Failed State

By: John R. Bolton


February 7, 2014

Vol. XIV, Number 1 - Winter 2013/14

Christian Whiton belongs to a "discrete and insular minority"—he is a Republican political appointee who served at the Department of State. Although perhaps not what the Supreme Court had in mind when it coined the term, this small, embattled group of government alumni has earned the right to be heard, especially when its members signal their fellow citizens that our country's national security apparatus is failing.

Whiton emerged unchastened from his experiences in the George W. Bush State Department, unlike many Republicans who served there, in the intelligence community, or even in the civilian ranks of the Defense Department over the years, many of whom might just as well have joined the Foreign Service union. He defines the essence of "smart power" as "peacefully shaping political outcomes in foreign countries," a skill no recent presidency has mastered. His book focuses on U.S. anti-terrorism policy, the Iranian and North Korean drives for deliverable nuclear weapons (and proliferation generally), and the risks of a rising China. Woven into Whiton's analysis are examples of mistakes by both the Bush and Obama administrations. His policy critiques are worthwhile, but what really shines is his version of Gulliver's Travels through the national security bureaucracy. His journey is of course unique, but it reflects larger patterns and failures within State and beyond.

These failures are not well understood even by informed Americans, who are repeatedly surprised by diplomatic, defense, and intelligence policies contrary to U.S. interests and so different from what the presidents say they want. As Whiton recognizes, large numbers of bright, highly competent professionals are trapped in dysfunctional bureaucratic cultures. Without a cultural revolution at State and elsewhere—improvement is utterly unlikely from within.


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I confess my bias here, because this subject has fascinated me since the late 1960s, when, as a Yale undergraduate, I took a graduate political science course and read a new study called Some Causes of Organizational Ineffectiveness Within the Department of State. Written by Chris Argyris, then a professor in Yale's quaintly named "administrative sciences" department, this essay, commissioned by State, was an eye-opener. The culture described was so dysfunctional I could not understand how the department could effectively advocate American positions internationally, let alone cope with the Cold War's existential challenges.

Later, after actually entering the State Department world, I found that the Argyris critique was, if anything, understated. What was true when I joined the Agency for International Development in early 1981 was just as true when I left the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in late 2006. It was one reason I emphasized many of these "causes of organizational ineffectiveness" in my own memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option (2007), and why I welcome this latest contribution to the genre. (Elliott Abrams's Tested by Zion is another recent example.)


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This is not simply a conservative or Republican critique of State. Whiton quotes President John Kennedy's dismissal of State as a "bowl full of jelly" and Franklin Roosevelt's famous comparison of the department's processes to "watching an elephant become pregnant—everything is done on a very high level, there's a lot of commotion, and it takes twenty-two months for anything to happen."

Part of State's problem is that it suffers from Europe envy, seeing Western European foreign ministries as ideals it should emulate, only to find itself interfered with by inconvenient political appointees and that distracting constitutional inconvenience known as Congress. Europe's foreign ministries almost run themselves, largely protected from domestic objections by the elite consensus on foreign policy, especially under the European Union. More importantly, when national governments change, European foreign ministries at most face a new minister, a few new parliamentary under-secretaries, and a tiny number of new assistants. There is nothing like the transition in high-level officials and ambassadors that occurs when a U.S. president leaves office (even though the numbers are actually quite small as a percentage of State's total staffing). Even when a president remains but the Secretary of State changes, the senior leaders usually change substantially.

Many Foreign Service officers find this inconvenient. Change interferes both with their ideological predilections and their daily habits. And then we have Congress, always interfering in State's work, raising constituents' concerns. Imagine having to handle Cuban-American complaints about Castro's regime, when what the Foreign Service really wants is full diplomatic relations, re-opening the American Embassy in Havana, and creating new postings for careerists. And then the constituents themselves, like the families of the victims of Libya's 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, or of the September 11, 2012, Benghazi murders, who require attention and sympathy, thereby obstructing arguments that the war on terrorism is over. Europe's foreign ministries rarely have to deal with parliamentarians or opposition parties, let alone individual citizens.


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The State Department's culture (although not shared by all careerists) is simultaneously elitist and parochial. For example, Whiton highlights the notion, popular at State, that "China is not an adversary." Not hard to believe, provided one ignores the reality of China's military build-up, its provocative territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, and its rigorously mercantilist trade policies. Whiton shows how "panda hugging" careerists at State enforce petty constraints against Taiwanese officials at Beijing's instance. Taiwan's diplomats (coming from a vigorous, functioning democracy) are not permitted in State's Foggy Bottom headquarters, and high-level U.S. officials rarely visit Taiwan. Although American representatives frequently meet with terrorists (and those who promise to renounce terrorism), the doors are closed to the Taiwanese.

Whiton does not spare other national security agencies, particularly the intelligence community, that hallowed ground for opponents of the Bush Administration, who repeatedly accused Bush appointees of trying to "politicize" intelligence, skewing analysis in favor of their preferred policies. There was never evidence to support that charge, unless policymakers asking hard questions of intelligence analysts constitutes a form of intimidation. The real danger of politicization was within the intelligence community itself, where guerrilla movements tried to spike Bush policies with which they disagreed. Whiton emphasizes the badly misguided 2007 national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program as the paradigm of such mutiny. The Iran case was particularly egregious because the estimate at issue was not written by intelligence professionals, but by State Department officials on loan to the Director of National Intelligence. That is politicization with a vengeance.

Readers can agree or disagree with Christian Whiton's recommendations for reform. My own view is that the problems are more cultural than structural, and that something more than a simple rearrangement of the bureaucracy is required. But these are debates for another day, after the salutary lessons of Smart Power have sunk in.

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