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
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
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
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
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.
The tasks to right the situation require a Secretary who will
resolve the myriad of serious internal management problems that now exist as
well as mandate the development and implementation of an effective domestic public
relations game plan. This means an
innovative long term public affairs strategy designed to engage, educate and
convince the American people of the importance of diplomacy to their general
welfare as the first line of defense just as successful public diplomacy
engaged, educated and influenced foreigners abroad about the US and its foreign
policy goals throughout the Cold War.
It also means staying home more days to tend to the weeds that
are now as high as an elephant’s eye and not to strive to match Condi or
Hillary’s voluminous frequent flyer accounts or number of days on the road.
Time is short, Mr. Secretary. The clock is ticking and the ball’s in your
See also: The Troubled State of State, WhirledView various posts 2008-2013.