Institutional Failure: State Department
Last week, I wrote about two smaller and long dysfunctional federal agencies, CBP and BOP, and how Trump had actually made things worse in each one of them. Today, I’d like to look at just one previously well functioning agency that Trump has virtually destroyed. Taken together, the collapse of all of these agencies illustrate just how hard it will be to just return status quo ante Trump despite what Biden and others might want to indicate to the present electorate. And, as we have seen with CBP and BOP, it was hardly the case that the all of pre-Trump governance was particularly effective, especially considering Republican obstruction.
Trump’s hollowing out of the State Department began even before he was actually inaugurated. Two weeks before inauguration day, the Trump transition team announced that all current ambassadors would be asked to not only resign but physically leave their post once Trump was inaugurated. Ambassadors who had family or children in school were not given the usual period of a few months so that they could get their family affairs in order or to deal with important diplomatic initiatives in order to make a smooth transition. Worse, this decision left the United States without any Senate-confirmed career representatives with many of our most important allies and enemies.
Having eliminated professional career diplomats in important countries around the world and freeing up both Trump and insiders like Kushner to engage in their own personal grift-oriented foreign policy, one of the first acts of the new administration and the incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was to institute a hiring freeze at the agency which was accompanied by budget cuts that effected major State programs. Tillerson’s goal was apparently to totally reconfigure the way in which the agency worked. That effort was complicated not only by the hiring freeze, the budget cuts, and Tillerson’s general mismanagement but also by his aloof and remote leadership style. The result was that scores of experienced Foreign Service officers were either forced out or left of their own volition.
A recent report from the State Department’s Inspector General documented just how debilitating the hiring freeze and budget cuts turned out to be. There was no area of State’s priorities that were not adversely effected. According to Foreign Policy, these included “global health programs, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism and counter-narcotics initiatives, cybersecurity, and consular work”. In addition, the freeze prevented the agency’s command center that monitors the safety and security of agency personnel around the world from being staffed 24 hours a day, leaving that personnel, including the Secretary himself, unnecessarily exposed. The freeze also “led to coverage gaps that could have significantly affected its ability to respond to overseas security crises”.
The impact of the hiring freeze was exacerbated by other staffing shortages that were also created by the Trump administration simply because it was unable or unwilling to replace those critical career diplomats the President had summarily dismissed on inauguration day. While the talk of war was heating up with North Korea in the early days of the administration, the US had no ambassador in South Korea. As of the end of 2018, half of the top positions in the State Department were still unfilled. There was no ambassador to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Instead those jobs were apparently being handled by the easily manipulated wunderkind Jared Kushner who has been promising a Mideast peace plan for nearly three years. In the midst of the trade war with Mexico and the ongoing situation on the border, the US had no ambassador to Mexico. Apparently, that job was being handled by Trump himself. One of our major allies in Southeast Asia, Australia, finally received their ambassador in March of this year. The staffing situation has improved slightly since Pompeo took over for Tillerson, with some major ambassadorships finally getting filled more than two years after Trump’s summary dismissals.
The adverse effects of the hiring freeze along with the normal attrition that occurs over time and after a change in administration and which led to diminution of so many long-standing State Department initiatives seriously eroded morale at the agency. That morale was further eroded by the placement of Trumpsters determined to root out members of the “deep state” and pro-Obama saboteurs of the new administration’s policies.
A separate report from the Inspector General recently cited the mismanagement and “mistreatment of career employees” by two Trump appointees to State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs. In addition to just being run-of-the-mill abusive managers, the two combined to politicize the entire bureau. Employees who had given money to the Republican party were praised while those who had been appointed or hired during the Obama era were denigrated as “Obama holdovers”, “traitors”, “disloyal”, and “part of the Deep State” and on occasion stripped of their responsibilities simply for that reason. On another occasion, the entire selection process for a certain position was derailed because one of the Trump-appointed managers did not believe the leading candidate was “trustworthy” and sufficiently loyal to Trump simply because the candidate had worked with a UN agency for Palestinian refugees and had interactions with the “gay and lesbian communities”. In the end, these two managers alone managed to drive 50 employees, over 15% of the entire staff, to leave the bureau. The politicization of the agency has now reached such an extreme level that Rudy Giuliani, acting as Trump’s personal lawyer, is openly admitting that the State Department is helping him in trying to get Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political opponents, namely Joe Biden and the DNC.
All of this is compounded by the policies of the administration and the vicissitudes of Trump himself. Projects like the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Iran nuclear deal that State Department personnel had worked on for years were simply abandoned with the stroke of a pen. Policy changed on a dime, depending on what benefits Trump and his team could glean from the situation. One minute we were taking the fight to ISIS and the next we were withdrawing our forces from Syria. Qatar, home of one of our most important Mideast military bases, all of a sudden became a “funder” of terrorism when Trump took office and the country’s investment authority refused to bail Jared Kushner out of his failing investment in 666 Fifth Avenue. Months later, after hiring lobbyists close to Trump and also helping to bail out Kushner, Qatar miraculously reverted back to being an important ally and a “great friend”. In such an environment, it is almost impossible to do the work of diplomacy because one never knows when Trump will pull the rug out from under you.
Today, morale at the State Department is still remarkably low. As one employee recently noted, “We’re still reeling from the big reorganization that [former Secretary Rex] Tillerson was supposed to do but never happened…Office mergers have been pending as imminent for months, and no one has really told us why or if anything is going to happen. For the most part, the hiring freeze has not really lifted. They say it has, but I know some places that have less staff than they did under Obama, and it’s not clear if that’s just attrition or they’re purposely trying to shrink the government…People move around in State frequently, but I hear more people talk about getting out for good”. The people that remain are simply keeping their head down, keeping quiet, and staying out of the way. One Foreign Service official who finally gave up and resigned this month described the situation clearly, calling himself part of the “Complacent State” that may object to the President’s inhumane policies but still goes ahead and implements them. He continued, “I let career perks silence my conscience. I let free housing, the countdown to a pension and the prestige of representing a powerful nation overseas distract me from ideals that once seemed so clear to me. I can’t do that anymore”.
At this point, it is impossible for anyone at State to actually represent the interests of the United States because the foreign policy of the United States is set by an unstable narcissist who determines that policy based on personality and/or profit. The predictable result has been a series of failures, fiascos, flops, and flip-flops. Trump provided Kim Jung-un with the international prestige of a summit with an American president in return for basically nothing than a few photo ops. The trade war with China has been a disaster for farmers and, to a lesser extent, consumers. Trump’s disregard for existing trade agreements has also prompted a trade war between Japan and South Korea which has spiraled out of control with the Koreans refusing to share intelligence with the Japanese. Since the South Koreans are the largest and most accurate source of information about what is happening in North Korea, that would seem to be a real problem for Japan which is only slightly less threatened by Kim Jong-un than the South Koreans. Apparently, Trump’s baseless boast that he might become engaged in negotiating a deal between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is what either prompted or provided the opportunity for Modi to impose a media blackout there in an attempt annex the territory. In particular, in the case of Kashmir and the Japan-South Korea feud, American diplomats appear to be totally out of the loop and blindsided as the events unfolded, indicating that more and more countries no longer feel compelled to worry about a US reaction or even bothering to allow the US to prepare any kind of response. What happened at the G-7 this weekend made that even more apparent.
I could write (and may) a similar post about the Department of Justice which has lost its tradition of independence and been even more politicized than State. It too has hemorrhaged career prosecutors and investigators who are unwilling to defend the indefensible and advance risible legal arguments in court. It too has been demoralized and merely become another agency that responds to the personal needs of the President, usually defending him from lawsuits to obtain information that all prior presidents since Nixon have voluntarily provided. A similar story could probably be told about any number of other agencies across our current government. We recently learned that the Federal Election Commission can no longer conduct business because it simply does not have enough members to create a quorum.
There is no return to normalcy. None of these agencies will fix themselves after Trump leaves office. They will not magically revert to the way they were in October, 2016. At State, it will take years to replace the career Foreign Service officers who have left the agency. It will take years to replace some of those low and mid-level staffers who were experts in some region or arcane area of international law. It will require a significant effort to de-politicize the agency which, in itself, will be characterized as politicization itself. In other words, as the history of CBP and BOP illustrates, once an agency falls into disarray and dysfunction, it takes an enormous focus and effort to restore it. And, after Trump, that job will have to take place at some of the most important agencies of our government all at once. It will be a tall task, the extent of which it appears most Americans, including Democrats, do not yet fully comprehend.