Best Defense

Fight or flight: Should State Department employees undermine Trump, or just quit?

Is it possible that Trump is right in suspecting that career diplomats are not "with the program"? Will they try to obstruct his agenda?

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By Sharon Burke
Best Defense guru

“They should either get with the program or they can go,” President Donald Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said about career State Department officials who have allegedly submitted a dissent memo about the Jan. 27 executive order on immigration.

This comment followed last week’s abrupt dismissal of several high level career officials, including the one who would ultimately be responsible for implementing parts of the new policy.

This is not the first time the loyalty of career diplomats has been questioned, of course, nor is it uncommon for career officials in presidential appointments to be swapped out. But if the reports about the “dissent channel” memo are accurate, it would be an unprecedented protest so early in a new administration.

Is it possible that Trump is right in suspecting that career diplomats are not “with the program”? Will they try to obstruct his agenda?

I recently posed that question to current and retired Foreign Service officers, who ranged from just a few years of service to one of the most storied ambassadors in the history of the country. The answer was a firm no — and maybe a dash of yes. It’s complicated.

First of all, it’s probably true that there aren’t a ton of Trump voters at the State Department, but that’s not necessarily because they love the Democratic party. All the diplomats I spoke to were adamant that personal political views are irrelevant when it comes to doing the country’s business. Some actually preferred Republican bosses, who they said were more likely to be good managers.

There’s some optimism about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, on that score, though there’s no telling if he’ll have a say in major policy decisions, such as the immigration ban.

From my own experience as both a civil servant and political appointee in Republican and Democratic administrations, military members, diplomats, and civil servants are very professional and truly do take the oath of office seriously. And therein lies one big problem.

That oath is to the Constitution, not the individual sitting in the Oval Office. Career diplomats will undoubtedly give the new president their best advice, but what if it’s not what he wants to hear? With a president who has talked openly about undoing decades of American diplomacy on everything from NATO to the nuclear balance in Asia, that seems very likely.

Given what we’ve seen so far from Trump, he may openly disdain advice he doesn’t agree with — or just ignore it altogether. The serving diplomats I spoke to said that Trump has basically not asked for much input to date. This mystifies and alarms them.

“Not every exchange with a foreign leader is a knife fight,” one former ambassador observed, “but you always want to make sure your guy has a knife.” And from their point of view, Trump is going into these conversations unarmed — or worse, his posse sometimes includes family members.

“We look like a tinpot dictatorship,” one senior diplomat lamented. “We rail against this in other countries.”

Still, it’s highly unlikely that career diplomats will refuse to carry out a lawful order from the president, even it’s not what they would recommend. In 2002, for example, Ambassador Ryan Crocker famously told President George W. Bush that invading Iraq was a bad idea, prompting questions about his loyalty. Just a few years later, he was the same president’s point person in Baghdad, delivering “the surge” with General David Petraeus.

On the other hand, that does not mean career diplomats and civil servants will rush to implement policies they don’t agree with. That can take the form of a dissent memo, but more often the bureaucracy just discreetly slows down or sinks bad ideas (and good ideas sometimes, for that matter). Call it “affable noncompliance.” Political appointees may not even realize it’s happening.

Still, that’s usually restricted to relatively small policies, rather than major decisions such as a trade war with Mexico or a shooting war in the South China Sea.

In fact, there’s a bigger danger when it comes to Trump-era diplomacy, which is that the most experienced and talented people at the State Department will just leave. All of the sitting, senior officials I spoke to expressed discomfort with serving as the representative of Trump, more because of his personal conduct than his political views. Though the dividing line between the personal and political may be a bit fuzzy: One junior Foreign Service officer, for example, had concerns for his safety, pointing out that diplomats rely on foreign nationals (including Muslims and Mexicans) to provide security and other services in U.S. embassies around the world.

If anything, Trump’s policies to date are going to require great diplomatic skill to carry out, which puts Spicer’s cavalier attitude in an ironic light. Still, many experienced diplomats may well stay, both because they believe in the commitment they made to the country and because of the lure of efficacy.

“Trust me when I tell you,” one senior Foreign Service officer stressed, “you have far more impact on the inside than on the outside.”

Sharon E. Burke is a senior advisor at New America. She served at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration from 2002 to 2005 and at the Pentagon in the Barack Obama administration from 2010 to 2014.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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