The cardinal rule of the U.S. Department of State is that no ambassador shall outshine the Secretary of State. As a result, U.S. ambassadors are almost invisible to the citizens of the countries where they are posted. They are not permitted to announce any policy changes (as all publicity must originate with the Secretary), and they are rarely permitted to give any interviews or hold press conferences because they are not allowed to say anything other than to repeat approved talking points. The Secretary-centric policies of the State Department and the emphasis on creating a cult of personality have had a debilitating impact on U.S. foreign policy.
It was not always that way. Over the centuries, American ambassadors have exercised crucial authority and have contributed significantly to the success of the United States. Beginning with its first ambassadors, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, U.S. ambassadors literally saved the nation. Other ambassadors such as John Quincy Adams and George H.W. Bush went on to become President of the United States. The list of distinguished, successful and publicly popular U.S. ambassadors is long and includes W. Averell Harriman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Shirley Temple Black, Dr. Jeanne Kirkpatrick who became as the first woman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the eloquent Daniel Patrick Moynihan. These Ambassadors, along with a host of dedicated State Department employees ranging from the daring John S. Service to USAID’s legendary John Paul Vann, blazed new paths and bolstered America’s standing around the world. They inspired people, which should be the goal of every diplomat.
Regarding this issue, some Secretaries of State deserve special mention, including former Secretary William P. Rogers. He understood the importance of dynamic ambassadors and thus permitted Henry Kissinger to shine and at times even outshine him regarding peace talks with North Vietnam. Likewise, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright deserves credit for giving over some of the limelight to the tenacious and confident Richard C. Holbrooke. He took center stage for a time in order to negotiate the crucial Balkans peace agreement. These Secretaries of State understood that the nation’s interests are more important than the Secretary of State’s vanity.
The role of U.S. ambassadors has steadily declined in importance since the end of the Clinton Administration. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further downgraded the position of ambassador by her decision to appoint special regional ambassadors and “ambassadors at large” from a pool of her trusted associates. She also signed off on the present arrangement in which one third of America’s ambassadorial positions are sold to rich campaign contributors. Imagine how difficult it must be for U.S. Embassy officials in Asia and Africa to preach honesty and to promote local anti-corruption initiatives when the U.S. Ambassador to that country was able to buy his or her position.
Those U.S. Ambassadors who do not purchase their posts are chosen from the ranks of the Senior Foreign Service. The selectees, however, have to agree to keep their heads low and voices silent. Not only do they have no voice, but little authority. The past decade has seen a surge in whole levels of senior bureaucrats at the State Department. Every year there are new “Directors” and “Assistant Secretaries” overseeing increasingly fractured programs and pet initiatives that strip authority away from the local ambassador. Since 2001, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security has used the threat of al-Qaeda to amass an enormous amount of authority over embassy operations, all at the expense of the ambassadors. It is torture by a thousand cuts for the local embassies.
In 2011, Secretary Clinton selected a skillful but uncharismatic diplomat named Ryan Crocker and dispatched him to Afghanistan. What the mission required was an unconventional, brazen, larger than life, Dari-speaking U.S. Ambassador, but the State Department, true to form, sent the opposite. During the past year Ambassador Crocker has largely dropped from public view, relegated to the job of managing the embassy rather than being the public face of a re-energized U.S. war effort. A year later U.S./Afghan relations are at their lowest point in ten years. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s public efforts appear mediocre at best and disastrous at worse, but he continues to receive praise from the Secretary of State because he is performing as expected and as required. Within the State Department and in diplomatic-speak, Ambassador Crocker’s performance would be called “robust mediocrity,” which is quite acceptable; in fact it is the required norm.
To be fair to Ambassador Crocker, not much could be expected of him. Due to the fractured U.S. military and civilian command structure in Afghanistan and in Washington, D.C., he has little real authority. As the near-invisible position of U.S. Ambassador holds little authority it garners little respect in many host countries. Ambassador Crocker’s predecessor, Karl Eikenberry, used to appear on American news shows where he was limited to reading prepared statements and reciting approved talking points. It was painful and embarrassing to watch. If one could have looked under Ambassador Eikenberry’s shirt one would have seen the leash.
All of this micro-management creates a cycle of failure. U.S. ambassadors are repeatedly denied the tools needed for success, which leads to a breakdown in host-country relations, which causes State Department officials to further limit the authority of ambassadors, which continues the downward slide. This was the situation with Anne Patterson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. While U.S./Pakistani relations plummeted under her watch, the fault may lie more with the Secretary of State’s anti-Ambassador management style than with Ambassador Patterson. The same might be said of Margaret Scobey, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, who was unprepared, invisible and ineffective last year when pro-democracy forces began to array against Hosni Mubarak. It is sad to see so many highly qualified women being held back and kept in their place due to an insecure Secretary of State.
Insecurity is not a trait limited to female Secretaries of State. During the early stages of the Vietnam War, President John F. Kennedy wanted to appoint Asian counterinsurgency expert General Edward Lansdale as U.S. Ambassador in Saigon, but this daring and unconventional appointment was opposed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk who reportedly threatened to resign if it occurred. As a result, President Kennedy backed away from the Lansdale selection and a safe and non-controversial Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. was appointed instead. During Ambassador Lodge’s tenure, South Vietnam almost disintegrated due to assassinations and coups. This situation occurred because there was no strong U.S. Ambassador who was able to thwart the amateurish CIA and Pentagon meddling in South Vietnamese politics. The State Department, content with ambassadorial mediocrity, then nominated as Ambassador Lodge’s replacement, a well-respected, but safe and uncontroversial Ellsworth Bunker, who again was not the type of ambassador needed for a country in conflict that was fighting for its life.
The cult of personality within the State Department for the current Secretary could be characterized as “anti-American” because senior State Department officials would seemingly rather lose a war than have a visionary and dynamic ambassador posted to a country in conflict who might eclipse the Secretary of State or at least force her to share the stage.
While mediocre performance tends to escape notice during peacetime, it becomes a glaring problem during wartime. When the lives of U.S. troops are at stake, the lackluster performance by the local U.S. embassy can prolong the war, undercut the military’s hard-fought efforts and ultimately get more people killed.
The overall U.S./NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John R, Allen, testified on March 22, 2012 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To his discredit, General Allen ignored the continuing failure of the State Department’s civilian “surge” in Afghanistan, despite the danger it poses to his troops and to his mission. That failure is the unanimous opinion of every audit and review ever conducted of the program. The reasons for the failure are multi-faceted and clearly foreseeable to anyone who has studied the State Department. Again, in Ambassador Crocker’s defense, he lacks the authority to correct any of the core deficiencies in this effort.
The United States may very well lose its war in Afghanistan, not because the military did not do its job, but because the military was only assigned 50% of the mission tasks. The other 50%, which included governance, anti-corruption, nation-building, reconstruction and good relations with Pakistan, belonged to the State Department. Nothing positive can be said about the State Department’s performance of any of its mission tasks.
Due to the deafening silence in Washington, D.C. regarding the deplorably sloppy, half-hearted and ineffective nation-building effort in Afghanistan, it will be up to historians to write an objective account of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The title of that tome might very well be a twist of Secretary Clinton’s happy exclamation when told about the murder of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi:
“The United States came, its diplomatic efforts were mediocre, no one cared, and the Taliban won.”