A State Department in Crisis? By James Bruno
America's foreign ministry, the Department of State, is in trouble as is, by extension, our national security.
Some of the flashing red lights:
The “National Security Strategy” is filed away and consulted by no one, John Bolton told Atlantic writer Graeme Wood in April. “I don’t view writing strategy papers as big accomplishments,” he said.
Since becoming national security adviser in April 2018, Bolton has hosted few “principals meetings” in which Cabinet officials hash out important foreign policy matters.
The president's national security advisor also has little use for the U.S. Department of State. Long known to be dismissive of diplomats and diplomacy, hardliner Bolton has been holding meetings at the CIA headquarters as an way to keep State Department staffers from attending. One source told CNN that “John Bolton is playing secretary of state.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced the establishment of something called the "Commission on Unalienable Rights," aimed to formulate policies on social and human rights near and dear to the hearts of arch-conservatives, religiously-tinged with stress on anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights. Clearly designed to bypass the Office of Legal Adviser and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the measure sets a dangerous precedent for the process of U.S. foreign policy formulation.
“I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and his word, and the truth,” Pompeo recently said. Previously, as a congressman, he said, “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture."
"President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace," Pompeo told the BBC. "As a Christian, I certainly believe that's possible," adding, "I am confident that the Lord is at work here."
Between October 2017 and October 2018, only 8,685 people chose to take the Foreign Service Officer Test, a 22 percent decline compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the State Department. It is the lowest number since 2008. As recently as 2013, 21,069 people took the test.
For two years running, President Trump has sought to slash the State Department's budget by up to 25 percent. He has been blocked by Congress.
Thirty-one percent of key State Department policy positions remain unfilled. Of those filled, 91 percent are occupied by political appointees vs 9 percent career, according to AFSA. Almost half of U.S. ambassadorships are taken by political appointees. Historically, that number is about a third.
According to the Washington Post, "Pompeo has managed to worsen the State Department’s already abysmal standing with every significant constituency. Legislators, major allies, the media, career staff, even North Korea are alienated. The only satisfied customer may be President Trump — and even he has grounds for grievance."
A retired U.S. ambassador who regularly visits the State Department, told me, "morale is totally in the toilet. There is no process or any systems in place that are respected at all. The cafeteria is really doing a great business. Usually by 6 pm, the hallways are nearly deserted." An active duty Foreign Service officer told me that "nobody knows what to do and everyone keeps their head low." Senior career diplomats have been blackballed from taking positions on flimsy political grounds. Others are ducking for cover in marginal roles, waiting for the Trump occupation to end. Several other active duty officers have confided that they are "sticking it out" with the aim of trying to maintain or salvage norms from within and to rebuild the department once the Trump storm has passed.
One of these described an increasingly toxic work environment in which employees are afraid to speak frankly, even to friends for fear of being exposed and punished. Another stated he felt like "the last of the Mohicans."
Leaders cannot hope to carry out a coherent foreign policy with no functioning policy process, with a president who acts on whim, with contempt and dismissiveness of the professionals, with an ideology based on holy script and an iconoclastic attitude toward the country's traditional allies and the institutions which have safeguarded peace and prosperity over the past three-quarters of a century. John Bolton reportedly is playing Lone Ranger (or Colonel Kurtz?) in pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy toward Iran that can spark a hair-trigger Guns of August cascade toward war.
The Department of State is the nation's oldest cabinet agency. Its effective exercise of soft power to avoid conflict, promote democratic values and human rights, maintain our alliances and counter adversaries is severely damaged by this administration. It is not the "Department of Swagger," as asserted by Pompeo, but an organization manned by serious, smart and patriotic Americans who labor hard in some of the most dangerous and unappealing places on earth to promote and defend the nation. It can be seen as one pillar of a triad of our national security: Diplomacy, Military, Intelligence. All must function effectively, or risk plunging the world's sole superpower into weakness, even conflagration.
The State Department is facing the greatest assaults on its people and mission since the McCarthy era. By most measures, it is in crisis. And, by extension, so is the nation's future security.
James Bruno (@JamesLBruno) served as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department for 23 years and is currently a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve. An author and journalist, Bruno has been featured on CNN, NBC’s Today Show, Fox News, Sirius XM Radio, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and other national and international media.