• What If Trump Dismantled the State Department, and It Didn’t Matter?

    November 30, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    Bad news: President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.


    Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”

    Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60% loss of Career Ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two (and of the three that did retire, two are married to one another suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Choosing to count noses “right after Labor Day” is deceptive. Most retirements take place officially on September 30 in line with the ending of the federal fiscal year, so numbers will seem lower in November. Stephenson also leaves out the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.

    The number of Career Ministers (another senior rank) in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation process, not the White House.

    Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry level diplomats, though fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two-thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs.

    Also not mentioned is that intake of new Foreign Service officers is now primarily via existing fellowship programs, as regular intake is frozen. These fellowships recruit heavily from historically black colleges and universities, which means diversity at State should actually increase under Trump. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.


    So good news, the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But the bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.

    For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, handing out about a third of the posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

    Relevancy?  State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian. 

    Or take a longer view: in 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052 as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.


    It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.

    In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility, budget, and influence is confined to a single country, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, or value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to get Washington’s ear, or to pry open its purse?


    It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent United States-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy, and without it, looks like.

    For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the Secretary of State herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended — diplomatically — an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.

    President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush plunged into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.

    With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.


    It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully-staffed State Department, either by ignoring its advice, or simply ignoring diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, the point is much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is old and scary. It is a hard point, rationality, to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will start WWIII soon in a tweet.

    Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought, or heeded, or if they are not directed toward the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors did by neglecting the institution in regions where it might have mattered most.


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    Police Blindside Woman with Nightstick, Pepper Ball Man at Basketball Celebration

    April 3, 2014 // 9 Comments »

    What happens when the militarization of our police grows too strong? This happens:

    March Madness

    In the final minutes of a March Madness basketball game, University of Arizona students gathered on University Boulevard as they had after previous NCAA Tournament games prepared to celebrate a win, or commiserate a loss. A local bar owner noted that the students didn’t cause any trouble or property damage, and there was no violence until police began trying to clear the streets. “The kids,” said the owner, “I want to say they weren’t unruly, it was drunk college kids partying after a loss. I think more were hanging out in the street rather than trying to cause problems.”

    None the less, Tucson police showed up in Darth Vader-style riot gear, armed with nightstick and non-lethal bullets, pepper spray and gas masks. They quickly declared that the students were now an “unlawful assembly,” ordered them to disperse and when they did not immediately do so, attacked the crowd.

    The Attack

    One student said “It seemed like cops were asking for trouble. Wearing gas masks and lining University Boulevard before the game even ended seemed excessive.”

    What happened next is shocking. A video showed a cop blindsiding a young woman with his nightstick. Another video showed police firing non-lethal rounds into a male student and then roughly tackling him to the ground when he did not go down.

    Us and Them

    Police are empowered to use appropriate force, primarily when needed to protect themselves or others. The inappropriate use of escalating violence is more akin to what happens in war zone, not among partying college students. Tuscon on a spring evening shouldn’t look like Kiev, Istanbul or Caracas, but it did. One is left to wonder if the cops see these students as “their people,” the ones they are sworn to protect and serve. Watching the videos, more and more one feels cops have the same Us and Them attitudes soldiers adopt in war zones.

    The actions of an increasingly militarized police are reinforced by billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons and equipment available to local police departments through grant programs administered by federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns:

    The police officers on our streets and in our neighborhoods are not soldiers fighting a war. Yet many have been armed with tactics and weapons designed for battle overseas. The result: people – disproportionately those in poor communities and communities of color – have become targets for violent SWAT raids, often because the police suspect they have small amounts of drugs in their homes.

    In his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, author Radley Balko shows how politicians’ relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. He shows how over a generation, a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society.

    The evidence accumulates. Have we have become the enemy? We have become the enemy.



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    Ralph Nader: Generalissima Clinton Expanding the Empire

    February 20, 2013 // 17 Comments »

    Ralph Nader offers up one of the better summaries of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and at the same time gives us a taste of what a Clinton presidency in 2016 might do for America.

    Clinton’s chief legacy, according to Nader? “Behind the public relations sheen, the photo-opportunities with groups of poor people in the developing world, an ever more militarized State Department operated under Clinton’s leadership.”

    Nader goes on to say:

    Secretary Clinton reveled in tough, belligerent talk and action on her many trips to more than a hundred countries. She would warn or threaten “consequences” on a regular basis. She supported soldiers in Afghanistan, the use of secret Special Forces in other places and “force projection” in East Asia to contain China. She aggressively supported or attacked resistance movements in dictatorships, depending on whether a regime played to Washington’s tune.

    Time and again, Hillary Clinton’s belligerence exceeded that of Obama’s Secretaries of Defense. From her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to her tenure at the State Department, Hillary Clinton sought to prove that she could be just as tough as the militaristic civilian men whose circle she entered. Throughout her four years it was Generalissima Clinton, expanding the American Empire at large.


    Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. 2016 is coming– be afraid. Read the entire article at Common Dreams.

    More on the militarization of the State Department here and here.


    Meanwhile, like any good public servant, Hillary is pimping herself out as a public speaker, for six figure fees.




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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    The Militarization of the State Department

    August 13, 2012 // 11 Comments »

    Of the many (many) issues that debilitate the effectiveness of the Department of State, none should concern us all more than the ongoing militarization of America’s foreign affairs. I have written about the chilling effects of this, others have written whole books on the subject, and columnists have focused on specific areas of concern, such as Africa.

    The State Department risks almost complete irrelevance, sinking into the role of America’s concierge abroad even as the ever-ironically named Department of Defense grows and grows.

    So it is with more than a little concern that we all listened recently to Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington try way too hard to make it sound different. As the people say, you usually don’t need a lot of words to prove something that is just true. It’s when the salesperson won’t stop talking that you better watch your wallet.

    “The State Department is a national security agency, too,” Shapiro said. “We are helping to save lives every day” (No specifics; really, lives? Everyday? Like at a hospital?)

    State has, in recent years, increased its efforts to become directly involved in security assurance, even during military operations. It had diplomatic staff members on the ground in Libya during intense fighting there last year, Shapiro said. (Doing exactly what? Accomplishing what, other than fulfilling DOD’s “Bring Your Diplomat to Work Day”)

    OK, I wanted specifics and Shapiro gave up what he had to offer:

    • The creation of the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), a joint pool of money funded by upwards of $200 million from DOD and $50 million from the State Department to be used for rapid responses to security situations. (If DOD is funding it 4:1, guess who has the biggest say in things?)

    • A January memorandum of understanding signed by the two departments that nearly doubled the size of a personnel swap program, meaning that roughly 100 DOD staff members will be working at the State Department, and 95 State staff members will be working at DOD. (OK I guess, but more uniforms at State is not likely to lessen the effects of militarization, while 95 diplomats will soak into the DOD carpet and hardly be noticed)

    • The creation of a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), modeled on the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that DoD employs for long-term planning. (Seriously Shapiro? BFD, another paper another planning document. Where’s the action?)


    In short, Shapiro offered little but some happy talk, and of course the tried-and-true sucking up that State does lead in:

    The cooperation between the State Department and the Pentagon is truly unprecedented, and I think this will be remembered as one of Secretary Clinton’s lasting legacies.


    Sorry to say, but if this is all an Assistant Secretary of State can cite to justify his lead-off assertion that “The U.S. State Department has earned a greater say in international security policy, aided by years of joint nation-building in the Middle East that has improved cooperation with the Pentagon,” there is little there to say that militarization of our foreign affairs is not a done deal. Maybe you need to try even harder next time Shapiro.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    Sorry Aid and Reconstruction Workers, You’re a Target Now

    February 14, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    One of the used-to-be strengths of the United States’ foreign policy was a big tool box. We had the military of course, but in the right place at the right time the CIA, the State Department, charities and NGOs, each one doing something different. A smart leader could choose the right tool for the job.

    The militarization of foreign policy since 9/11 has been a huge mistake, one that has rendered the State Department largely a vestigial limb of government. 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.

    The other problem with militarization is that it makes military targets out of people like NGO workers who should not be in the cross hairs of the bad guys. The latest sad revelation out of Pakistan only serves to put more American lives abroad in danger.

    According to the National Journal’s Marc Ambinder in his new book on Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army:

    The U.S. intelligence community took advantage of the chaos to spread resources of its own into [Pakistan]. Using valid U.S. passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. (emphasis added)

    So thanks JSOC, we’re all more valuable targets now that the bad guys can’t tell a legitimate reconstruction worker or NGO staffer from one of your goons.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    The Militarization of Foreign Policy

    May 10, 2011 // 11 Comments »

    groucho at embassy freedoniaThere 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.

    Oops.

    Why can’t, as one journalist put it, State get any love from Congress? Foreign Policy again with a big For Example:

    “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.



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