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U.S. News /30 Jan 2017
01.30.17

The Self-Draining Swamp

I just watched CNN and Anderson Cooper’s very sloppy panel on Thursday’s mass resignation of senior management at the US Department of State. They all said that the officials were kicked out, “and what a pity of the loss of hundreds of years of institutional memory,” implying short-sightedness and ignorance of the new White House.

All other accounts I see say the officials resigned. Wholesale senior management resignations at this time, hardly as spontaneous as a Benghazi night of vandalism and murder, pointedly deprive Secretary of State nominee Tillerson with transition resources and the country of institutional memory. Maybe there is a video somewhere that started all of this.

A further level of detail reveals that three of the four resigned their current posts, but will find different posts within the State Department. So, “resigned” overstates their newsworthiness. Reportedly, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy indeed is retiring. He served for decades creating a Harry Potter-like discipleship among his management apprentices at State. He now appears to be taking a new tack to continue ahead of the Benghazi black clouds and the Hillary e-mail cold front that have been on his map in recent years.

Although the Cold War is over, there has been no climate change in the State Department. Its Foreign Service caste culture, famously leaning left for decades, was proud of all things Obama. Comes a new sheriff to town and the Foreign Service elite can’t hold its ground in Foggy Bottom. Until now Kennedy and his bureaucratically loyal entourage have survived upon the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Now, much like State’s supercilious senior management team, the Foreign Service Act of 1980 needs to be repealed and replaced (to borrow a popular phrase).

The Act tooled the Foreign Service for a world of Soviet certainties, Japanese ambitions, and mutually assured destruction. Lo these forty years, State’s cocooned, tenured officials (yes, by law, actually tenured, like professors) have pondered while other federal agencies take the lead chair in trade, disarmament, environment, health, aviation, and similar international negotiations. Worse yet, the National Security Council now inhales all the policy oxygen in the room. State is the doorman for foreign affairs, no longer the penthouse tenant.

Yes, it is time to reform the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Cut tenure for officers walking the Department’s corridors between guaranteed gigs abroad. Although they believe they know much more than most White Houses, cutting them loose is for the country’s good. The United Kingdom, facing the same onset of Foreign Service sclerosis, reformed itself and eliminated tenure. It is no longer an elite support system; today’s unpredictable foreign arena needs muscle and hustle, not armchair quarterbacking.

In the end, it’s not that big of a loss if we see these people go. Better yet, it is evidence of another Trumpian outcome: a self-draining swamp. Maybe one day we will see the State Department’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood change its name finally to “firm ground.”

Next, I’m looking forward to a self-building wall.

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