Even as the Trump impeachment inquiry continues to turn over rocks, it has already succeeded in confirming the devastation and politicization of the State Department — destruction that could easily take a generation to repair.
It doesn’t matter if the issue is Syria or Ukraine: When a president fancies himself a one-man foreign policy juggernaut, he doesn’t have much need for diplomats around the world. Or, for that matter, an intelligence network or even military leaders committed to keeping this nation safe.
If you fly by the seat of your pants on foreign policy, of what possible use are the career diplomats laboring in far-flung parts of the world who have devoted their lives and their careers to upholding American values and defusing skirmishes before they turn into conflagrations?
“If you look at other countries — Russia, China — they don’t have countries to take care of,” Trump said at one of his recent rambling news conferences. “We have — we’re [in] close to 90 countries, in one form or another. We’re in 90 countries all over the world, policing and — frankly, many of those countries, they don’t respect what we’re doing, they don’t even like what we’re doing and they don’t like us.”
Presumably he was referring to some sort of military presence, since US embassies exist in more than 270 countries. But there you have it, the world according to Trump — a world where the United States is a hapless giant, unloved and disrespected. It is, of course, a vision that could become a self-fulfilling prophesy as Kurdish militia and civilians pelt departing American forces with potatoes and Trump declares, as he did at Monday’s cabinet meeting, “We never agreed to protect the Kurds for their rest of their life.”
No wonder career diplomats are dropping like flies, retiring early, hiding out temporarily in academia, or just leaving — giving up decades-long careers in anger and frustration.
Among the latest to join those ranks was Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who quit after 37 years of service. According to The Washington Post, McKinley told House impeachment investigators, “I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents.
“I was convinced that this would also have a serious impact on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of our work overseas.” McKinley reportedly said in discussing the revelations about Trump’s dealings with the new Ukrainian government and pressuring their president for a probe of Joe Biden and his son.
There was a time when Pompeo, who took over in April 2018, looked like just the kind of savior the State Department needed after a little more than a year under the leadership of Rex Tillerson. Tillerson was a one-man wrecking crew at the department, decimating its upper echelon, its budget, and the morale of career employees. His firing by Trump, in March 2018, was cause for more than a few champagne corks to pop.
That was then. By last August, a report by the State Department’s inspector general concluded that the leaders of the international affairs bureau had abused and harassed career staffers they deemed not sufficiently loyal to the president’s agenda. A “corrective action plan” was to be put in place within 60 days. If such a plan exists, it is a darker secret than the “Deep State.”
In a recent Foreign Affairs magazine article, former long-time Foreign Service officer William J. Burns, now retired, wrote, “I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway.”
Pompeo, in a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” disparaged the assessment, saying, “I think Bill Burns must be auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s secretary of state.”
But the numbers cited in Burns’s article don’t lie. Applications to the Foreign Service, he wrote, have declined “precipitously,” with fewer people taking the entrance exam than in more than two decades; 20 percent of ambassadorships remaining unfilled; and more ambassadorships going to political appointees than ever before.
Still, many career officers soldier on under incredibly difficult circumstances. One day, a new generation will look on those leaders as keepers of the flame of American values at a time when such values were nearly lost in a Trumpian swamp.