• Competence v. Loyalty at State: The Return of McGurk

    March 11, 2013 // 27 Comments »

    They say one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

    McGurk Gets a Job?

    Such is the story of the State Department and Brett McGurk. Having failed to appoint him U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (due to McGurk’s overall incompetence and sexual dalliance), the State Department simply gave him a sequester-proof salary and a made-up desk job and waited a bit before, now, apparently anointing him as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for both Iraq and Iran. The DAS job does not require Senate confirmation, the thing that tripped up McGurk the last time around.

    The Back Channel tells us that McGurk will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. The State Department plans to combine the two offices because, well, McGurk likely can’t tell the difference between the two countries anyway, damn foreigners, and because there isn’t anything really that important going on in either place to justify its own DAS. The blog calls the appointment a “done deal.”

    Where to Begin?

    McGurk spent a good portion of the last ten years working for the U.S. Government in Iraq, advising several ambassadors and leading the failed negotiations to secure permanent U.S. bases there. You’d kinda think having that on your resume– I am partially responsible for everything that happened in Iraq for the last ten years, including America’s tail-between-its-legs retreat— might make it hard to get another job running Iraq policy. Who goes out of their way to hire the coach that lost most of his games?

    The other side of McGurk’s failed attempt at being ambassador was his questionable personal life, which in turn raised issues of judgement, decorum, discretion, and class. Like with Petraeus, it was sexual misconduct that brought the real questions of competence and ability to light.

    Six members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time called on Obama to withdraw McGurk’s nomination, meaning that as DAS McGurk already enjoys a warm relationship with his key committee on the Hill. His appointment after the Senate nixed him will also no doubt enhance the State Department’s overall reputation during the budget process. And of course being the DAS and having everyone in your office know your sleazy backstory ensures you will be taken seriously.

    As well-documented across the internet, in addition to emails trading sex for access (a two way deal between McGurk and the then-Wall Street Journal’s Gina Chon [she resigned), we add another item, accusations of a McGurk sex tape from Iraq. The giver of the taped sex was a State Department Foreign Service Officer, gratefully female, inevitably Public Diplomacy.

    Elsewhere, the Washington Post reported that McGurk invited his then-mistress Gina Chon to be a guest lecturer at a Harvard course he taught in 2009. Harvard students attending the class had no idea that their teacher was romantically involved with Chon, who spoke to them about her experience reporting getting inside info by sleeping with her sources in Iraq, according to a student who attended.

    State Department at Work

    Only the Department of State today stands proudly alone declaring that no one else in the entire U.S. government, or the entire United States for that matter, is qualified to serve as ambassador to Iraq Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for both Iraq and Iran but a guy who has done nothing in his 39 years of life but be politically appointed to Iraq jobs (none earned, elected or competitively chosen, just appointed), making a selfish hash out of even that.

    McGurk is Not the Exception But the Rule

    McGurk’s supporters cite his years of experience in Iraq. But would you choose a heart surgeon who lost most of his patients on the operating table simply because he had been doing it for ten years? Experience is merely time served; competence requires judgement to be exercised.

    The issue of McGurk, however, is sadly not one in isolation at Foggy Bottom. While it is clear, ten years after, that the U.S. efforts in Iraq in general and the State Department-led reconstruction in the specific were almost complete failures, let’s look at (as an example) the chain of command that oversaw my own Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ efforts and see what happened to them all since:

    Me: Blacklisted by State

    My Boss: Now an Army contractor advising on reconstruction in Afghanistan

    His Boss (Not McGurk): A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State

    That Guy’s Boss: Appointed an Ambassador

    Her Boss: Appointed an Ambassador

    Ambassador to Iraq at the Time: Dean of the Korbel School of Diplomacy in Colorado

    His boss, Secretary Clinton: Waiting to become president in 2016.


    And that’s the saddest news of all: while the McGurk saga is perhaps a more extreme instance, and certainly more fun with its tawdry sex aspect than mere bureaucratic failure, the upward movement of failed people at the State Department exists almost as a policy. That policy, spelled out in a few words, is simple: people are rewarded for longevity at best, for keeping their mouths shut at worst, and competence is never really part of the calculus. While there are certainly competent people in senior positions within the State Department, they all had to primarily pass the tests of loyalty and time-served first.

    John Kerry? Yes, it’s your legacy calling, saying it has gone into hiding for its own protection…




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    Posted in Embassy/State