It’s time for civilian control of the State Department

A second Trump term and an improved Congress could begin to enact salutary reforms to our foreign policy institutions, personnel systems, and operations. Cultural transformation of the clerisy is an undertaking for generations.

Consumers of the corporate leftist media’s political coverage have heard a drumbeat of reports that an honorable, highly capable, long-serving diplomat recently was driven from office following a vicious, conspiracy-driven smear campaign by dishonest, shameless partisans who leaked misleading stories to the media, generally abused power, and disregarded the constitutional chain of authority.

What the public hasn’t heard is that the diplomat’s name is Kevin Moley.

Everyone has heard about Marie Yovanovitch, the career foreign service officer removed from her post in May as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. According to the Constitution, all ambassadors and senior state department officials serve at the pleasure of the president. Foreign service officers rotate between jobs and seldom stay in one post for more than two or three years. Yovanovitch, an appointee of President Barack Obama, was overdue for reassignment. She served longer as ambassador to Ukraine—almost three full years—than she did as ambassador to Armenia as an appointee of President George W. Bush retained in office by President Obama.

Yovanovitch and her supporters allege that some allies of President Trump made malicious remarks about her to hasten her reassignment. Malicious gossip against anyone is always morally wrong, but its existence is not exactly front-page news. It is commonplace in the swamp, whatever the partisan leanings of the participants, and it’s especially common in its swampiest precinct, the aptly named Foggy Bottom.

Also, if it were an impeachable offense for zealous supporters of a president to bad-mouth a stubborn government employee, the United States by now would have seen at least 45 separate presidential impeachments.

Deep State Shivs Trump Appointees
So who is Kevin Moley?

Moley served in the Marines during Vietnam. He earned the Purple Heart and the Navy Commendation Medal but he never reached the self-important status of lieutenant colonel. As an enlisted man, he left the service as a sergeant.

Moley went on to serve in a number of senior government and diplomatic posts. Under George H.W. Bush, he was chief financial officer and later deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. As acting secretary, he sometimes interacted with the president face-to-face in cabinet meetings.

Under President George W. Bush, he served with distinction as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations offices in Geneva, a post that made him superbly qualified for his next appointment. President Trump nominated him as assistant secretary of state in charge of the international organizations bureau. As a former senior official of the moderate Bush administrations, Moley was not perceived as controversial. The Senate confirmed him unanimously in March 2018.

But the permanent State Department had a different attitude. As a Trump appointee, Moley arrived in the State Department with a huge bullseye on his back. This experienced Republican official who once had sat at the White House cabinet table was a tempting scalp to capture.

The career foreign-service deputy Moley inherited from the Obama Administration immediately clashed with him. This functionary arranged to move to a higher post in the State Department bureaucracy. A whispering campaign began, alleging that Moley was guilty of such unpardonable sins as insufficient deference to the LGBTQ+ network.

A conservative former foreign service diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because he does not want to get shivved, reports that foreign-service careerists sympathetic to the Obama Administration filed frivolous Equal Employment Opportunity complaints against Moley in order to tie him up with his responses.

The bureaucrats’ tactic worked. The vicious smear campaign against Moley persisted until the decorated Vietnam combat veteran gave up, leaving his post on Friday only a year-and-a-half in office.

Moley had served at the pleasure of the president. The president did not remove him from office. An orchestrated smear campaign by the career State Department bureaucracy, in league with the media and Democrats in Congress, made it impossible for Moley to do his job. So he quit. As “personnel is policy,” this is the essence of how the administrative state and deep state, as Ken Masugi ably demonstrates, subvert our constitutional democracy.

Soft Landings for Leftist Bureaucrats
Moley’s real offense against the foreign service and foreign policy establishment appears to have been his determination and effectiveness. Knowing the federal government and the United Nations system as thoroughly as he did from past experience, he accomplished some of the things that Trump voters had voted for—an unforgivable offense in the eyes of The Swamp. This included success in pursuing President Trump’s pro-life policies against the resistance of the bureaucracy.

Moley, who was a political appointee, now is out of a job and without salary.

Imagine a labor union heavily composed of Harvard and Princeton elitists and their ilk—that’s the State Department today.

Marie Yovanovitch meanwhile is teaching a seminar at Georgetown while retaining her career government employment, salary, and benefits. She is in no danger of losing her salary or status as a member of the career foreign service. At some point, she will be reassigned to another well-compensated post.

The stories of Moley and Yovanovitch should prompt an examination of the foreign service’s inordinate power and insulation from accountability. While civilian control of the military is considered an essential pillar of a functioning democracy, the almost total absence of civilian control at the State Department is seldom considered. If the administrative state is a cancer on our democracy, the State Department is a malignancy at terminally antidemocratic stage four.

A Need for Civilian but Not Big Labor Control
Our military dates back to George Washington’s time, but the career foreign service, a project of the Wilsonian Progressivism, was not created until the 20th century. American diplomacy was highly effective without a career bureaucracy for roughly the first 150 years of our history.

The Wilsonians created the permanent foreign service in a kind of imitation of the British colonial bureaucracy, which they admired notwithstanding their assertions of devotion to “national self-determination.” Today, the United States cannot dispense with its professional foreign service, but major reforms are needed to put it in proper relation to republican government.

In the alphabet soup of domestic agencies from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate are always political appointees, not active members of the career civil service. Occasionally, a career civil servant might be promoted to one of these posts, at which time the appointee is no longer a tenured employee of the civil service.

In the Defense Department, all officials subject to Senate confirmation—assistant secretary, undersecretary, and secretary—must be civilians. Without exception.

Military personnel are not supposed to make policy; they are supposed to carry it out (Nota bene, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman).

Serving military officers not only are banned from holding the senior Pentagon posts reserved for civilian political appointees; by federal statute, they cannot be nominated as secretary of defense until at least seven years after they depart the uniformed service. One of President Trump’s worst mistakes at the beginning of his administration was to obtain a congressional waiver of federal law to let General James Mattis become secretary of defense.

At the State Department, virtually everything that is prescribed by law and custom concerning personnel and the chain of authority in the rest of the government is turned upside down.

While military personnel are not—not yet, at least not until the advent of a potential Elizabeth Warren presidency—members of the AFL-CIO, the career foreign service has a labor union. Imagine a labor union heavily composed of Harvard and Princeton elitists and their ilk—that’s the State Department. If that is not discomfiting enough, consider that untold numbers of CIA spies operate under diplomatic cover as nominal members of the foreign service. As such, they are an invisible, spooky part of Big Labor, too.

At State Department headquarters, customarily many presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation—assistant secretaries and even undersecretaries—are career foreign-service officers. Uniquely in the federal government, they are not required to leave the career service as a condition of a presidential appointment. Below the presidential appointment level, things at State are even worse from the standpoint of accountability in a democracy. There are strict limits on the number of political appointees allowed to work at State.

Every bureau, headed by an assistant secretary such as Moley, has a “principal deputy assistant secretary” who always is a career foreign service officer. The system usually allows only one of the several deputy assistant secretaries in each bureau to be a political appointee. At levels beneath deputy assistant secretary, there are so few political appointees that it is almost pointless to have them. There is practically nothing they can do other than to catch flak and make a few attempts to work around the career bureaucracy until their brief time in office is over.

Ambassadors Need to be Effective Representatives of the President
The international diplomatic system considers a nation’s ambassador as the representative not only of his government as an institution but also as a personal representative of his head of state. An ideal U.S. ambassador is one who has diplomatic skill, understanding of the host country, and policy depth while also being a confidant of the American president. The swamp has arranged things so that about half of the ambassadorial posts are reserved for career foreign-service officers. Some of the individual foreign service officers who attain these posts are superbly talented and diligent in implementing a president’s policies regardless of the officer’s personal policy views.

At their best, career foreign-service officers as ambassadors can be highly effective in promoting American interests when interacting peer-to-peer with the career government bureaucracies of their host governments. They also can be effective in dealing with top ministers and on occasion even with heads of state. That said, their lack of a personal relationship with the U.S. president is a drawback.

The first years of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy were paralyzed not only because of Rex Tillerson’s stupidity and arrogance but also because of Capitol Hill power grabs.

The president of China, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and other foreign dignitaries always want an American ambassador who can speak directly and confidently with the president. There are many times when statecraft should bypass the State Department and other bureaucracies, not because of disregard for the value the career services do offer, but because a particular matter is of the highest import and sensitivity. This last point is clearly lost on those who consider it an impeachable offense for a president’s staff to file the highly classified memorandum of a phone conversation with a foreign president in a compartment allowing less access than the bureaucracy thinks it is entitled to have.

Presidents of both parties name some excellent noncareer, that is, politically appointed ambassadors. At the same time, presidents always manage somehow to appoint some friends and big donors who turn out to be buffoons. When they do the latter, it is the gift that keeps on giving to the career foreign-service officers’ labor union, which ratchets up its unceasing campaign to reserve ambassadorial slots for career officers.

Reforming the State Department
Then what is to be done?

Freshman Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) have an imaginative proposal for taking major parts of the federal government out of the swamp by moving certain cabinet departments to “flyover country.” They and like-minded members of the House and Senate should apply their imagination to authentic reform of the State Department and diplomatic service.

Here are some points for consideration:

Do not denigrate or take a needless us-versus-them posture towards foreign-service personnel. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did just that during his ill-starred tenure. He cut career officials out of meetings and processes pointlessly, out of sheer—indeed moronic—arrogance and without any discernible policy rationale.

The only notable thing Tillerson accomplished as secretary was to make an already hostile foreign service bureaucracy infinitely more hostile to the Trump presidency. While it is often necessary and proper for a president and secretary of state to make decisions on high and without the consultation of the career bureaucracy, it is a self-defeating gesture when this is done out of spite and with obvious contempt for career officers.

Conservative and genuinely moderate, nonpartisan foreign service officers who wanted to implement President Trump’s policies at the beginning of the administration were those hurt the most by the Tillerson interlude.

Continue to appoint excellent career foreign-service officers to ambassadorships but require them to retire permanently from the foreign service after serving once in such posts. This would make the career foreign service more closely analogous to the military in its relationship with our constitutional democratic republic. Foreign service officers would retain the incentives and rewards of becoming ambassadors at the culmination of their careers, but only after severing lifelines with the career bureaucracy.

Never appoint a serving foreign-service officer to head a State Department bureau. Imagine the uproar if a president were to nominate an ambitious general to become secretary of the army—a general entitled to continue in uniform during and after his tenure as secretary. Outrageous as this is, it is a close analogy to how the State Department actually runs itself without accountability.

What is unthinkable in the Defense Department should not be allowed in the State Department. Here it would be good to have a policy regarding State Department bureau heads something like the law that requires a military person to be out of uniform for at least seven years before eligibility to be secretary of defense.

Employ foreign service officers as diplomats, not as bureaucrats. Idealistic young people generally don’t apply for the foreign service because they have aspirations to become desk jockeys, deep staters, or Lt. Colonel Vindmans. The State Department career bureaucracy is much too big, but our diplomatic representation overseas is too small.

Open more overseas missions. Put more foreign-service officers overseas as real diplomats, give them careful management by presidential appointees, and drastically reduce their footprint at the headquarters bureaucracy. Authorize and place many more political appointees—qualified ones, not grifters who will embarrass the president and his voters—into foreign policy and management positions.

De-certify the foreign-service public-employee union. The effect would be to put the diplomatic service—whose members are commissioned officers—on professional parity with the military.

It will require heavy lifting to accomplish any of these foreign service reforms, but that, as Mackubin Owens indicates, is not all that needs to be done.

Congress needs to back off from its stranglehold on foreign policy, administration, and diplomacy. Too many positions all across the government require Senate confirmation. The first years of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy were paralyzed not only because of Tillerson’s stupidity and arrogance but also because of Capitol Hill power grabs.

For example, the Republican-majority Senate has delayed or killed a number of Trump nominations to important foreign posts out of deference to obstinate individual senators from both parties who exercise their prerogative to put “holds” on nominations. This old Senate custom interferes with effective and democratic government as did the infamous “liberum veto” of the long-gone Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Congress also needs to stop its practice of micromanaging foreign policy and diplomacy by manipulation of the appropriations process.

The Framers of the Constitution, in giving unambiguous power to the president for the making and conduct of foreign policy, could not have intended for Congress to be able to paralyze foreign policy as it does today. Our first secretary of state and third president, Thomas Jefferson, never would have managed his magnificent accomplishments of making America greater—and larger—had he been constrained by institutions such as today’s deformed Congress and the deep state.

Consider, too, another reflection on our Republic’s early years. Can anyone imagine a Fiona Hill, complete with her crispest Gillian Anderson accent from “The Fall,” testifying in front of a congressional “intelligence” committee about General Andrew Jackson’s dismaying disregard for the “interagency consensus” in his tactical conduct of the War of 1812?

Even if stunning reforms such as those proposed above were enacted, politics remains downstream from culture. American foreign policy and diplomacy—and increasingly, the military with its puffed-up pseudointellectuals such as Lt. General H.R. McMaster and the comic-opera bit player Lt. Colonel Vindman—are enveloped in what Joel Kotkin so carefully describes as a clerisy.

A second Trump term and an improved Congress could begin to enact salutary reforms to our foreign policy institutions, personnel systems, and operations. Cultural transformation of the clerisy is an undertaking for generations.