ZenPundit
Monday, May 23, 2005
 
AN UNDIPLOMATIC HISTORY

One of my favorite liberal bloggers, the ubiquitous praktike, is deeply puzzled by Pundita's 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.
 
Comments:
the administration foreign policy process comes to resemble Beirut in the 1980's with media leaks, attempted coups and vicious character assassinations

4GW-through-Bureaucracy. From stage one (character assassinations) to stage two (rival nets attacking each other) to stage three (actually setting policy of the land).

Fun!

-Dan tdaxp
 
I agree that clientism and resistance to changes in policy are endemic to the State Department, but I do think it's wildly over the top to declare them "more powerful" than, for instance, the CINCs, who have bigger budgets, bigger staffs, bigger lobbies, and bigger guns on their side.
 
Hi prak

When State has a tough Secretary who has the president's ear and is a firm but fair leader, the department can be an amazingly effective bureaucracy.

When such leadership is lacking or policy discipline cannot be imposed through the NSC process then the independent operators come out of the woodwork to try to fill the vacuum.

You raise an interesting point with the CINCs as a basis of comparison. In some cases, I think you are right - specifically PACOM seems to have an unusually long leash. Tommy Franks and Wesley Clark seemed to be far more hemmed in by Washington when they were trying to run their wars than in past decades. Some of this meddling was advantageous - forcing the elevation of Special Ops troops to a lead role - other meddling, like the CPA regime, was a frigging disaster.

Overall State is to Foreign Policy in a longitudinal sense what the Pentagon is to weapons acquisition programs. The career ppl are in for the long haul, a tremendous advantage.
 
I would characterize Clark differently. He was getting resistance from the Joint Chiefs, and used every lever he had in Washington to overcome that. If anything, he was out in front of the NSC.
 
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