• Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part I of II

    May 20, 2020 // 1 Comment »


     
    Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend, or shouting out your GMail password. It just feels wrong in your mouth, because what’s Mike or the State Department done lately? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, it occurs the United States has passed almost four years without a foreign policy, and without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.
     
    On his first anniversary in the job Pompeo told assembled diplomats “We needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president” but never actually said what that mission was. A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “mike pompeo weight – mike pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

    We had high hopes for Mike. He and John Bolton (as National Security Advisor) were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend himself, Henry “Bloody Hands” Kissinger. Pompeo watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. John Bolton, who liberals expected to see on a throne in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, instead sits by the phone hoping a think tank will offer him an intern to listen to his stories, or maybe Dancing with the Stars will ring needing a last-minute. That show on Fox?

    Prior to Pompeo, the Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. had followed similar political caution and still garrisoned Vietnam?

    Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

     

    It would be easy to blame Trump, his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter, sucking all of the diplomatic air out of the room and suffocating up-and-coming diplomats like Mike and Rex before they even had a chance to try on their plumed hats. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind the big ticket items like Iraq Wars I-III. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

    One can imagine meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Nah, something on Twitter from POTUS about armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.”

     

    So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing diplomatic stuff. The Nation called him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

    OK, but… Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for ten years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement where the National Security Council did much of the heavy lifting, and one which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed good effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Kerry’s muscular efforts came to little substance (albeit through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

    After that, you have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.)

    That Nation article praising Kerry also cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council…” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry did sing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the APEC conference in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown. Kerry’s most significant achievement was leaving many Democratic voters secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

     

    But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself. Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to match her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll for the campaign like a chunky Angelina Jolie. She also had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. “Texts from Hillary” predated Instagram. Not a pair of dry panties to be found over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    But in the tally of history, Hillary Clinton accomplished… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

    From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

    A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to march America into the desert and abandon her there (Colin) and march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and abandon her there (Condi.)

     

    The good news is the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. No recent president made much use of those diplomats either, so they are unlikely to be missed.

    The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations.

    If the U.S. government had to downsize into a smaller capital, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, sentimental, good times, but why did we keep them all these years?

    How did this happen? In Part II of this article, we’ll look at the factors internal to State and the United States, and those external, global changes, that left the Department adrift.

      

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

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    State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?

    December 8, 2017 // 3 Comments »


     

    The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.


    A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days, spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

    The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.


    A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble, including disclosing once-sacrosanct internal dissent memos. Soon after Tillerson took office his diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. Another dissent memo leaked some ten days ago, this time with Tillerson’s people claiming their own boss was in violation of the law.

    Alongside building their version of the organization, it is incumbent on a new Secretary to aim the State Department at some goal. State is an agency without primary agency; under one administration it focuses on arms control. Under another, State tries to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the emphasis has been on “soft power,” programs to empower women, the use of social media, promoting democracy, and the growth LGBTQ rights. Tillerson never articulated much of a goal beyond some unfocused thoughts on structural reform that will never again see daylight. Though it is fashionable to label Tillerson as the worst Secretary of State of modern times, in reality Tillerson will be remembered as perhaps the most pointless of Secretaries.

    Based on my conversations with former State Department colleagues (I served 24 years as a diplomat) Tillerson’s successor will encounter a mood inside the State Department reminiscent of a rescue dog kennel; over there are the mutts who feel abused, wary of any new human. Off to the side are the ones who have given up; the need to log a certain number of years of service to get their generous pensions will keep many technically on the books but a new Secretary can expect very little from them. The majority of dogs will be open and waiting to see what happens (“Can’t be much worse, right?” is something many at State are saying.) But watch out for a few who feel newly empowered, the ones who think they helped drive a bad Secretary out of office. They may still bite.


    It is unclear Mike Pompeo, the heir apparent, will be able to succeed where Tillerson failed. The climate for political appointees in Washington today feels more like that of late in a moderately successful president’s second term; the good people have already been selected-served-moved on, many of the old standbys are not interested in signing up for what may turn out to be short-run jobs, and that leaves a small pool for Pompeo to fill State Department jobs from. Pompeo’s tenure at Central Intelligence was brief enough that he is unlikely to bring over many loyalists, and most at Langley see working for State as a kind of step down anyway (many at the Agency view themselves as the lacrosse team, with State as the nerd club.) Who will Pompeo staff with? And how can he do it quickly while the dogs are still weighing out their next moves?

    There is also the issue of culture. Pompeo began his tenure at Central Intelligence on a relatively positive note. However, his hard line stances soon rubbed many the wrong way, leaving them wondering if the boss could navigate the nuances that drive good decision making. How poorly that will play out at the State Department, with its culture of discussion and deliberation, its love of what-ifs and may-be’s, is easy to imagine.

    And there’s the record: Pompeo caught Trump’s eye in part for his tough stance on Iran. Inside the State Department, the Iran Nuclear Accords are seen as one of the institution’s modern-day signature accomplishments. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the global system of trade and democracy, part of modern administrations. Tillerson, weakly but in line with State-think, pushed for some sort of talks with North Korea and supported the Iran deal. Pompeo opposes both. That’s a big chip to have on your shoulder your first day at work.


    But at the end of the day, the mismatch between State and Pompeo, or State and Haley, or State and Tillerson for that matter, is not really about who is Secretary of State, but who is president. A lot of the anger directed at Tillerson was actually using him as a stand-in for Trump. The primary driver of foreign policy remains the White House, and the White House appears to have little love for its diplomats. If as an establishment Republican Tillerson had within him a bit of divergent thinking from Trump on issues like Iran and North Korea, Pompeo as an old school hawk is nothing but a loyalist, with a personal connection to Trump. If the president’s intention is indeed to dismantle the State Department, it is hard to imagine a person better suited to the task than a guy like Mike Pompeo. As the New York Times editorial board has already accused Tillerson of “making war on diplomacy,” it will be interesting to see what words they have left to label Pompeo’s opening shots.


    Rex Tillerson is still Secretary of State, even as people inside and outside of Foggy Bottom cheer his demise. The irony will be if in a few months from now some of those same people start wondering if they had not been better off under his leadership.


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    Whither Rex Tillerson?

    December 6, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a guy who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it is not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria line to get the last Jello dessert, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times claiming the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA director Mike Pompeo.

    Politico ran basically the same story two weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to attract much attention. And it seemed like only yesterday Tillerson was finished again, to be replaced by America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. OK, sorry, that was last month.

    Let’s take a deep, cleansing breath, and recognize there are two stories here. The first is how long Tillerson will remain at State, a story that is more palace intrigue than anything else. The second is who will replace him.

    Whether Tillerson quits or gets fired soon is mostly just a matter of how his Wikipedia biography concludes. From Day One neither the media, nor his own organization, the Department of State, offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results, State’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move then not supported by Candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo leaked just ten days ago or so, this time with State’s people claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. Daily “reports” from “sources” claiming the Secretary had cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file. Given the leaks, maybe Tillerson was wise to avoid the cafeteria.

    The media offered the Secretary no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the “end of diplomacy,” the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with a kind of regularity old man Tillerson would ruefully envy the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrighthe said Tillerson is creating a “national security emergency.”

    Despite factual evidence to the contrary, most mainstream media claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (State has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated without qualification Tillerson had “fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” Ouch, if true!

    Adding to the cat fight-like coverage of events of state, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron, Trump’s tweets were interpreted by the press as undermining whatever standing Tillerson might have had. The media, who had blissfully ignored State hiring below attrition since the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast.

    Whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance next to the military, or whether you believed Tillerson’s reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy the State Department (if you’ve had a couple of drinks reading this, the destruction was to empower Putin. If you’re still sober-ish, the destruction was revenge for State hiding Hillary’s emails), the bottom line was very clear: those reforms were never going to happen and Tillerson was a dead man walking. If you are really into conspiracy theories, forget Putin and Clinton. Tillerson needs to go because Trump fears his vote under the 25th Amendment to oust him. Pompeo (or even Haley) stands on more ideologically firmer ground.

    Outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.

    I have no idea as I write this whether Rex Tillerson is still sitting in that office on the seventh floor of State Department headquarters or not. It doesn’t matter. If he’s still there today, he won’t be there sometime soon. So the real question shifts to who will eventually replace the neutered Rex Tillerson, and what if anything that means.

    The initial response is to look at the media’s current favorite horse in the race, Mike Pompeo, possibly still head of CIA as I write this (rumor suggests Pompeo would be replaced at CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan.) In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, the CIA director glows in “favored status in the West Wing.” Haley is done. “The president has been turned off in part by speculation that Haley has her eyes on a presidential bid, two people close to the president said,” in the language of Washington today, where facts are simply what “people close” to things say.

    So what would Mike Pompeo be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?

    Never missing a chance to get the first knife planted in the back, former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey warns while Pompeo currently “has this very close relationship with Trump, and you can’t nurture it the same way when you’re traveling all the time,” referring to the Secretary of State’s international schedule. But before the poo-poo, what was Pompeo like at CIA that might give us a clue to how’ll he will do at State?

    The signs are not good. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy, part of any administration. Pompeo is a hardlining on Iran; State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry.

    Even at CIA, Pompeo showed a demeanor that seems at odds with the State Department’s culture of consultation, discussion, what ifs and may be’s. Pompeo’s clear certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against even the Agency’s culture, which one officials described as “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia, the people there appreciate nuance, they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State.

    Sources at the Agency explain to become a successful head of the CIA you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it. “You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” said one Agency veteran.

    “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them — believed he would have their backs,” explained one CIA official. “But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something that intelligence professionals frown on. I heard of one incident, outside his office, when he was screaming at a senior intel officer — ‘are you incompetent or just stupid?’ So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.”

    It appears highly unlikely Pompeo would find himself well-liked at State. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having many firm opinions on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.

    Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told me “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.” As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Trial balloons masquerading as reporting saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file are sad gasps in the dark. There is no good news ahead for Foggy Bottom.

    Whatever pundits did not like about Trump and his State Department they will dislike plus double much under Pompeo. Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy diplomacy, that belief will be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. But here’s the prediction I am most certain of: about two months after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State. The New York Times will remember Tillerson’s tenure as the time no new wars started, when the U.S. did not start a war with Iran, North Korea, Russia or China.

    Rex Tillerson is not the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. The guy never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.



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