• 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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    Congress Knows: Survey Reveals The Real Value of the State Department

    October 10, 2013 // 4 Comments »

    Since the government is shut down and thus there is no news to report except that the government is shut down, we’ll have to reach into the memory hole for something to talk about today. Ah, here’s one…

    The House Appropriations Committee approved on July 24 an $8 billion cut for 2014 in the roughly $50 billion current international affairs (State and USAID) budget. That same day, the House authorized only a $5 billion reduction in the defense budget of over $600 billion.

    The Department of State did not sit ideally by.

    The employee association (AFSA for you State people still paying dues to them for this garbage) commissioned a guy who had already written a happy-talk book about State (“America’s Other Army,” give us a break) to interview all of 28 Congressional staffers about their attitudes toward Mother State. The author concluded: “an overwhelming majority (82%) described their experience with the Foreign Service and Department of State as ‘mostly positive.’ Respondents view Foreign Service members as dedicated, intelligent and patriotic public servants who make significant sacrifices…” Awesome. Sounds like an ad on Match.com

    The author of the survey then went on ForeignPolicy.com to write a journalist-like article about his own work. Maybe Foreign Policy will next allow authors to review their own books? Sign me up, and hey, good luck with that paywall Foreign Policy.

    About that Survey

    That anyone at State paid for a survey that reached only 28 staffers out of the thousands on the Hill is in itself hilarious. There are approximately 11,692 personal staff, 2,492 committee staff, 274 leadership staff, 5,034 institutional staff, and 3,500 GAO employees, 747 CRS employees, and 232 CBO employees on the Hill. So basing anything on only 28 interviews is enough to make one wonder what FP.com’s journalistic standards are. Very sad.

    Oh yes– the 28 were selected by the author himself, not randomly. About the only bone he throws is that they were half Democrat and half Republican, which itself makes no sense given the variation even within parties.

    Here’s a taste if you don’t have the stomach to read the whole thing: One of the survey’s findings is supposedly that Congressional staffers feel that “Content about diplomacy and the Foreign Service should be included in the middle school and high school curriculum.” Sure, sure, squeeze that in between gym and drivers ed.

    Congress Knows

    The author’s broader argument, that basically Congress does not know what State does and thus undervalues, is funnier than his grasp of statistical methods.

    Congress knows; they just think State does not do much of importance. Members and their staff travel regularly abroad, where they see State Department diplomats act as their tour guides and bag carriers. As a young diplomat in London, I was assigned to accompany so many Congressional spouses on shopping trips masquerading as official business that my colleagues called me “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store.” Meanwhile, a well-briefed Defense Congressional liaison sits on the gratis military-rpovided plane for every overseas Congressional visit as a respected peer, with hours in the air to score talking points. State handles the luggage on the ground as the Defense Liaison boards the limo to the hotel. Congress knows.

    When Committees ask for quick answers from State, they get delays followed by verbatim content-free responses. Subpoenas had to be issued to get State people up to the Hill on Benghazi, and even the Secretary of State had a cascading series of “reasons” not to testify until her last days in office.

    So Congress knows.

    On the Hill

    I worked as one (in 2006) of only two State Department Congressional liaisons to assist all members of both the House and Senate. State was the last Cabinet-level agency to open a liaison office on the Hill, and only then in 2001 (by contrast, the military has had people on the Hill since the early part of the 20th century.) We were the only Cabinet-level liaison office without a dedicated web site. I was not even issued a cell phone and was not given a Blackberry to respond to emails outside the office; staffers just left voice messages for me to pick up Monday morning if I was in the office.

    We never gave briefings. State did not pay into a collective fund and so we could not reserve rooms ourselves for meetings. Instead, one of my official duties was to cajole interns on the Foreign Relations Committee to do it on our behalf. We were prohibited from doing any substantial interaction. Instead, 80 percent of the inquiries into my office were demands for visa and passport favors. Most of the other 20 percent were minor administrative things related to Congressional travel. In my year only one actual Member appeared in our office, to say a polite thank you for a U.S. visa facilitated for a well-to-do foreign friend. Congress knew just what we did.

    Full disclosure: I was removed from the liaison job after I told staffers the truth about the 2006 Passport Crisis instead of passing on State’s wholly-false talking points. Refusing to lie to Congress is what gets you in trouble at State.

    Congress knows.


    One issue the State Department just can’t get past is the need for realistic self-criticism. They just can’t do it. State instead runs a large “public diplomacy” operation at taxpayer expense in large part to promote itself, and spends tremendous energy on telling itself what a fine job it is doing.

    As for reality, Congress expresses itself (yeah I know, for better or worse) in what it funds and what it does not. So the author of all this tripe may wish to take a pause from his defacto job as State Department stenographer and admit: Congress votes against State because indeed Congress knows exactly what they get for their money: America’s Concierge Abroad.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    Eating Those Words?

    October 12, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    In Gordon & Trainor’s bookabout Iraq, as well as Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s bookabout Afghanistan, a common complaint by America’s diplomats is how their Regional Security Officers were too risk averse. The FSOs whined that Diplomatic Security held them back, that efforts to protect the dips kept them from fully engaging and thus it was Security’s fault that diplomacy failed.

    My own book about the State Department in Iraq did not include any such crap, because it is not true. FSOs like to toss out that macho language to journalists, knowing they will never be called to act on it. You guys got fooled again, sorry.

    State does like to hold on to that myth, that its officers are really rough and ready cowboys, always biting the bit to be allowed to engage freely if only those bad boys in Security did not place so many restrictions on them.

    Indeed, the State Department’s own employees association gave away its “dissent” award this year to a Foreign Service Officer who argued just that point. Dissent award winner Joshua Polacheck stated that “In an attempt at perfect security, we made a series of choices with grave policy implications. These choices send a message of distrust to the people of our host nations… the siege mentality and isolation play into the goals of many terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida and Hezbollah.” He went to propose a policy where “Foreign Service personnel should be allowed to take personal responsibility for their own actions.”

    One wonders in the aftermath of Benghazi how that award looks now in the halls of Foggy Bottom? One hopes that young Joshua is given a chance at a Libyan assignment to try out his theories on the ground.

    Assessing risk is tricky business, and typically involves access to a wider range of information (imagery, intel, electronic intercepts, etc.) than can be widely shared with each and every young gun, even if said gunners had the ability to understand, synthesize and interpret it while doing their regular jobs. Without such knowledge, one is not assuming a risk, one is just acting dumb thinking it is brave, like driving a car blindfolded, or asking a taxi driver to drop you in the most dangerous neighborhood of an unfamiliar city to see what happens.

    Even when an individual may be informed enough to make an intelligent risk assessment for him/herself, that ignores the wider political ramifications. The headline will not be “Dip Killed After Careful Personal Decision” but “Another U.S. Diplomat Slain in War of Terror.” It’s not just about you baby doll. Diplomats abroad are symbols, and a death has international implications.

    It is easy to talk the talk, but takes a lot more than that to really walk the walk. Check with Chris Stevens.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump