62nd Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger Dies at 80

43 days Lawrence Eagleburger from 1992 to 1993        Image via WikipediaLawrence S. Eagleburger,  the only career foreign service officer to serve as the United States Secretary of State to date died on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. He was 80. The NYT obituary describes him as “a troubleshooting diplomat and senior foreign policy adviser to presidents who served the country for more than 40 years, including 42 days as secretary of state at the close of President George Bush’s term.”

NYT notes on the tenure of Mr. Eagleburger:  “When Mr. Baker agreed somewhat reluctantly to step down to become Mr. Bush’s political adviser in his faltering re-election campaign in August 1992, Mr. Eagleburger was named acting secretary of state and ran the department. After losing the election to Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush officially named Mr. Eagleburger to the post. He served from Dec. 8, 1992, to Jan. 19, 1993. Only one other secretary served a shorter term, Elihu B. Washburne, who took office under President Ulysses S. Grant on March 5, 1869, and left 11 days later to head the American mission to France.”

Mr. Eagleburger was the 12th Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (“P”), the 10th United States Deputy Secretary of State, and was Acting Secretary of State from August 23, 1992 – December 8, 1992.  President Bush Sr. appointed him the 62nd United States Secretary of State on December 8, 1992 until the end of the Bush term on January 20, 1993.

In August 1988, Mr. Eagleburger was interviewed by Leonard J. Saccio for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. Excerpt below:

Q: Can we go to the period when you were in charge of management in the State Department? Do you have any comment on the operation of the Department, considering its objectives as far as the training of the people or experience, and the famous question about political appointees and the superior officers who come in within an administration?

EAGLEBURGER: I left that management job convinced of several things. First of all, I thought then, and I still think, that by and large, the Department does a pretty good job of training, particularly language training. I think we do it as well as anybody. But we do not have the tradition of training in the way the military does. In fact, there is within the profession itself, I think, a reluctance to take these times out, because they think it hurts their career moves, they’re out of circulation for a while. But by and large, on the training side, I think we’re not bad.

I also was convinced that also, by and large, the raw material the American Foreign Service has is better than anybody else’s, including the Soviets and the British, who are often compared with us.

I also thought we did a lousy job of personnel management. Our assignment procedures got more and more complicated, and a lot of this is a consequence of what I guess I would describe as the opening up of bureaucracy to the light of day, which most people think has been a good thing. I don’t. That is not to say that the old Foreign Service that we’ve all heard about, the Foreign Service of the period when George Kennan was a junior Foreign Service officer, didn’t have a great many injustices within the system, and a lot of people were badly hurt and had no right of appeal and no way to deal with the problem. There was, I am sure, an old-boy network that managed the Department and the Foreign Service, and all of that has been criticized.

But what I saw developing when I was Under Secretary for Management–and it’s gotten much worse since–is, for example, one of the real strengths of the Foreign Service when I came into it, I think, was the selection-out process. And it worked when I came in. While it’s still on the books, it no longer works at all, because you can tie the Department up in the courts for years, and in the long run, usually you will lose, the Department will lose, when it comes to a test case in the courts on whether someone should be selected out.
The argument is, “That’s because the personnel records aren’t adequately kept,” and so forth. The fact of the matter is that more and more, the Foreign Service has become a victim of legislation which is aimed at protecting government employees. I’m prepared to concede that. But I think as a result, the ability of the Department to maintain discipline, the ability of the Department to assign people as it sees fit, rather than get into a negotiation with the person as to what embassy he’s going to serve in, has substantially deteriorated.

When I was Deputy Under Secretary for Management, I was the fellow that introduced the open assignment system. I wish I had never done it. But when it was done, all we were saying was, “Officers ought to have a right to know what jobs are available, and ought to be able to bid for them. But it will be the Department that decides who goes where.” Since I left, in negotiations with AFSA [American Foreign Service Association – the “union” of the Foreign Service], the Department has, in effect, conceded that there is a negotiation that must go on between the assigned officer and the Department. As a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult to assign people, particularly to the difficult jobs.

There are also societal problems that have clearly made a difference. The married working couple makes the assignment process much more difficult; the role of spouses in terms of employment abroad and so forth, makes life a lot more difficult. But by and large, I would have to say the Foreign Service is nowhere near the disciplined Service that I think it was 20 or 25 years ago. I think that’s too bad. That is not to say that I think that the Foreign Service is not worth anything; I still think it’s a good Foreign Service. But management is much more difficult; morale, I think, is worse; and I see little hope that that’s going to change.

With regard to the question of political appointees, on this I am not popular with my Foreign Service colleagues, because by and large, I don’t care that much, with some caveats. To my way of thinking, it is far more important that good Foreign Service officers get the important jobs in the Department than it is that they have a lock on a lot of embassies. Again, don’t get me wrong. I would prefer to see good Foreign Service officers appointed ambassador than some political hack who is going to Ireland because his grandmother was Irish. I’m not arguing that point. But I have seen a lot of quite capable political appointees. I’ve also seen some real turkeys. But I can reverse the process. I’ve seen some very good Foreign Service officer ambassadors; I’ve seen some that aren’t so good.

One thing I will say. This is a comment I don’t think Henry Kissinger would want me to repeat, but since I agree with it. Henry came to the conclusion that a senior Foreign Service officer–again, recognizing there would be exceptions, but as a generalization, a senior Foreign Service officer had, to quote him, “one good fight in him.” He meant by that, take an ambassador in country X which becomes a political hot spot, and the ambassador becomes a political target back home. Let me give an example: Chile at the time of Allende and thereafter, where the political process in the US engendered tremendous debate about what the ambassador did or didn’t do, and was he being devious or was he honest. The occupant of the embassy, because he worries about the damage he has already suffered, is much less prepared to fight hard the second time. I don’t deny that that’s a generalization that has exceptions, as I’ve indicated, but I do feel there is some merit to that contention. Therefore, if the Foreign Service is going to get the jobs, it needs to be prepared to put its neck on the block, and it needs to accept the fact that one embassy may be all they will get. That’s very easy to say. We’re all human; it doesn’t work that way.

All I’m really trying to say with regard to this is that there are some arguments that can be made by some basically sympathetic outsiders, and Henry Kissinger, basically, is a sympathetic viewer of the Foreign Service. There are some arguments that can be made by those people, which are not altogether wrong. On the other hand, it is the height of absurdity, I think, to argue, as Ambassador Galbraith–not the Harvard Galbraith, but Evan Galbraith, who was in Paris–has argued, that the Foreign Service should not get senior embassies and certainly should not get senior jobs in the Department because they don’t represent the views of the President; they represent the views of the institution.

I’ve debated Galbraith on Bill Buckley’s program on the subject. Larry Silverman, who preceded me in Belgrade, made the same argument in a Foreign Affairs article, and I think it’s clap-trap. I think it’s clap-trap for several reasons, the first of which is that by and large, the political appointee who, in fact, may be well known by the President, knows the President’s thinking in any intimate detail perhaps for the first six months he’s in his embassy, if he’s lucky. The President’s views change as he is in Washington living with reality; the ambassador’s may not. So that this claim that you know what the President’s thinking and how he reacts to issues, I think it’s nonsense.

Secondly, the argument that you have to be responsive to the President, while it sounds good, also means if you’re not careful, precisely what I was talking about earlier, that there is no coherence or consistency to American foreign policy at all. I think if you look at what Presidents think when they come into office and what they think about foreign policy when they leave, you will find that they have shifted toward what was probably the consensus view when they walked into the office in the first place. All that really says is that the reality of working with the problem over a number of years often demonstrates that the problem has certain answers, certain parameters, and that those don’t change just because a new President walks into office with a different view of how you ought to deal with the problem.

Again, if I’m not careful, I’m going to be arguing that the permanent bureaucracy really ought to be making the political decisions that should rest in the hands of the President; that is not what I’m arguing. But what I am arguing is that the Foreign Service brings to the conduct of American foreign policy an essential consistency, an institutional memory, a coherence that, while it may in its essence be contrary to some of the conceptions of democracy, nevertheless, is a factor that ought to be highly valued. As a consequence of that, this baloney that everybody should change at top level every time a new President comes in, is, in fact, simply arguing that what a President believes the minute he walks into office is not and should not be subject to experience as he continues in office. Experience is important, and the Foreign Service provides that.

The full text of the interview is here.

Secretary Clinton’s statement on Mr. Eagleburger’s passing is here.

President Obama and Vice President Biden’s statements are here.