AN UNDIPLOMATIC HISTORY
One of my favorite liberal bloggers, the ubiquitous praktike
, is deeply puzzled
characterization of the State Department's senior grades - the CSRA superclass eligible and often used for political positions as well as career bureaucratic management posts - as poweful and secretive " Mandarins". praktike writes:" Pundita is making no sense "
when she in turn wrote
:"Running alongside those trends, and fed by the Cold War, is a foreign office—the US Department of State—that by 2000 had gathered more power than all three branches of US government. This is an opaque power, remarkably evocative of the Mandarins’ power under Chinese dynastic rule."Having read more diplomatic and political memoirs than I care to remember, going back to the early 20th century plus select chunks of FRUS for certain periods I would opine that Pundita is pretty much on the mark. This situation prevails regardless of what political Party controls the White House though the effect is much reduced when and where a strong-willed President with a competent staff is deeply engaged in foreign policy matters. Overall, State is probably happier with Democrats in office but then again look at what happened to Jimmy Carter. Power trumps partisanship.No it isn't the case that the State Department dictates policy or even operates like Whitehall senior civil servants with their minister but few Americans understand the considerable power that accumulates in the hands of a head of a regional desk or in the top tier of State's senior career employees as a collective. While the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 greatly increased the President's control over the Executive Branch in theory, in practice, the drawn out Senate confirmation process has led to a lot of career people filling the political appointee slots. In other words, more or less the opposite of the law's intention. Mostly, this is done on the lower policy levels - the deputy assistant secretaries - but sometimes they can snag the big enchilada like Lawrence Eagleberger did.
When a President is not paying much attention or is ill-informed on foreign affairs - Bill Clinton - or has a disengaged style and/or a weak NSC decision process - Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter - one of two things usually happens. Either the State Department runs away with the interagency process and turns policy, slowly, over time and endless meetings to its preferences rather than the President's or basically the administration foreign policy process comes to resemble Beirut in the 1980's with media leaks, attempted coups and vicious character assassinations. It makes for fine theater but a poor foreign policy.
The State Department is not a nefarious entity but their responsibility is to give advice and then execute policy whether or not it comports with the inclinations of Foggy Bottom's received wisdom and not stall, obfuscate, leak or sabotage what they regard as the " bad" policy of a bozo President or a law passed by some yahoo House Committee Chairman.
Making foreign policy is the prerogative of the people's elected representatives, though at times they let that power run through their fingers like fine grains of sand.