In recent months, the front pages, websites, columns, blogs, and talking heads rediscovered an old issue — the nomination of individuals who raised funds for a Presidential campaign to be ambassadors. A few nominees were embarrassed at their Senate confirmation hearings.
This short piece is NOT about ambassadorial nominees. Rather, let me step back and discuss the naming of political appointees to senior policy positions in the Department of State.
The American Foreign Service Association counts the number of political vs. career appointees as Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Special Envoy, Special Representative, Director, Chief, Coordinator, Advisor, and Executive Secretary. In 2012, 27 were career officers, and 63 were political appointees. This was the highest percentage of political appointees in policy positions since AFSA began counting. In 2008 there were 26 senior noncareer Schedule B hires; in 2012 there were 89.
How about Public Diplomacy? Three bureaus report to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs — Public Affairs (PA), Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), and International Information Programs (IIP). All three bureaus are led by appointees. The three bureaus have eleven positions at the level of Deputy Assistant Secretary, and six geographic bureaus all have Deputy Assistant Secretaries assigned Public Diplomacy portfolios. For these 17 positions, the exact count varies with ordinary turnover, but it is safe to say about half are career, and half are political.
No matter the bureau or function, many of these appointees indeed have solid foreign policy credentials. There are many paths to expertise and several different incubators in foreign affairs, and the Foreign Service is only one. Many experts have worked in Congress, the NSC and the White House, Presidential campaigns, and at the think tanks at different times in their careers. At the beginning of their careers, they may have served in the Peace Corps or, less often, the armed forces.
Over the years, I worked with many appointees. Many brought energy and fresh ideas into the Department. This essay is not about individuals – many of whom earned my admiration – but rather about organizational dynamics.
I have concluded that an overreliance on political appointees from outside the Foreign Service weakens the conduct of American foreign policy. These reasons have little to do with the qualifications of the individuals. If the administration decides that this or that position at the State Department is better filled by a political appointee than by a Foreign Service officer, there are three down sides.
First, the search and selection process, vetting, security clearances, and – for those positions requiring confirmation by the Senate — long waits for hearings and confirmation add up to long vacancies between incumbents. During the vacancies, someone picks up the slack, for sure, but some other portfolio is shorted. Even if a career officer serves as “Acting,” the Department waits for the President’s nominee to come on board before launching new initiatives and committing funds. Preferring political appointees from the outside, then, slows foreign policy down. Public Diplomacy, in particular, suffered from long periods between Under Secretaries.
Second, whatever their regional or issue expertise, whichever Washington arena gave them their chops, however close appointees may be to the President and his team, they have had no reason to understand “the machinery” or “the mechanics” of the State Department – its funding, authorities, planning, reporting, budget cycle, and incentives.
All organizations have an organizational culture. For the State Department and the Foreign Service, it encompasses the five cones, the assignment and promotion systems, hierarchies, the “D Committee” which recommends career FSOs to the White House to become ambassadors, and agreements with bargaining agents. The culture includes such intangibles as policy planning but not program planning, tradeoffs between goals, “buttons to push,” “energy sponges,” “lanes,” “corridor reputations,” and the “thin bench.” The “ship of State” can indeed respond to new priorities, but few appointees have the inside experience to know how to make it turn quickly and smoothly.
All understand, moreover, that if something more is needed – “reform” of the Department, its processes, or the Foreign Service – it can take many years to achieve. A career officer can commit to a long process of reform and understand the payoff down the road. A political appointee may understand the need to change the Department’s way of doing business, but what is the incentive for doing so? The appointee will be on to fresh pastures, through the revolving door, and doing something else soon. Why take on tasks that will outlast her appointment?
Third, political appointees naturally come to the State Department with a strong intention to advance the President’s agenda. Their frame of mind is, then, “top down,” meaning that ambassadors, embassies, consulates, and the Foreign Service should take their lead from the White House and become implementers of this month’s or this year’s White House policy initiatives. If, for instance, the President believes that the United States must promote action against climate change, the political appointees in the Bureaus insure that the Department responds. As a result, even Embassies in countries with strong environmental records – Western Europe, say — adjust their priorities to respond to the “top down” agenda.
A focus on the administration’s global broad-brush themes, however, inevitably crowds out the attention paid to bilateral issues. Every Mission spends a large part of its spring in a deliberate process defining specific bilateral strategic goals, but their implementation can be overridden by political appointees and top-down priorities. Many Public Affairs Officers at overseas posts have noted the shift to a “Washington driven” agenda. The Foreign Service is always ready to “surge,” so to speak, on the nation’s most important objectives, but it’s not possible to “surge” month in and month out. When an embassy surges on one administration priority, moreover, it can’t be very effective when yet one more surge is asked for.
I submit, then, that reliance on political appointees weakens not strengthens the achievement of America’s national goals. Long vacancies slow down the implementation of policy. Lacking institutional knowledge, appointees increase the friction within the system. They tip the scales to respond to worldwide, “top-down” rather than bilateral goals. There will always be a mix of political appointees and career officers in the State Department’s senior policy positions, but in my judgment the nation is better served when there are more of the latter than the former.