Guy W. Farmer: Downsizing the State Department
December 23, 2017
You won't be surprised to learn it won't be a merry Christmas at the sprawling State Department in Washington, D.C. In my opinion, as a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer (FSO), State is part of the Washington swamp that needs to be drained.
My politically incorrect opinion is sure to infuriate many of my fellow diplomats, active and retired, but they should face the fact State is a bloated bureaucracy that needs to be reorganized and streamlined in order to meet 21st century diplomatic challenges and responsibilities. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), is correct when she says diplomacy is absolutely essential in today's strife-torn world, but she should ask herself why President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former Exxon-Mobile CEO, are downsizing the State Department.
In the December issue of Foreign Service Journal Ambassador Stephenson asks two questions: (1) Where does the impetus to weaken the Foreign Service come from? and (2) Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries? The answer to her first question comes from within, from career diplomats and State employees who oppose the president and his policies. In the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy and the enemy is us."
When dozens of retired ambassadors sign petitions and write letters opposing the president and his policies, and active diplomats and State employees publicly protest the policies they're sworn to support and implement, Trump and Tillerson owe them nothing. After all, FSOs and State officials take an oath to support and defend the president's policies, whether they agree with those policies or not.
During my 28-year diplomatic career I worked for presidents ranging from liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, and was a spokesman for their policies even when I didn't agree with them. I remember U.S. election night parties at overseas embassies where we applauded the winners even when we voted for their opponents. And that's exactly what career FSOs should have done in November 2016, even though most of them — 75 to 80 percent of them, in my opinion — voted for Trump's opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Instead, we heard a surprising amount of sniping from the sidelines by high-ranking FSOs and State Department officials. Unsurprisingly, President Trump directed Secretary Tillerson to carry out a thorough house-cleaning at State, and that's what has upset Ambassador Stephenson and so many of my fellow FSOs. Partisanship at State and in the Foreign Service has predictable consequences, which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows how Washington works.
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The State Department has more than 70,000 employees worldwide, some 50,000 of whom are overseas at any given time, leaving 20,000 of them at the aptly nicknamed "Fudge Factory" in Washington, D.C. I worked at the Department for nearly a year during the First Gulf War and can tell you wandering the endless hallways at "Main State" allowed me to see the federal bureaucracy up close and personal, which was often dreary and depressing. It was difficult to accomplish anything with so many levels of bureaucracy requiring so many clearances to carry out routine tasks.
I endorse Ambassador Stephenson's call for a robust and effective Foreign Service but urge her to remind our fellow diplomats their mandate is to support and defend the president's foreign policy, not to undermine it from within in a kind of bureaucratic guerrilla warfare. Those who can't, or won't, support the president's policies should do the honorable thing and resign, as several of them have done. Merry Christmas!
Guy W. Farmer is a retired diplomat.