Dear Partners in thought,
I would like to speak to you about “War on Peace” from Ronan Farrow on the deliquescence of the U.S. Department of State and decline of American diplomacy and thus influence under (and to be fair, before) the Trump Administration. RF is an unusual writer-journalist. He is young (31) and already well-known for his investigative work at The New Yorker (that got them and the New York Times the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service) and having been at the forefront of the re-launch of the #MeeToo movement following his unearthing and reportingof the now famous Harvey Weinstein case that would start the floodgate on sexual harassment cases in the movie industry, media and more generally at the work place. RF is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, who in spite of the very challenging family situation that was theirs, may have steered him well in the early stages of his young career, leading him to Bard College and Yale University, before his journalistic career. However these attributes have nothing to do with his book, beyond his mentoring by Richard Holbrooke, the late top diplomat, as he focuses on U.S. diplomacy and its main home, the State Department, as the crumbling foundations of American hard and soft power around the world. His book is edifying and was written as Rex Tillerson, the first Secretary of State under DT, was still in office and not doing enough to stem the haemorrhage of talents or just filling in senior positions around the world, leaving the fort unmanned in many places, at times quite strategic. Of great relevance was that RF started his career not as a journalist but as an entry level Foreign Service diplomat working on human rights in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, so his book is also reflecting his own experience.
In a long prologue of 32 pages (all in Latin numerals, well done RF!) our author sets the stage for his book and we discover a style that wishes to show some wit and word agility as if the family lineage was coming through to make his subject also entertaining. We discover Tom Countryman, who stands for the career diplomat who does what diplomats do month in month out mixing the glamorous and the mundane but carrying out the essential tasks and implementation of foreign policy-making decided in their capital cities and involving Foggy Bottom, Quai d’Orsay or similar places. It is clear that the tone of the book is one of internationalism and working together with other countries to achieve goals, so not so much along the increasingly party line of America First which is now actually promoted for all countries to learn from by Mike Pompeo, the obscure congressman, turned head of the CIA and latest loyal Secretary of State in the Trump Administration following the resignation and late “come to Jesus” time of Rex Tillerson.
Tom Countryman, like all Career Foreign Service Officers confirmed by the US Senate submitted his resignation as a matter of course, the experience being that the new White House team, never fires those who are needed, whatever the administration in place, to conduct foreign policy locally also as they have the institutional memory and the experience and contacts to do so. A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Countryman was asked to leave as the Administration accepted his resignation together with those of a large number of diplomats, Assistant Secretaries and Deputy Assistant Secretaries (some having been too close to Secretary Clinton) in what was an unprecedented move, this depriving the US of its senior teams both in Foggy Bottom and on the ground. Countryman, who had to leave within three days, had to inform his foreign counterparts at a Middle East nuclear anti-proliferation discussion that he would not attend their next meeting. This was the prelude to a hole in the US State Department which would expand at a steering speed as many senior diplomats even re-conducted decided to leave their jobs even though they were devoted civil servants, simply as they could not reconcile their activities with the new leadership in Washington. RF’s book is about what made American diplomacy successful (its diplomats) and what is endangering America’s soft and hard power today globally and by consequence many of the interests of its allies.
Interestingly RF does not put the whole blame on Trump for the decline of American diplomacy and influence. He stresses rather fairly that the whole process started as a casualty of having won the Cold War and not needing so many local outposts like consulates around the world. The Clinton years were marked by a renewed focus on the economy (Stupid! as the election slogan screamed) with less emphasis on the world as no enemy or even potential rival was in sight. 9-11 changed everything and while the Bush administration scrambled to redevelop a diplomatic presence globally, the war era, marked by the rapid operations in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, started the militarisation of diplomacy with the Department of Defense leading all the key developments including in the post-active war phases and introducing what diplomats would call the “mil think” further weakening the role of the State Department. One of the reasons why the executive is always tempted by using the military even to sort out diplomatic matters is as Kissinger put it: “When you deal with the military, there is an 80% chance your decisions will be executed. When you deal with the diplomats, there is an 80% chance they will be discussed”.
RF provides us with chapters first covering the traditional and essential role of diplomats throughout American history to implement and refine policies decided in Washington and in international fora. He then focuses on individuals behind the diplomats showing us select portraits of the actors like Lady Taliban (a senior Foreign Service Officer lady who studied with Clinton and Strobe Talbott at Oxford and ended up as Under-Secretary of State for Asian Affairs with close links to Pakistan and the Taliban) or Richard Holbrooke, the man with the Vietnam memory who tried his best to make US diplomacy not repeat past mistakes. Even if fighting what Henry Kissinger would call the American myth of trying “something new” to solve complex problems or borrow solutions that were tested in vastly different environment to solve a major crisis as with the containment doctrine that worked in Europe but would be disastrous in Vietnam.
Richard Holbrooke, whom we will follow as the Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) in 2009 under Obama 1, personifies the professional diplomat, the senior Career Foreign Service Officer, for whom RF interned while still in his teens and is portrayed with great gusto. Holbrooke was a driven man, with a strong ego and not many friends in political circles given his undiplomatic style at times. He backed the presidential runs of Al Gore in 1988 and 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 showing an unusual string of bad luck, while Madeleine Albright was appointed as Secretary of State in 1996, literally stealing his job from under him. He never got the top prize he always aimed for especially after his crafting the Dayton Agreement that brokered peace and the best of bad treaties to end the bloodshed in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. We follow his work as SRAP and his dealings with David Petraeus, the scholar-general (PhD from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs with an acclaimed thesis on the lessons from Vietnam) leading US Centcom for whom the seasoned diplomat is merely his “wingman” in what is foreign policy led by the military and the prevalence of “mil think” and more boots on the ground before any real civilian diplomacy which would be the hallmark of the post-9-11 world in those parts. We know more about the challenging nature of America’s “transactional relationship” with Pakistan and ISI, their intelligence services, and serious issues created by extrajudicial killings of the Pakistani military and ISI as well as their ambiguous relationship with the Taliban which is technically a common enemy but will keep benefiting from much support from the Pakistani regime. Richard Holbrooke, not operating as expected, goes against the former Bush administration of destroying the Afghan poppy fields and drug economy in order to prevent farmers from supporting the Taliban. While at times, the account of Holbrooke and his atypical and tailor-made team’s work could be seen as RF’s early days memoirs it also depicts a diplomat in action and the type of work which will come to be missed increasingly with the Trump style of foreign policy with Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo at the helm of the State Department.
The account of Holbrooke is a story of what a diplomat can achieve on his or her own, being marked by history and in his case Vietnam and leaving in defeat. It is also the story of the challenges in dealing with the Obama White House, National Security Council (Jones) and military (Petraeus – even if McCrystal who ran Afghanistan was getting ready to support him before the Rolling Stone article that made him go) that did not support the reconciliation plan engineered by Holbrooke with some NSC plans to remove him from the Af-Pak equation in what was seen as the “firing campaign”. In the end, there would be no firing and no reconciliation as Holbrooke had a massive heart attack while visiting Foggy Bottom and could not be saved, this two frustrating years into the job and in spite of a staunched defence of Secretary of State Clinton. It is said that before his open heart surgery that was very risky, Holbrooke would have told the chief surgeon: “OK but you have to promise me you are going to end the war in Afghanistan” also showing the strong personality and style that defined him and great diplomats and why they matter according to RF who said on the day of his death to Clinton and State Department colleagues that Holbrooke “was the closest thing to a father I had”.
In another account of a senior diplomat also involved in the Af-Pak region and who worked on building relationships the old-fashioned way of diplomacy, RF introduces us to Robin Raphen, a Career Foreign Service Officer through and through, who lived and breathed State Department to the point of marrying another diplomat (future Ambassador in Pakistan) she would divorce and would end up dying in the dodgy plane crash that killed the Pakistani PM Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. Her focus on building relationships, the ancient and proven style, would yield results in advancing US interests and making “friends” in high foreign places, notably Pakistan. So much so that once Raphen left the State Department she would go work on K Street in a lobbying firm representing the interests of Pakistan in Washington. RF noted that “face to face conversations had been eclipsed by signals intelligence or intercepted communication” which may seem a bit of a stretch. When Raphen went back to the State Department to work with SRAP and later, her closeness to many Pakistani officials and her former lobbying role put her in trouble in a post-Snowden whistleblower era and active look for moles (there indeed would be State Department whistleblowing cases also in relation to AkPak and dealing with war lords who were former foes and then nominally allies). Raphen, like other State Department officials, made the mistake of taking home and forgetting confidential papers which lent her in trouble, opening a formal investigation by intelligence and law enforcement agencies that did not understand the peculiar rituals of diplomacy in Pakistan. Raphen, the traditional diplomat, paid for her dedication of creating the best local contacts, also as Pakistan was viewed as a very unreliable ally bordering on being an enemy given the closeness of ISI with various terrorist elements that operated in Afghanistan. In the end, she was only asked to leave the State Department but the blemish hurt her abilities to secure new opportunities in the government and to some extent private sector. She ended up with no work under the clouds of suspicion and thirty years of faithful service.
The book is very interesting though while RF makes the case that diplomacy and the State Department had taken a back seat for a long while this after 9-11 is not surprising all the more given RF’s book focus on Afghanistan and its neighbours and its war theatre nature. That the military took a prominent role in the region and they continued once their active phase was over, supplanting the State Department, is not a surprise given the military focus of America’s engagement there. While focused on the retreat of the State Department, the book is also conveying RF’s direct experience at the time in the very region where the military had naturally taken the lead and saw no need for formal diplomacy nor its usual interlocutors. It is very likely that if RF had taken different regions in the world post-9-11 like say Europe, Russia, India, Latin America or Japan that the State Department would have maintained their expected tried and tested diplomatic approach. The real change for the State Department thus came with the election of Donald Trump. We have all read that the State Department had suffered serious setbacks with the Trump “America First” policy and less emphasis put on diplomacy that isolationism and its related moves would entail. Many positions were not quickly or ever filled under the tenure of Secretary Rex Tillerson and many Career Foreign Service Officers and other State Department staff would elect to leave mainly as they grew disenchanted with the Trump-Tillerson approach. With Rex Tillerson’s dismissal following his series of disagreements with Trump and colourful descriptions of the President, the “America First” trend continued unabated with Mike Pompeo who went further and promoted the concept of “your country first” to foreign nations while working hard with the Trump leadership to put forward the candidature of a former Fox News journalist of “Fox & Friends”, with little experience in International affairs beyond her State Department spokesperson tole of less than two years, to replace Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations – a move that says it all as to Donald Trump’s view of the institution and diplomacy in general.
While RF argues that the State Department was sidelined by the military and the Pentagon since 9-11 and the Afghan and Iraq wars, the coup de grace was naturally given by Trump’s election of 2016 that led Rex Tillerson, the Texan who ran Exxon and former Eagle Scout (he would stay involved with the Scouts all of his career), to take the lead at Foggy Bottom. Or not take the lead actually. While having ran Exxon and amassed USD 300 million as well as a retirement package of USD 180 million RT came with no actual diplomatic experience but he brought with him his experience of having run one of the leading international oil companies in the world and its global footprint. After a first speech following the January 2017 inauguration to staff that was well received RT would not speak to them via a town meeting until May. He would not speak much to the press, initially not taking journalists on his plane and remaining aloof to the dismay of former Secretary of State Condi Rice who was at a loss to understand RT’s approach. He would not talk much to foreign counterparts either. Upon his appointment he declined to take more than three courtesy congratulatory calls a day and would be known not to engage in conversations with foreign leaders and counterparts. When the strikes against Syria were initiated, no ally were informed beforehand and when the Czechs (who represented the US in Syria) insisted upon speaking with RT, they were told he had taken a long weekend and was planning to have dinner with his wife and calling it a night. His relationship with Trump, whom he did knot know previously and vice versa which is a rarity in modern Washington politics, was notoriously acrimonious while RT, displaying Texas swagger, once “would have” referred to Trump as a “moron”. He was keen on concise briefings that would not be over two pages and often one in true business style preferring the latter as he was not “a fast reader”. In a further shrinkage of the State Department’s remit, Jared Kushner, the “son-in-law” was given point position on the Middle East peace process and would conduct US diplomacy in that part of the world also given his proximity to MBS who was widely perceived as a reformer before the hotel arrest of many of his family members and quite later the atrocious Kashoggi killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. RT actually though Kushner was engineering his demise so Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador at the UN and former governor of North Carolina could replace him. The State Department was further sidelined in its diplomatic role or lack thereof as a group of three and four star generals were in charge of the Office of the President, National Security Council and Defense Department. Three months before his abrupt firing in March 2018 and when asked what his experience had been at the State Department he replied, laughingly, “interesting”. Not having wanted the job in the first place but advised by Renda, his wife, that he needed to serve he did not expressed any outrage upon his dismissal and replacement by an obscure congressman who had been running CIA. Two months later at the Commencement ceremony of VMI or the Virginia Military Institute, home of may a leading Southern commanders during the civil war, he would unleash a scathing attack against Donal Trumping and his debasing style of leadership.
RF went through what RT did while at State which is a big external consulting-driven review of the health of American diplomatic organs, something we are told was derived from his engineering background but reflected his business experience and what new CEOs do when taking the helm. In some ways, there is nothing wrong with that, except that State was not Exxon and the dynamics at play were very different. The result of this survey of 35,000 State and USAID personnel was a very protracted and disturbing process with a lot of adverse reactions from the diplomats below. Many career officers felt that RT did not understand the culture or was taking too harsh an approach their department, many not feeling that the business approach was warranted. This combined with low communication with staff did not help the process during RT’s tenure, all the while he had communication issues wth Trump who wanted a SecState on “the same wavelength” that is to say loyal above all. RT focused on a technology revamp finding a lot of old PCs in his department, something that would have been welcome if the changes were focused on this. He came up with a plan to reduce department funding by 27% or a USD 10 bn economy while Defence was getting a 52 bn increase, reflecting America’s change of international and diplomatic focus. Health programs on HIV, malaria and polio were slashed and the US contribution to UN peace keeping missions was halved. He shuttered State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice responsible for setting policy on war crimes and other similar entities and initiatives that did not fit the “America First” ethos. While there was widespread outrage internally and even within Congress at the broad and cavalier nature of the cutbacks, RT surprised even more by turning down some of the money that some US Senators (often in bi-partisan way, like with Senators Corker and Cardin) wanted to give to State like with the USD 100m already appropriated, this without any process attached, to counter Russian propaganda, creating a precedent that baffled many (apparently he did not want to anger unduly Russia, wanting to try to develop or restore sounder relations). The RT era saw a succession of developments for State such as pink slips for 1,300 diplomats and hundreds of senior positions sitting empty.
Clearly many senior diplomats and even SecStates had criticised the State Department in the past, such as, RF reminds us with again Richard Holbrooke in a key Foreign Policy article in the 1970s at the start of his career or even James Baker under Reagan who complained about “the too many bureaucratic layers”. While reform was necessary, all the more not much had been done over the years (probably as State was busy carrying out US diplomacy) the extent of the changes, often seen as cuts and thus ultimately a withdrawal of America’s foreign capabilities and influence, it is arguable if such a harsh approach was needed in our times, given the multiplicity of challenges facing America and the West even if fitting the new leadership ethos. Interestingly George Shultz, Reagan’s SecState, was also coming from the business world from Bechtel, the construction and civil engineering company but unlike RT he saw the value of the State machinery, stating that “while we can cut special envoys, we need regional bureaux, ambassadors and people who know the local layout”. Madeleine Albright was even more direct about RT’s approach to reengineer the State Department, together with Condi Rice after a while and of course Hillary Clinton. Collin Powell, who was seen as model of evenhandedness and caution was up in arms about what he saw as “ripping the guts of the organisation” and “not filling the positions they even plan to keep” while “mortgaging the future in not bringing new blood in”. John Kerry, RT’s predecessor felt that it would be extremely costly as it would take years to rebuild in terms of expertise and capacity even if the budgets were fixed post 2020 assuming a new President from either party.
The Iran certification of the 2015 nuclear deal pitched Trump against RT, the latter believing hat there had been no case to say that Iran had not fulfilled its part of the agreement. Leaving the Paris agreement on climate change led the US not having a seat at the table while giving an advantage to foreign countries and their companies, China especially. When the number two US diplomat in Ankara has to tell the Turkish government that the US was withdrawing from the agreement, he preferred to resign and issued a stern statement (that should be read in the bold-k). When cancelling the “one-sided” deal with Cuba that the Obama administration had done to reinstate relationships with the old enemy, the State Department was the last to know. The Western Hemisphere Bureau in charge of Cuba policy was not informed until the day of the announcement. The Assistant Secretary for that area had not even been nominated to run that office.
When DT attacked Kim Jong Un at the UN, General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff put a palm to his face and rubbed his temples not believing what he was hearing about “Rocket Man” from the US President. When North Korea launched missiles that flew over Japan in August 2017, Trump issued an ultimatum that “North Korea not make any more threats to the United States” adding that ” they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never met”. Presidential historians could not find a more aggressive language from a commander-in-chief echoing, though it is unlikely Trump may have known it, Harry Truman warning Japan of a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”. State could not massage the message onslaught but wanted diplomacy to prevail. Trump then declared: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done”. When meeting a South Korean official, Trump announced he would meet Kim Jong Un before informing RT and just after RT had said hours earlier that the US was still a long way from negotiations. The decision was taken out of the blue and without broader diplomatic context. By that time, the State team led by Yuri Kim which had managed a sizeable North Korea unit no longer existed while the East India Department still lacked a permanent Assistant Secretary one year into the Trump presidency.
During his first trip to China as SecState, RT used the key words of Xi JinPin to stress the focus of the US-China relationship that should be based on “principles of no-conflict, no-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” as if borrowed by the perfect little globalist if such a book, which Fareed Zakaria would have written, existed. That was in fact “code” for establishing the power parity between the two now superpowers something Barack Obama had refused as it also meant the US letting China having its ways on Taiwan and the South China Seas dispute, something US allies in Asia-Pac quickly noted. Once again the State experts of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs had not been consulted as if they were mere bureaucratic necessities who should not help craft messages let alone ensure policy impact. It turned out that the message had been drafted by Jared Kushner’s team at the White House and that RT, a great believer of the win-win mantra at Exxon had felt good about it, not seeing the need for any second reading by people who knew China.
I have not covered on purpose all the Trump period – the most exciting of all periods in more words than one, while we seem to live through it at Twitter pace – which needs a good and quiet recap so much the unfolding tragedy at stake, the last episode being in Syria with the withdrawal of US forces and the de facto defeat of the West. You will enjoy RF’s book.