The State Department needs help, stat!

Summary:  Zenpundit writes about one of the major geopolitical problem facing America.  His analysis, like mine and others, misses the key point — the key challenge.  Describing the problem is easy; describing the solution is difficult.

Zenpundit has a typically excellent post up about one of the major challenges in American geopolitics:  “Hillary Should Dare to Break State in Order to Save It“, 18 December 2008 — Excerpt:

There many things wrong with the State Department as an institution and with the frankly insular and anachronistic cultural worldview that it tends to inculcate but starving State of operational funds and personnel – the historic reflex of the U.S. Congress – is not the road improvement. While money for “more of the same” is not an acceptable answer, demanding that diplomatic miracles be performed by the seat of the pants on a shoestring budget is a position worthy of a village idiot.

Now is the time for a strategic rebuilding of the State Department, as well as the Foreign Service, as the linchpin in a new national security system conceived in terms of interagency jointness, a Goldwater-Nichols Act on steroids. The old State Department structure was reformed by Charles Evans Hughes, who as Secretary of State in the early 1920’s found that his staff was too small and procedures too antiquated, to adequately cope with the modern world. So Huges rebuilt it, creating State’s specialization and mission structure that yielded a constellation of statesmen and grand strategists a generation later, including Dean Acheson and George Kennan, when America and the world needed their vision most. Great leaders either found new systems or they are the ultimate product of them.

Secretary Hughes did a superb job but America can do better than our great-grandfather’s State Department.

Senator Clinton, President-elect Obama and the next Congress should move boldly and retire the State Department as it has been the way Hughes waved goodbye to the quaint and time honored practices of the 19th century. We need not a half-step but a leap:

I strongly and fully agree, and recommend reading his post in full (and the links provided).  I wrote some parallel thoughts about this in Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus (11 August 2008).  An excerpt follows, with a conclusion explaining why analysis like this misses the key point.

We must reform the massive “arms” of our foreign policy machinery, the Departments of Defense (DoD) and State (DoS), so they can successfully operate in a 4GW world.  Otherwise we’ll be in effect running sail-powered navies in the Age of Steam.  The DNIsite has many articles detailing the crippling managerial, financial, and operational flaws of the US DoD.  This is relatively well understood.

DoS is in worse shape, perhaps the weakest of our national security agencies – and almost ignored by 4GW experts (who focus on DoD and the intelligence agencies).  Crippled since the 1950’s “who lost China” blame game and the following McCarthy-era witch-hunts, reform of the State Department might be the most difficult task on the 4GW “To Do” List.

It’s no secret.  Journalists have long described how the weakness of State vs. Defense has influenced the course of the War.  Note this incisive analysis:

Dealing with the military, the President learned, was an awesome thing. The failure of their estimates along the way, point by point, meant nothing. It did not follow, as one might expect, that their credibility was diminished and that there was now less pressure from them, but the reverse. … Once activated they would soon dominate the play. Their power with the Hill and with journalists, their stronger hold on patriotic-machismo arguments (in decision making they proposed the manhood positions, their opponents the softer, sissy, positions), their particular certitude, make them far more power players then those raising doubts.

…These years show, in the American system, how when a question of the use of force arose in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side, and that in fending them off in his own government, a President needed all the help he possibly could get, not the least a powerful Secretary of State.

…{What we have instead is} a forceful, determined, hard-working, intelligent man who was in charge of the political aspects of American policy, and he would have made a very great Secretary of Defense, it was his natural constituency.

This nicely describes Secretary of State Colin Powell’s role in the Iraq War.  Sadly for America, it was written about Secretary Rusk’s role in the Vietnam War, an excerpt from The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam.  Our inability to fix long-known problems is a major symptom of our government’s structural weakness.

Seeing today’s State Department, it’s difficult to recall that it was long considered the senior department of the Executive Branch (ref the Secretary of State’s status as #4 in the succession to the Presidency).  Appropriately so, as State should be the center wheel of our geo-political machinery.

  • State is everywhere on the front lines, the nerve ends of our Government’s international sensory systems.
  • Negotiations with State and non-State actors are the routine between (hopefully infrequent) armed conflicts, and that is largely State’s role.

State is the natural counter-weight to DoD.  In a parochial society such as ours the State Department staff should be those best able to understand the outside world in any fullness, in a multidimensional fashion. It has experts with a depth of foreign experience unmatched by other Government agencies – unlike the academics in the CIA or the military professionals in DoD.

Deep knowledge of foreign cultures and their leaders is necessary for success in a multi-polar world.  We’ll need people like Robert Clive and Sir Richard Burton, and State is where they’re most likely to find a home in our bureaucracy.  But not, of course, in today’s State Department. Nor anywhere in the US Government apparatus, which often rejects people with great initiative and expertise as surely as your body rejects foreign bacilli.

That’s the news; here is the bad news

My analaysis from August and Zenpundit’s today, plus those he link to are all — in a sense — irrelevant.  They ignore the two key aspects of the problem.

First:  American history offers no precedent for institutional changes of this magnitude.  The recent re-organization of the Homeland Security agencies – a much smaller project – does not provide grounds for optimism.  There might be no precedents for reform of such large, entrenched organizations.  Growing an organization, as Charles Hughes did for State, is far easier.

Second:  there are good reasons that American Presidents do not attempt institutional reform on a large scale. 

  • There are usually operational priorities.
  • There is seldom a powerful “constituency” for reform.
  • They consume vast amounts of political capital. 
  •  They have a high risk of failure. 
  • They produce no visible results that help win the next elections in 2, 4, or 6 years. 
  • Benefits go to the next Administration, who inherits the renewed institution.

Stating the need for reform is the easy part.  It has been done well and repeatedly for the Defense Department over several generations — to no effect.  Describing how to effect reform is the challenge.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts on the FM site about the State Department:

  1. Truly cracked advice to the State Department, receiving wide applause, 13 February 2008
  2. Ready, Aim, “foreign policy” away, 7 March 2008
  3. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008

10 thoughts on “The State Department needs help, stat!”

  1. Maybe the better approach is to take on the Pentagon first — start cutting it down to size so that State can grow up out of its shadow. Of course this is like hunting the giant squid with a penknife. Chalmers Johnson has studied the question of the Pentagon’s overweening power for many years, and finally concluded it’s beyond our control.

  2. Thank you for the article on the necessity of reforming the DOS. Equally urgent is reforming the CIA and other dysfunctional parts of the intelligence-gathering community that failed to warn us of 9-11 and Al-Qaeda, and other 4-generation opponents. Can these organzations be reformed? As you note, only with great difficulty and with great political courage. One historical analogy that springs to mind is that of Harry Truman and the OSS. After WW2, during which the OSS had performed yeoman work, Truman was pursuaded by senior military leaders, as well as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (who was fiercely jealous of his prerogatives or those he wished to get), to disband the Office of Strategic Services. Later, he realized he’d made an error and created the CIA.

    Some authorities believe that the US needs an arrangement similar to MI-5 and MI-6 in Britain, one organization tasked with domestic intelligence and counter-intelligence, one with foreign.
    The FBI has not managed to shed its law-enforcement roots entirely, and has not full adapted to its new duties in the GWOT.

    I digress; please consider covering the intel reform issue – it is vitally important, as you know.

    PS – The State Department has become politicized, to the extent that significant portions of its personnel (by some estimates) worked against Bush Administration policies. Whatever your political affiliation, this is not good news considering that the agency is not supposed to involve itself in partisan politics.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree about the terrible state of our intel agencies. Two posts about this are…
    * The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2007
    * A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2008

  3. To sharpen a knife you’ve got to thin the metal at the thinnest point. This applies to both Defense and State.

    The Navy has 216 Admirals (9 four-star). The Army has 302 generals (12 four-stars), the Air Force has 279 (11 four-stars) and the Marine Corps has 80 (3 four-stars). We now have Keith L. Thurgood, a fracking two-star general officer, commanding AAFES. Not to worry, if anything goes wrong he has a one-star deputy commander.

    Thinning the top ranks of bureaucracy, and making the reward for failure at high levels a friendly escort out of the building with your crap in tow is step 1. We can’t have poor leadership in the middle and expect a mastermind to conduct from the top.
    From Wikipdia: AAFES: The Army & Air Force Exchange Service is an agency of the United States Department of Defense. Its dual missions are to provide quality merchandise and services of necessity and convenience to authorized customers at uniformly low prices, and to generate reasonable earnings to supplement appropriated funds for the support of United States Army and Air Force Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs. AAFES is headquartered in Dallas County, Texas and is presently commanded by MG Keith Lee Thurgood. The position of AAFES commander rotates between the Army and Air Force.

  4. Re, comment #1

    One of the ways Obama could start on DoD would be to reduce the number of generals and admirals. There are 889 authorized in the active component. At the end of WWII there were over 2000 for a force of 12 million. ( page 1, page 30.) Almost half that number for a force a tenth the size doesn’t make much sense.

    One way to make this reduction is to reduce the ranks associated with some jobs. For example, the Air Force chief is a four-star, but why is the vice chief a four-star as well? Only the Combatant Commanders and the service heads should be four-stars. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a job currently being done by a two-star that couldn’t be done by a one-star, or a one-star job that couldn’t be performed well by a top colonel.

    Why is this important? Personnel costs make up about 39% of the DoD budget, not counting support, construction, and other indirect costs.(

    Each general and admiral also comes with a staff – the more stars, the bigger the staffs of lower ranking officers. Start reducing the flags and you can also consolidate and reduce headquarters staffs. This would cut costs before even touching the forces or weapons procurement budgets.

  5. Reform has to have a realistic and viable goal in mind. Secondly, there should be some sort of model to help get things started. In response to post #3, I think we could give Jonas at least some of what he wanted by restricting all Army organizations to an officer staffing density in line with that of the 75th Ranger Regiment. (Lowest Officer to Enlisted ratio of all Army MTOE units).

    The question with State has to be “What is this organization’s job?” I don’t recall that being well-defined in any of the last three Presidential Administrations…

    Once they answer that, then we can get to designing an organization that does this job appropriately and putting the right individual in charge…

  6. The emerging global context of “resource wars”, and the mindset of current US strategic thinking that no important asset can be allowed to fall into the hands of China, Russia or Inda (or even Venezuela), make it highly unlikely that the military’s role in foreign affair will be lessened. Only a humbler view (in FM’s phrase) of America’s role in the world will make that possible.

  7. @FM: Correct me if I am wrong, but America has had successful institutional reform in the past. Could the stream-lining of the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the Dep. of Defense back in the 40s work as a feasible example for reform of other federal agencies on the international playing feild today?

    ~T. Greer, no expert on department-mergers.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That was “streamlining” just like the merger that created Homeland Security. Neither was reform in anything like the magnitude required by State.

  8. FM:

    How would Colonel Boyd approach “killing” or neutralizing an ineffective bureaucracy? Did he ever address this question? I imagine after all those years working in the Pentagon, he would have entertained such thoughts often….

  9. “Deep knowledge of foreign cultures and their leaders is necessary for success in a multi-polar world.”

    Ambassadorships are sold as rewards for political patronage, often to people who know little or nothing about the country they are to be assigned to. Rod Blagojevich did not invent this kind of corruption. He is just the one who got caught.

  10. "State Dept. reeling from budget cuts"

    We deal with the world using just a hammer, because it is all we have. The Department that provides knowledge and skill in foreign affairs is grossly underfunded, while we lavish money on the military. This is mad, and not likely to end well for us.

    State Dept. reeling from budget cutss”, Washington Post, 29 September 2011:

    The State Department is still reeling from deep cuts made by Senate and House appropriations panels to the Obama administration’s budget requests for next year, with some officials warning of national security risks.

    Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state in its Bureau of Political Military Affairs, told a meeting last week of the Center for New American Security that the hefty cuts will compromise national security. He noted that the 2012 funding bill for State Department and foreign operations was cut 8 percent by the full Senate Appropriations Committee and a whopping 18 percent by the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee.

    Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had sounded similar concern in March, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee that threatened deep cuts would be “devastating” to her agency. …

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