Friday, August 12, 2005

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The Bush administration announced today an intention to perform a major overhaul of the State Department ( hat tip Combat Boots). This move ( assuming it results in real reforms) will not be welcomed by many members of the Foreign Service who are already balking at the strategic objective/mission/task orientation demands of the Bush White House. Nor will it be welcomed by many liberals or Democrats who will no doubt suspect a purge is in the offing, motivated by Republican partisanship against a bureaucracy widely ( and correctly) perceived as leaning liberal and dovish.

Both groups may be correct to worry but it is also true the State Department is in dire need of reforms as its antiquated regional desk structure, byzantine personnel assignment policies and insular culture are inadequate to meet the challenges of a radically different world from the Cold War era. I would also add that State and its Foreign Service officers need not just a new culture but more resources in order to do their jobs - sometimes dangerous jobs I might add- effectively. The historic pennypinching of Congress, to nickel and dime common sense requests from State, line by budget line, while at the same time appropriating megabillions of pork for the district back home has to end. It impacts our national interests and even our national security.

In what way should the State Department be changed ? A few suggestions:

Outreach: The Department needs to be deeply engaged in public diplomacy and connecting with the American public about the importance of foreign affairs. It's great to build embassies that cannot be easily blown up by terrorists, not so great if diplomats do not leave their desk located in what amounts to a nuclear war bunker built to look like a suburban community college campus. Might as well stay in Georgetown. If we aren't mingling with ordinary locals as well as host government officials we can hardly be aware of what is really going on " in -country".

Strategic Thinking: George Kennan and Paul Nitze attempted in the 1950's to reverse State's intrinsic love affair with crisis management, muddling through and a day to day time horizon in favor of long-term strategic planning. While they instituted strategic policies they never managed to inculcate strategic thinking.

While you might disagree with the Bush administrations " transformationalist" priorities, getting State Department personnel habituated to think and act in terms of a set of strategic priorities is a good thing. The age of ad hoc, seat of the pants, diplomacy has to go and the State needs to reorg an internal structure that perpetuates empire-building and encourages end-runs around the president's stated policy or the Secretary of State's instructions.

Depth: FSO's should not rotate everywhere without rhyme or reason. Their regional area/major nation should be their career so true depth can be cultivated. Yes, I realize " clientism" would be a problem. My answer to that is it is a problem now except, on average, it's a less-informed clientism than if someone spent say, thirty years as a Sinologist.

Secondary areas of expertise for FSO's should be non-regional - economics, business and international finance, IT, counter-terrorism, intelligence, military affairs, public health, management, law and so on. Real expertise here as well should be the goal.

Jointness: State, the IC and the Pentagon need to learn operational " jointness" in foreign affairs the way the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines had to adapt to planning, buying and executing missions in the field in unison ( actually the military is still learning...but they're better at it than they used to be).

This is going to take some time and new blood to achieve but America needs more of a team and fewer prima donnas in foreign policy.
Well, if I strip away the party political twaddle rhetoric (liberal and dovish? Rubbish. Small case conservative.), the suggestions are not bad. The American diplo service is under funded and poorly structured in my experience with them as a "consumer".

The bit about strategic thinking is, however, utterly unfair. State is not given the political scope, recall Iraq; in my personal experience -which matches reporting- State specialists had excellent strategic thinking in re post conflict, with clear and (if only for the novelty value) and realistic tactics in re near to medium term application of said strategy. Defence paid no attention to them; prefering their own, magical thinking - and it was magical.

However, this aside I completely agree with your other comments, bassed on my on the ground experience, again as an outsider but as a consumer as it were via my business interests.

I also add this comment is particularly rich and well placed: "My answer to that is it is a problem now except, on average, it's a less-informed clientism than if someone spent say, thirty years as a Sinologist."

Exactely. Now you have officers that develop relations with corrupt expats and locals like myself, and while I have some value to them via connexions and the like, greater time depth regionally will allow improved judgement over time.
Hi Col-

Glad you liked the suggestions.

Though I think State tends to move like an obtuse dinosaur at times it is continually getting stiffed by the appropriations committees. FSO's could be paid better considering their rare skills and they need more resources at their disposal. Evidently they only all were given " online" access around 2003 - putting State in a worse IT category than the FBI (!)

In terms of strategic thinking I was pondering much further back than Iraq - State's Russia and some European experts vehemently opposed the China opening under Nixon for example. It's more of a call for higher-level State ppl to integrate the " big picture" with their country/regional expertise. The NSC often ends up doing the strategic thinking ( with mixed results)due to the cautious nature of State's internal editing process. I don't doubt you heard smart and perceptive things from FSO's - how much of that gets to go up the chain unvarnished I don't know. Blunt cables hitting the memory hole once they reach the regional Desk in DC is a perennial complaint from fmr. ambassadors in their memoirs.
Like Collunsbury said, it's not that they're "liberal and dovish"; foreign policy diagreements don't break down neatly into such a facile spectrum.

Sounds alright anyway, except for this part:

"Yes, I realize " clientism" would be a problem. My answer to that is it is a problem now except, on average, it's a less-informed clientism than if someone spent say, thirty years as a Sinologist."

Err, so it's like "I realize this is a problem, so let's make the problem worse"? I prefer Jeff Medcalf's idea:

"I would like to see civil service procedures reformed to prevent diplomats from becoming a permanent fixture. This would likely involve a return to a patronage system, with turnover at each administration. This causes problems of novice mistakes and lack of institutional, which is one reason that it was abolished in the first place, but I think that this could be overcome by separating the State Department employees into two categories: country and regional and policy experts, who are under the current civil service rules and have only an advisory role, and diplomats and others in contact with foreign governments on a regular basis, who would have a policy implementation role and would be changed out with each administration."
The US State Department is risk averse, nature in part of their role which is in maintaining diplo relations.

Conservative, in an institutional sense. I am at a loss to see how this would be changed or why. It has its place.

However, in regards to the issue of clientelism, I rather disagree with the other commentator; hardly seems to me there is a worse, and this suggestion: ""I would like to see civil service procedures reformed to prevent diplomats from becoming a permanent fixture. This would likely involve a return to a patronage system, with turnover at each administration. This causes problems of novice mistakes and lack of institutional, which is one reason that it was abolished in the first place, but I think that this could be overcome by separating the State Department employees into two categories: country and regional and policy experts, who are under the current civil service rules and have only an advisory role, and diplomats and others in contact with foreign governments on a regular basis, who would have a policy implementation role and would be changed out with each administration." " is bloody daft.

Political appointees that cycle with party political change overs? What ludicrous moron thinks that would be a step forward, ah, someone writing this kind of simple minded twaddle: "And the result of this is that State concerns itself overly much with explaining the world to the American government in a finger-wagging way, and attempting to force American policy to be more friendly to their friends, who are often the representatives of other countries with whom we have vast differences. Lost in all of this is carrying out the American foreign policy, except when an internationalist president like Clinton is in office."

I have no bloody fucking clue as to what the bloody fuck this idiot thinks the American diplo process is, but this makes no bloody sense at all.

Finger wagging manner? I suppose this is part of that strange delusion that seems to exist in some circles that the castrated American diplo service is actually influential seperate from the influence and style of its Secretary. FP is made and the orders come to execute; a bit of feedback from State people on the bloody ground to let the politicos know their understanding and thinking is magical is rather necessary - adults can handle a bit of 'finger waging' and in the field diplomacy means that the bloody simple minded passing political obsessions of domestic indulgence has to calibrated to actually achievable objectives.

The critique is bloody incoherent, what the real complaint is can be summed up as "I don't like their opinions, I'd like to further castrate the diplo service by packing it with namby pamby passing party political yes boys."

Contemptibly idiotic hypocrisy.
Hi Matt,

Col is demonstrating why he never joined the Foreign Service ;o)

Jeff is right to point at State's history of passive-aggressive insubordination as a problem, something that occurs at the Desk and lower political appointee level. This is a product partly of cultivating a " turf " mentality with the regional Desk structure instead of a "mission/task" mentality and partly through poor supervision by the Secstate and Undersecretary as well as the NSC. Inside players at State stuck it to Jimmy Carter almost as much as they did to Reagan or Nixon.

Jeff's solution though is exceedingly unhelpful. I'm all for *leavening* ( leavening, not replacing) FSO's with outside experts and ppl with hands-on, long-term in country experience from the business world but we simply don't have enough ppl like that to run a spoils-system. We'd end up with a host of ignorant young ppl without basic language skills being snowed by their professional counterparts on a regular basis. Moreover, ignorance is no protection from " going native" and advocating for " clients". I find that to be the more likely outcome than somebody with decades of experience knowing who all the corrupt bastards on the other side really are.

The answer to State's free-lancing is better structure and supervision ( i.e.-leadership) and changing State's culture - we should be open to changes on the magnitude of what the War and Navy Departments went through in merging into the DoD in 1947 - not getting rid of the foreign service
Just a thought that in making tasks more task-centric than area-centric, it's important not to replace one form of limited vertical thinking with another. Ideally, a matrix solution should be implemented.

-Dan tdaxp
Mark: Thanks for linking to my piece "Yet another Missed Opportunity" and your comment to me on WV. I agree with you that moving FSOs around willy-nilly is crazy, but it originated with Henry Kissinger when he was SecState because, in part, for his concern for "clientitis." The problem is hard languages are hard to learn: it takes years to achieve proficiency - like about 20 with several in-country assignments. And its not just learning the language and the culture - it's developing the contacts which are easier when people are in less important positions. Meanwhile, State rotates FSOs around like the world was a merry-go-round. And then doesn't listen to those relatively few who do have the expertise. But in the end, maybe it doesn't matter since Bush and co are going to do what they want regardless.
Col, do you notice how Mark actually knows how to argue like a proper adult? You might take a lesson. Mark has actually made me think and reconsider my opinion, while you've just sent up a bright red flag that reads "obnoxious, arrogant wanker". Just sayin', you know...
Well, mate, you presume that I care to change your opinion. I don't, I merely felt like expressing my contempt for unrealistic pie in the sky wanking about State from fools who don't operate in the real outside world. I am indeed not a whinging namby pamby fool, and if that offends you, I don't care.

The substance of most US conservatives compliants re their diplo service is merely they don't like the real constraints in the World as it doesn't match their magical conception of the achievable, so it is convenient to rail on against the supposed evils of obstructionist State and now CIA. It's why I have taken to calling them collectively the Right Bolshies. Magical fucking thinking. I see it in operation now with the current Administration's foolish politicos pimping absurdly misconceived MENA initiatives that make no fucking sense at all. Nor do this Bolshy fools listen, no they have contempt for field expertise that doesn't fit into their ideological package (and I include private sector people like myself - bloody have given them pratical advice on their idiotic economic "transformation" agenda - the theory of which I agree with entirely I may add, their bizare ideas on how to unfold it... - nada, contradicts their bloody political dreams). And you bloody fools blame the poor bastards in the diplo service from trying to put some breaks on these Bolshy idiots ludicrously magical schemes? You should thank the poor bastards, given how much shit gets poured on them by ungrateful ignorant gits like the Bolshy politicos, that idiot pundita etc.

As to the reforms, all this rubbish about matrix and vertical thinking, great, fine - solve the problem of bureaucracy. Well you bloody well better think through the actual bloody incentives rather than engaging in wishful pie in the sky thinking. Powerless regional experts who get shit on because they give advice the politicos don't like are not going to be incentized to stick their necks out.

Quite the contrary.

My advice to the entire convo - bloody get a realistic idea of where power and incentives will flow, and start from there. High altitude theoretical blather just gets more bloody idiocy utterly disconnected from where the real drivers flow and yet another round of failed "reform" because the "reformers" have mispecified the bloody problem.

But what the bloody hell do I care, if the Right Bolshies want another round of poorly conceived, utterly mispecified governmental reforms in the grand tradition of the Left Bolshie types I'll just watch and thank heavens that I'm private.
A further thought now that my irritation has cooled.

First, the underlying presumed problem, diplo service obstructionism is nothing but a classic problem of agency issues.I know of no bureaucratic institional process that "solves" this.

Further, it strikes me there is much asserting of State Department power to obstruct; I find it hard to credit. I add that what I have seen cited strikes me as proper and just for a diplo service, if one wants to actually know what is happening and have a reactive strategy for the world. It is not State hectoring to note, for example, the reality that Ibn Bush policies as executed have gone over internationally spectacularly badly. (An open and debatable question as to whether less spectacular incomptence might not have resulted in better results - certainly his father managed better) That is a reality, as is it is a reality that whether one likes the opinions of overseas decision makers and populations, merely pretending they do not exist or engaging in simple minded hectoring is not terribly effective.

In that context, this bleating on about State reminds me of the similar pious assertions regarding "Arabists" or regional experts supposed racist negativism in re Iraq and the "transformational" agenda - a case of not liking the input so demonise the source (and badly distort the criticism). Of course the problems identified, the criticism of the naive, magical thinking emanating out of the Right Bolshy quarters was spot on right.

Obstructionist? Perhaps, but spot on right.

Second, following from this, if one wants genuine structural reform in the diplo service, one bloody well stop and ask what is actual structural reform and what is merely punishing those causing my cognitive dissonance and disturbing those nice airy fantasies I have.

Real structural problems as far as I can tell in the US diplo service, as a consumer (and someties provider), look to be very clearly motivational and information connected - country level the political and economic staff report a lot, but what do they really know and what are their real (not airy theoretical) performance incentives?

On informational certainly in the MENA region my impression of US versus Euro diplos is they are more straight but know less than their Euro counterparts in terms of on the ground developments. Poor language skills -not their fault; what the bloody fuck is a China expert doing in the Maghreb? Poorly developed connexions, which in a relationship driven environment tend to get damaged on frequent rotation.

I simply do not know enough about internal incentives to have a clear opinion, but given my lived experience inside large and small private firms, it strikes me a ground up study of where real incentives exist, real balances of power btw politicos -what standards?- and career is necessary to understand. As well as actual power to implement. It's fine, e.g. to declare X as a policy priority for President Y - say democratisation, and if it doesn' work? A priori accusations of obstructionism strike me as absurdly misinformed.

Rather than pissing and moaning about obstruction, ask where the real flows and decision drivers are; and DON'T blame the bloody production unit for exogenous changes in the market. Identify them.
Hello everyone,

Sorry for the delay - hosted a cocktail party last night and I am definitely the worse for wear today. Ouch.


True. Adding different kinds of vertical experise helps to enrich ones perspective but until ppl start looking across domains it is still vertical and compartmentalized.


No problema on the link. It was an interesting post all around.

Kissinger had a different set of civil service back then than we do today. Some of that experience under Nixon-Ford prompted Congress to give Carter ( and subsequent presidents) more power of appointment and transfer authority for the upper tier of the Federal bureaucracy under the CSRA of 1978. Apparently, they forgot to undo Kissinger's policy which is superfluous and ultimately harmful. You don't get real expertise in 2-3 year stints and as Col said, sending China experts to North Africa is an insane waste of talent ( where are the Arabists then ? Polynesia ???!)


My grasp on State Dept. personnel review procedures is somewhat shaky but the little I know tells me that the incentives, as you suggested, may indeed be quite skewed away from what we would really prefer to inculcate in our diplomatic service.

When I talk about policy " obstruction" I'm really talking about the interagency process in DC and bureaucratic turf wars.

When the NSC is an active manager AND an honest broker of the interagency process then the president and key foreign policy principals get a well rounded picture of options and limitations. State takes the lead but key input from DoD, the IC, Treasury etc. is heard and things are well-balanced.

When the NSC is weak or a policy- advocate or if the Secstate is a weak manager, a free-for-all ensues. More often than not State deputies, given their more autonomous status within their own bureaucracy, tend to outmanuver their Defense and IC counterparts who are on shorter leashes. ( This was not the case with Bush II where the DoD predominated but this is a historical anamoly)

At the embassy level you don't see this kind of infighting - even the ambassador who is " king of the castle" so to speak, doesn't have the luxury of disregarding instructions from State ( unless the ambassador is a close pal of the President or some political superheavyweight in their own right but this is a rarity)

You comments on Washington are well taken, obviously anything I say merely relates to my experience interacting with Embassies (US, Euro, etc) in the field.

What I take away from that in re "policy obstructionism" is not a problem with State per se, but rather a problem with upper-level inter-agency management. Competing views are good, introduces competitive thinking, helps reduce group think a bit; chaos in competing views of course....

I do not see that as a "State" reform; it's an inter-agency FP process reform - if it is solvable given every administration is different.

However, the field issues you identified are real ones, I see them all the time, and I personally think it cripples US diplo service ability to generate truly interesting views and information for Washington.

The suggestion of staffing with political appointees (any non-career appointment means politicos) remains daft - the CPA-Iraq is the perfect example of what you would get. Look, the bloody Baghdad stock exchange was put under some young Repub out of Yale with zero business experience, zero fin sec experience and a mere Bachelors! A fine kid I am told, might have conversed with him once but maybe not, but who the bloody fuck would think that's a bloody good idea?

In this connexion I would add an item of disagreement in to your observation re influence, at least on the field basis.

It strikes me in the model of having politico staffing - which as you said correctly would pull in a lot of young, inexperienced whelps from party political circles - would further push something that I have seen, which is local staff capture.

In my opinion, the Kissinger system merely pushed the issue of clientelism into the sole hands of local hire Embassy staff - the overly rotated non-regional knowledgeable Embassy staff appears to me to depend on local national hires for connexions, language skills and information.

Now, I ask you, how is more subject to clientelism, corruption and selling agendas, a US career professional or a local national? And insofar as the US professionals often know nothing of the country/region, how hard do you think it is for the local national staff to spin?
Coming in late to take off on a pet peeve: fortress embassies. They're worse than just an inconvenience that prevents the staff from meeting "the natives." They're an active impediment to positive US diplomacy, thorns in the side of the host country or statements of US fear and isolation.

In Tallinn, for example, the US embassy used to share a building with the British embassy and a one-way street just outside of the medieval tangle of Old Town with the rest of the town. Now the street and the building are sole US property, with security guards pacing and video cameras swiveling. Closing off the street was a significant inconvenience and irritated the locals mightily.

Or the US embassy in Warsaw, on embassy row, which suffered from an unfortunate sixties pillbox architecture anyway among the classier old houses. The addition of razor wire and a guardhouse with mirror windows completed the Evil Empire look.

Razor wire in Helsinki? Equal amounts of it for the Israeli and US embassies in Nicosia?

I try to look like a native as I walk past, although that frequently gets me the close scrutiny of the guards.

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