The White House:
Steven Kashkett, Opinion contributor
Published 5: 00 a.m. ET Dec. 27, 2019 | Updated 6: 09 a.m. ET Dec. 27, 2019
The White House: The Trump administration’s treatment of career foreign service officers is disgraceful. I’ve seen public servants pushed out from the inside.
For many of us who have spent our lives serving our country in the foreign service, the Trump administration’s shameless bashing of those who came forward to testify about the Ukraine scandal came as a shock. This unprecedented attack on superb career diplomats raised to a frightening new level the White House’s dirty war against the State Department.
I am a victim of this dirty war. After three decades, my career in the senior foreign service — along with so many others — ended abruptly last year. Some colleagues voluntarily left to protest a president who is making a mockery of U.S. international leadership and driving our foreign policy disastrously off the rails. Others could not work for an administration that callously ignores foreign policy professionals. But many of us remained committed to staying and carrying out the work of diplomacy, defending U.S. interests in a dangerous world.
Within the senior ranks, however, we watched our assignment possibilities vanish as the White House left top diplomatic positions vacant and handed out others as rewards to political cronies, campaign donors, and members of President Trump’s golf clubs. Senior jobs at the State Department which had typically been filled by career foreign service officers went to blatantly unqualified appointees. Sensitive diplomatic special envoy positions were given to people such as an assistant to Trump’s son-in-law.
I watched the department devise cynical mechanisms for pushing career diplomats out the door, such as assigning us to menial tasks or effectively subjecting us to political loyalty tests.
The White House: Sold to the highest bidder
Bent on marginalizing career diplomats, the Trump administration has embraced more gleefully than any of its predecessors the corrupt practice of auctioning off choice ambassadorships to the highest bidder. So far, 44% of Trump’s ambassadors are political appointees, many whose main qualification is having contributed a large sum to the Trump inauguration.
The current U.S. ambassadors to the U.K., France, Israel, South Africa, and the United Nations are, respectively, two current or former sports team owners, a bankruptcy lawyer, a handbag designer, and the wife of a coal magnate. Few other countries sell top diplomatic positions to wealthy people. Almost every country sends an accomplished career diplomat as ambassador to Washington.
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Other governments understand that this is a serious job with serious responsibilities. Diplomats stand on the front lines in fighting against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and tyranny around the world. We manage U.S. relations with the world’s countries, protect U.S. citizens abroad, promote trade and defend human rights. We deal with military coups, civil insurrections, and natural disasters. We represent the best of America to foreign audiences.
In addition to managing an overseas mission with hundreds of employees and a multi-million dollar budget, a U.S. ambassador leads an interagency team, negotiates with tough foreign leaders, and must have a sophisticated understanding of the history, political culture, and power structure of the assigned country and how to use that knowledge to advance U.S. interests.
The White House: Sacrificing the skills America needs
Having worked for numerous political-appointee ambassadors during my career, I have rarely seen one who could assume these responsibilities as well as a seasoned diplomat. Even for appointees who take the job seriously — and are not just interested in a fancy residence and red-carpet treatment — this is an impossible task. How can we expect them to become instant experts in an unfamiliar profession?
America pays a heavy price for turning statecraft into a playground for rich amateurs. Embarrassing blunders, scandals and mismanagement are commonplace for some of the most unqualified. The recent Ukraine headlines illustrate the perils of using political neophytes for sensitive diplomatic tasks. In my experience, our allies reluctantly tolerate self-aggrandizing political appointee U.S. ambassadors but privately admit that they are often frustrating or insulting. Our enemies rejoice when the White House sends out naïve amateur ambassadors whom they can manipulate.
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Meanwhile, we career diplomats do the heavy lifting. A painful secret of the foreign service is that senior officers assigned as deputy chiefs of mission — i.e., deputy ambassadors — to political appointees spend much of their time babysitting a novice ambassador and taking on most of the real work of the embassy.
Reaching the senior foreign service is basically a 20-30 year apprenticeship to serve as ambassador: studying foreign languages, mastering complex foreign policy issues, and acquiring skills for dealing with foreign officials. It means working up through the ranks at embassies and learning the craft of diplomacy from the ground up. It means serving in hardship posts, war zones, and unaccompanied tours of duty without family. But it also means arriving at the pinnacle of our profession only to confront the sad reality that the most important positions are given away to inexperienced political appointees who donated cash to the president.
The Trump administration has kicked to the gutter a generation of senior diplomats and openly disparages those who proudly remain in the service. Beyond the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge, we reluctant retirees have been deprived of the opportunity to represent our country in the leadership roles for which we prepared throughout our careers.
It is a bitter pill for foreign service officers to be shunned and treated as objects of scorn — “radical unelected bureaucrats” — by our own president and members of Congress from his party. Our profession is all about sacrifice and devotion to duty. Most of us deliberately chose public service over private sector careers that would have been far more lucrative.
It is a disgrace to target patriots who have made hard choices and taken risks to serve our country. We deserve better.
Steven Kashkett is a 35-year veteran of the senior foreign service in the U.S. State Department. He now lives in Prague, where he had served as the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires until 2016. Kashkett teaches contemporary U.S. foreign policy at the Anglo American University.
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