Reeling from the leadership of Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, career officials wonder whether Secretary of State Antony Blinken can revitalize American diplomacy.
Last year, in the early hours of October 27th, Philip Walton, an American citizen living and working as a farmer in southern Niger, was kidnapped in front of his family by armed mercenaries.
The militants demanded a million-dollar ransom from Walton’s family and threatened to sell the American to local extremist groups.
As Walton’s captors smuggled him across the border into northern Nigeria, Navy seals planned a rescue operation.
Several days later, as the seals stood ready to conduct the raid, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a government plane, flying back to the United States after travelling in Asia.
A State Department staffer entered Pompeo’s cabin and updated the secretary on Walton’s case.
The staffer outlined the steps that Pompeo would need to take to facilitate the exfiltration, including a call to the President of Niger.
To the surprise of his aides, Pompeo pushed back on the staffer’s requests.
Pompeo grew visibly annoyed with the request that he make the phone calls, eventually replying, “When am I going to sleep?”
The staffer told Pompeo that the American citizen being held was unlikely to be sleeping much.
At the end of the discussion, Pompeo agreed to make the necessary calls.
On the morning of October 31st, the seals parachuted from an Air Force Special Operations Command plane and rescued Walton, killing six of his kidnappers.
Donald Trump and Pompeo later boasted about the operation on Twitter, where Pompeo called it “outstanding.”
Staffers said the tweet was one of multiple instances when Pompeo appeared to use his position to boost his or Trump’s political fortunes.
Aides who worked under Pompeo said the exchange regarding the raid typified a leadership style that included brusque treatment of personnel and an intense focus on partisan politics that
sometimes hampered the day-to-day business of the State Department.
In interviews, dozens of other department employees alleged that Pompeo’s chaotic tenure, and that of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson,
left deep institutional and cultural scars that continue to impede American diplomatic efforts around the world.
During the Trump Administration, a hiring freeze, radical proposals to cut the State Department’s budget, and an unprecedented number of vacancies in pivotal roles undercut the
institution’s capacity to conduct diplomacy.
In an interview before taking office as the current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken warned that the departure of so many career diplomats had deeply damaged the department.
That “penalizes you in all sorts of ways that will go on for generations, not just for a bunch of years,” Blinken told me.
Absent a more robust department, he said, “We’re going to get into all kinds of conflicts we might have avoided through development, through diplomacy.”
State Department officials told me that the Biden Administration is acting too slowly to reverse the effects of the purge.
Some said that they feared that Blinken and other Administration officials, eager to distance themselves from the reckless decision-making of the Trump era,
have been hesitant to make bold policy decisions.
“Things aren’t moving forward,” one career diplomat, who works with Blinken and asked not to be named, told me.
“There’s starting to be some chatter around the building about, you know, let’s do the hard work.
And I’m not sure that these folks are prepared at this point to do that.”
The initial wave of Trump-era damage was wrought by Rex Tillerson, who championed budget cuts of proportions not seen since the first Clinton Administration,
which advocated for a downsizing of the department in the name of a post-Cold War focus on domestic priorities.
Pompeo, a Republican who had served as a congressman from Kansas and as Trump’s C.I.A. director, promised to restore the institution’s “swagger.”
He had little by way of diplomatic experience, but was politically savvier than Tillerson—and, ultimately, more adept at surviving under a mercurial President.
An evangelical Christian from Orange, California, Pompeo graduated first in his class at West Point and served in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, he moved to Kansas to start an aerospace business, with investment from the Kochs’ venture-capital fund.
He successfully ran for Congress amid the Tea Party wave, in 2010, again with Koch backing.
Pompeo’s tenure as C.I.A. director was brief, just fifteen months, but he gained a reputation for being sharp-elbowed there as well, discarding the standing precedent of serving as an
apolitical director and instead cultivating unusually close ties to Trump, sometimes even accompanying the President to meetings that were unrelated to intelligence.
Pompeo echoed some of Trump’s hard-line foreign-policy views.
When the President issued pugnacious calls to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo did so, too.
And he appeared to internalize some of the lessons cited by White House officials about playing to Trump’s ego.
The President, Pompeo declared during his tenure as C.I.A. director, “asks good, hard questions.”
After arriving at the State Department, Pompeo lifted the hiring freeze enacted by Tillerson but then isolated himself from the staff,
in what seemed to some officers to be a deliberate show of mistrust.
“Tillerson’s problem was function, Pompeo’s was deliberate,” one Foreign Service officer who worked closely with Pompeo told me.
“There was never really any input from the field. There was less input from the building.”
The new Secretary of State, several staffers said, treated them harshly.
“He did a lot of screaming in private,” the Foreign Service officer added.
“Pompeo was a dick, that I would agree on,” another senior official who worked closely with Pompeo told me.
At times, his outbursts were directed to foreign interlocutors, including one prominent European foreign minister.
By the end of the Trump Administration, morale in the department had collapsed.
Pompeo had lost the confidence of his staff, some of whom believed that he was preoccupied with a potential Presidential run and was playing to his conservative political base.
Several cited his repeated refusals to sign off on even perfunctory commitments to diversity, at a time when Black and Hispanic diplomats each comprised just eight per cent of Foreign
Allegations of corruption surrounded him as well.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee moved to hold Pompeo in contempt for refusing to comply with multiple subpoenas.
The State Department inspector general’s office disclosed the existence of five different investigations into State Department activities, including at least two that directly involved Pompeo.
One investigation focussed on his use of subordinates to run personal errands for him and his wife, such as picking up dry cleaning and walking their dog.
After Steve Linick, the department’s inspector general, began examining the Secretary’s conduct, a Pompeo ally dismissed him.
Linick, a career public servant, was abruptly placed on administrative leave and locked out of his office.
He later told a congressional committee that he was given no explanation for the removal.
(In April, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that Pompeo had violated the department’s ethics rules,
but noted that he is no longer subject to penalties because he has left the government.)
After Trump’s loss, last November, staffers’ concerns about Pompeo’s political activities increased.
As Trump rejected the election results, Pompeo’s State Department impeded the transition process.
Messages from foreign leaders to President-elect Joe Biden piled up, as Pompeo declined to observe protocol and release them.
In the department’s press briefing room, Pompeo told reporters, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump Administration.”
No one was sure whether he was joking.
Pompeo seemed irritated at follow-up questions, saying that “every legal vote” had to be counted, an adage used by Trump allies claiming, falsely, that the election results were fraudulent.
As Pompeo set out on a post-election international trip, last November, his refusal to acknowledge the balloting results cast a shadow over his diplomacy.
E.U. officials declined to meet with him, prompting Pompeo to cancel some stops.
As he visited Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Georgia, where the United States has encouraged electoral transparency, career Foreign Service officers wondered what moral authority
their country still carried on the subject.
After he learned that plans for a routine transition meeting with his successor, Blinken, had leaked to the press, Pompeo cancelled it.
Although the meeting later took place, Foreign Service officers who worked with Pompeo were dismayed by the apparent prioritization of politics over an orderly transition.
“He didn’t want to be seen as doing his job,” one told me.
During the same period, Pompeo was posting political messages on Twitter.
The messages were reposted to an account in Pompeo’s name, with more than a hundred thousand followers, on Telegram, where a far-right audience,
shunned by some mainstream platforms, had congregated.
(A spokesperson for Pompeo said that Pompeo was unaware of the Telegram account.)
His posts often focussed on domestic issues, including criticism of news outlets, and featured political slogans like “#AmericansFirst” and “#SoMuchWinning.”
In one message, from January, Pompeo told his followers, “America is a land of many freedoms – it’s what makes us the best country in the world.
Even after I leave office, I will continue to do all I can to secure those freedoms. Follow me @mikepompeo and join me.”
After Pompeo and Trump left office, the State Department was riddled with vacancies.
More than a third of all Assistant Secretary or Under-Secretary positions—the organization’s top leadership—were empty or filled by temporary, “acting” officials.
For more than half of the Trump years, the senior position responsible for nonproliferation and arms control, including confronting nuclear threats from North Korea,
had been vacant or led by an acting appointee.
Diversity among senior staff had dwindled, and the department’s workforce was overwhelmingly white, with just thirteen per cent of the senior executive service roles
filled by individuals of color.
Concerns about a lack of diversity in the department’s workforce predate the Trump Administration, but recent employee surveys showed growing frustration
with the department’s failure to address the problem.
Today, the staffing challenges persist.
Five months after taking office, the Biden Administration has filled numerous senior roles, but the State Department still employs slightly fewer Foreign Service officers than at the
conclusion of the Trump Administration.
And diversity has yet to improve, according to figures published in March.
The Trump Administration also left behind a culture of suspicion.
“There’s this mistrust of career officers,” Blinken told me, of his predecessor’s era.
A 2019 State Department inspector-general investigation found that Trump’s political appointees had retaliated against career employees who typically serve under Administrations
of both parties.
Those employees, who carry much of the department’s institutional memory, were pilloried as “disloyal” or “traitors,” part of a shadowy and allegedly liberal “deep state.”
Pompeo defended Trump’s habit of praising authoritarian leaders—a practice that diplomats told me was generally not part of any wider diplomatic strategy.
Trump extended White House invitations to the Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who was presiding over a brutal human-rights crackdown, and the President of the Philippines,
Rodrigo Duterte, who has admitted to murdering opponents and had encouraged his troops to rape women.
Echoing Trump, Pompeo praised Sisi’s approach to religious freedom and, according to a Philippine spokesperson, told Duterte that he was “just like our President.”
Numerous diplomats acknowledged what they described as unprecedented challenges ahead for the State Department.
“There’s a real corrosion of the sense of American leadership in the world and the institutions that make that leadership real,” William Burns, President Biden’s current C.I.A. director
and a former Deputy Secretary of State, told me before taking office.
“Diplomacy really ought to be the tool of first resort internationally.
It can sometimes achieve things at far less cost, both financially and in terms of American lives, than the use of the military can.”
Several staffers praised Biden for pledging, on the campaign trail, to empower diplomats, and for embracing diversity initiatives that Pompeo had shunned.
“They’re saying all the right things about diversity, they’re doing all the right things about affinity groups,” one official told me.
But many diplomats said that there had been little visible progress on these issues.
They wondered whether Biden, an establishment figure, was the right President to confront them at a time that they believe merits a radical course correction.
Biden ran on promises to reverse his predecessor’s embrace of dictators.
“No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’ ” Biden tweeted during the 2020 campaign, referring to Sisi, in Egypt.
But in his long career in Washington, Biden often championed such relationships.
As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had presided over the rubber-stamping of unfettered military aid to the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
As Vice-President, he was one of Mubarak’s last supporters in Washington, saying, two weeks before Mubarak was unseated, in 2011,
that he was not a dictator and didn’t need to leave office.
Blinken told me that the subject had been a focus of fierce debate within the Obama Administration.
“There were some folks who wanted us to much more forcefully defend Mubarak,” Blinken said. “And others suggested that, as one said, we needed to be on the right side of history.”
The dispute had been “more generational than anything else,” he added, with a group of younger officials, including the current U.S.A.I.D. administrator, Samantha Power,
arguing against “some of the older, more seasoned hands, who had, after all, been dealing with the relationship with Egypt for years,”
including “[Robert] Gates, Hillary [Clinton], Biden,” who defended Mubarak. Blinken said that loyalty to Mubarak had been a mistake.
“Yeah, maybe we were caught flat-footed in Egypt,” he told me.
Several diplomats said that the Biden Administration, in an effort to strike a different tone than that of Tillerson, Pompeo, and Trump, is being too cautious.
“These new folks are doing their best to be not-the-last-folks,” the career diplomat who works with Blinken said.
“That’s great in some ways, and, in some ways, it’s sort of keeping them from finding their groove.
Sometimes there are tough decisions to make.
And if the last folks made that decision, they’re trying not to do it.”
As an example, the diplomat cited conversations about the extent of the United States’ ongoing presence in Iraq, which have, several staffers said, largely stalled since Biden took office.
The diplomat added, “We can’t get a rhythm until we stop trying to be the anti-Trump, anti-Pompeo people.”
(A State Department spokesperson told me, “We’re not going to make apologies for running a process that is inclusive and appropriately deliberative,”
a reference to consultations with offices across the State Department and the wider government.
“You can’t have an inclusive process and expect dramatic shifts, in every single realm, in a hundred and fifty days.”)