unusually strong advocate in Secretary Gates in that regard,” Senator Carl Levin noted. In fact, as Foreign Policy explained, Gates floated a memo proposing that State and DOD share about $2 billion worth of foreign assistance money and administer the accounts jointly. But Hill staffers, who would be the ones appropriating the money, said there was no follow-through.
“I think there is a self-limiting quality to how Embassy Baghdad is functioning,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the recently returned commander of all multinational forces in Iraq’s northern region.
“They are not actually doing the research to say this is what we need and if you don’t give me this, this is what we are going to have to take away and here is the effect it will have on the effort. Rather they are going through things and saying this is what we think the piece of the pie is we’re are going to get and here is some stuff we could do for that money. That’s all fine and good, but if you don’t actually accomplish the mission in the end, then you actually fail. What good is that?”
For example, Caslen said the PRTs role in actually helping Iraqis in rural areas with reconstruction is vital and abandoning it in any way would be a mistake. “The task that the Iraqis value more than anything is reconstruction and that clearly is a PRT task,” Caslen said. Regarding plans to alter the PRTs away from the reconstruction mission, he said, “That course of action puts our future relationship at risk. We definitely need the PRTs.”
The State Department started shutting down PRTs as early as 2009, typically due to lack of competent staffing. Most of the larger PRTs faded away or were combined in September 2010, and the whole PRT structure will disappear completely in Iraq by spring of this year.
While the military’s can-do responses to Congress keep paying off, State tends to run the bath water lukewarm when handed a task on the scale of PRT work.
Former PRT staffer Blake Stone offered this assessment:
This lack of specific planning guidance stemmed from the inherent inability of the State Department to engage in this sort of work—executing what essentially amounted to the last two phases of a military operation. State Department Foreign Service Officer skill sets are much too passive—the collecting and reporting of information, for example, were the professional stock-in-trade of both of our political cone FSO team leaders.
The primary interests of both our team leaders were good reporting and submitting weekly reports to Washington. The absence of the ability to plan, execute, and lead stability and reconstruction operations was painfully apparent—it just was not a required skill set or core competency within State. For those of us who came to the State Department directly from the military, this nearly universal truism was a constant source of frustration and disappointment. Our State Department leadership failed either to plan effectively or to lead the civilian reconstruction effort.
A military colleague working with another ePRT summed it all up, saying:
State is less concerned about what actually gets done. They don’t establish metrics for themselves, or measure accomplishments. More interested in process, policy, effective communication and establishing connections that allow them to generate good reports. The State Department is very happy just to be. And whether or not anything actually gets done is not important to them.
I wish the sad tales were confined to Iraq and State. Instead, here is an example of how badly broken the system really is: in FY2009 USAID was authorized $35 million to build cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. It was two-year money which will expire at the end of FY11. USAID was unable to execute the program and late last year proposed to spend the money developing home businesses instead for some reason. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh, recognizing that the Bangladeshis needed and had been offered cyclone shelters, requested that Special Operations Civil Affairs personnel instead execute the original program. USAID just finished transferring the money to PACOM and Special Operations troops and seeing to the construction of the shelters.
Bottom Line: As long as the civilian development agencies are unable to execute needed programs, and convinced that partner nations will be happy with any well-intentioned program whether or not it meets their expressed needs, the military will be the tool of choice.
Our execution of outreach programs reminds of a line from a Steppenwolf song–“He only had a dollar to live on ’til next Monday, but he spent it all on comfort for his mind.” If we are to get and effectively use a greater share of the budget, we need to spend the money on some goal beyond making us feel good about ourselves.
State continues to focus on nonsense while at the same time complaining that the military is usurping the State role.
The slow pace of rebalancing national security spending and the lack of a comprehensive strategy for guiding that process is the subject of a book by former OMB national security funding chief Gordon Adams, Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home.
“The tool kit is out of whack,” Adams told The Cable. “There’s been a major move over the last 10 years to expand the Defense Department’s agenda, which has been creeping into the foreign-policy agenda in new and expensive ways.”
What win can State point to to claw back Congressional confidence? What accomplishments, for example, will be cited as the Department works (read: fails) to convince Congress to pour more money into the Iraq mission and thus demilitarize that hunk o’ foreign policy love? The $58 billion it helped spend on “reconstruction” and democracy building in Iraq? The world’s largest Embassy, in Baghdad, that cost $1 billion and includes a driving range, a bar and outdoor water misters? Good spelling and grammar on Wikileaks? State needs to rack up some wins.
There is not a lot to work with at present, even for the most dedicated PR people and Congressional liaisons. The results described above are almost inevitable.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!