By Patricia H. Kushlis
How many more embarrassing reports revealing the underside of the State Department need to leak to the media before the new Secretary does something about cleaning up the administrative swamp into which this once venerable institution has sunk.
Among the most recent: Tales of an unidentified Ambassador cavorting with prostitutes and minors in an unnamed city park in an unspecified capital but still allowed to stay on the job. Reports of the former Secretary’s own security detail frequently habituating prostitutes on trips abroad. Unnamed higher ups accused of squelching the results of internal investigations of suspected wrong doing – pretending that the findings did not exist. The dubious distinction of being the department with the longest vacant independently appointed Inspector General, a position responsible to both Congress and the Secretary and created years ago to introduce a modicum of independent accountability into the activities of the bureaucracy.
Then there’s State’s Human Resources Bureau which has been routinely assigned to investigate itself in response to a grievance or a law suit. Reconstituted promotion panel results announced before the panels meet and worse. Promotion panels corrupted by departmental leadership playing favorites with what should be – but are not – outcomes arrived at through independent panels composed of professionals that include in their deliberations a “watchdog” member from outside.
Even rumors of money floating from one account to another at the dead of night popping up and disappearing like prairie dogs on the desert floor. A highly visible investigation of an Ambassador’s untimely death that scapegoated underlings – even one assigned unrelated responsibilities – charging them with dereliction of duty – while silently whitewashing those at higher levels who should have been held accountable – but were not.
State’s caste system: Brahmins versus everyone else - doesn’t work
An all-but caste system of Brahmins who stay on until death-do-them-part – while most other members of the very selective foreign service are forced out in their early fifties because, somehow, they didn’t make the cut into the senior ranks where jobs are made even scarcer because of the endemic sclerosis at the top. In the 1990s this situation was so bad it was called a “stealth riff” but the problem remains. It did not disappear after government downsizing had been reversed following the Bill Clinton years.
A department more politicized by the day regardless of party in the White House as a way to reward the faithful thereby making a travesty of once proud and competent career services. These services date back to the good government movement of the 1920s established to end corrupt political appointees and introduce professional competency. The goal: to improve quality of government services for American citizens. Yet today we have a bureaucracy in which political appointees and overpaid contractors and subcontractors proliferate because short term financial considerations, Congress and lobbyists win out over qualifications, professionalism and loyalty.
Diplomacy not troops has been the norm
I was reminded recently by a former colleague that the US normally has conducted its foreign relations through the practice of diplomacy. In contrast, the US military only took the lead in extraordinary circumstances when the nation was under real physical threat. Bush 43rd badly distorted that balance in response to 9/11. The money flowed into an ever expanding defense establishment because he and his cohorts convinced the American populace that supporting “our troops” and invading two other countries far from home were the only ways to combat a tiny but invasive terrorist network punching well above its weight.
Over a decade later, as the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan wind down and the troops are withdrawn from those distant lands, the next phase of US foreign policy should be to rebalance the equation back in favor of civilian leadership.
But will this happen? And as importantly, will the State Department – which was and should be the lead foreign affairs agency - be able to handle the tasks assigned? How can this be seriously contemplated with a department in such disarray with a pea-sized vision of tending its own image at home?
Over the years, the US military has conducted an extraordinarily successful public affairs campaign on its own behalf throughout the US from recruiters in shopping malls to defense contractors, bases and jobs in every state to routine briefings for major media and bloggers, multiple offices on Capitol Hill, VIP junkets for members of Congress as well as funding for think tanks, conferences, public and expert advisory commissions and individual researchers.
In contrast the State Department has done next to nothing. True it retains its traditional five day a week noon press briefing for a small number of accredited journalists, the assignment of a few officers tasked with recruiting minorities for possible Foreign Service careers to universities, one office on each side of the Hill to represent State’s interests to Congress, a few excursion assignments of individual mid-level officers to Congressional offices, a limited number of people-to-people exchange programs which tend to profit foreigners more than Americans and briefing, wining, dining and logistical support for members of Congress visiting overseas.
The tired excuses for doing less with less are budget and personnel constraints and Smith-Mundt, a post-World War II law that prohibits the executive branch from “proselytizing” or propagandizing the American public and that was enacted thanks largely to the Associated Press which, at the time, feared US government encroachment into its then fledgling international news business. Smith-Mundt, however, didn’t stop America’s defense establishment from turning its tattered post-Vietnam image into one in which the troops and its’ actions are venerated – seemingly regardless of their personal behavior or performance in the field.
State will never begin to approximate the sheer manpower of the DOD nor should it. Person for person a diplomat costs far more than most single soldiers. Nevertheless, the skills needed to conduct successful diplomacy do not come cheaply: managing the nation’s foreign policy requires intelligence, cultural, political and interpersonal smarts, writing, rhetorical and negotiating skills, management and technological expertise, as well as a high level of foreign language proficiency.
To help right its house domestically, State desperately needs both cheerleaders and quiet supporters in the provinces - not just a few retirees and lobbyists peddling their wares inside the Beltway as is the case now. Furthermore, the department needs to stop tearing itself apart. And instead of rocking from scandal to scandal, it needs to refrain from making itself a laughing-stock at home and abroad.