The Cable

State tidbits: morale rising, reviews underway, building sightings

After a period of anxiety and uncertainty during the transition and into its aftermath, morale seems to be generally up at the State Department, sources there say, in part due to appreciation shown to staff by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as more appointments getting into place. It will be even higher, they ...

After a period of anxiety and uncertainty during the transition and into its aftermath, morale seems to be generally up at the State Department, sources there say, in part due to appreciation shown to staff by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as more appointments getting into place. It will be even higher, they add, when multiple remaining appointment vacanies are filled and policy reviews are completed, and officials are able to talk more substantively about various policies.

Sources said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is leading senior staff meetings two or three times a week, at which more and more officials are showing up (after getting confirmed). This week, he introduced newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Compliance and Verification Rose Gottemoeller, ambassador at large for women’s issues Melanne Verveer, and Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer to the group of 20-30 senior officials. The secretary of state also holds a daily, 8:45 a.m., invite-only early morning meeting with just a handful of her most senior staff and inner circle.

Steinberg is also leading regular policy-review meetings with relevant officials, with multiple policy reviews underway. Most of them are not currently expected to get high profile rollouts upon completion. Sometimes, officials whose appointments have not yet been confirmed are included at those policy review meetings.

As those reviews from Cuba to Iran chug along, and appointment puzzle pieces move into place, Clinton is drawing praise from some State Department officials for making a real effort to show her appreciation for staff.  

The secretary is doing thank-yous to the people who worked on her recent trips, one senior State Department official told The Cable. “She invited the drafters and desk officers from [the South Asia] bureau, Holbrooke’s office and the European bureau up this morning to the Treaty Room to say thanks and shake everyone’s hand. Unprecedented. I understand she’s done this four or five times, including for her Mexico trip.”

She also came down to shake hands and thank people from the Near East Asia bureau after her Sharm el-Sheikh trip, Middle East hands noted.

"I do think the secretary has been a real good thing for morale in the building," another senior State Department official said. "She goes out of her way to show appreciation."

“Morale is pretty high,” a State Department Middle East hand said. “People will be even happier when we can start talking publicly about a lot of the policies still under review.”

In the absence of completed policy reviews or fully articulated policies toward some areas, however, some officials are feeling a bit “skittish,” he added, unable to fully engage with a lot of the “back and forth in the media.” Administration Middle East hands are looking to U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell’s trip to the region next week as an opportunity for U.S. officials to actually sit down with the new Israeli government to clarify some things. "The main event" of the trip, one administration official said, "will be our first meeting with Netanyahu as prime minister. A more substantive kind of discussion than before."

The Iran review, which is by some accounts nearing completion and yet not expected to be ready until May, is not expected to have as high profile a rollout as the Af-Pak one, which was announced by President Obama from the Oval Office. Nevertheless, parts of it seem to be emerging, including in Obama’s speeches abroad this past week, where he discussed an international nuclear fuel bank and asserted the right of countries that renounce nuclear weapons to pursue peaceful nuclear energy programs.

“We should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation,” Obama said in Prague Saturday. “That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. And no approach will succeed if it’s based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules.”

Meantime, sources say that Judith McHale, the administration’s expected pick to serve as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy (“R”), has been seen attending meetings in the building and around an office on the first floor. Officials say she is not yet fully in place in the building, however.

Asia hands say that Kurt Campbell has finally been cleared to be appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, as has been widely expected, and is awaiting official announcement of his nomination.

Still, several vacancies remain. No word still on who may be appointed to be under secretary of state for global affairs. (State Department sources said there had been some earlier talk of transforming the position, and possibly combining it with international women’s issues, but weren’t sure where those deliberations were). Also not clear is who will be appointed to head the State Department intelligence bureau, INR.

The exception to generally rising morale at State is USAID, where there has been increased grumbling over the fact that there’s no word on who the next administrator may be. Some people have expressed a sense the agency is somewhat orphaned and adrift so far in the new administration, despite its rhetorical commitment to development issues. Some development hands said they’d heard a new administrator may not be in place until June.

“Not having Senate-confirmed leadership at the U.S.’s lead development agency is extremely problematic, and it is something that the U.S. NGO community is very concerned about,” Todd Shelton, senior director of public policy at Interaction, told The Cable Monday. “For that reason, InterAction submitted a letter (.pdf) to President Obama on Thursday co-signed by more than 90 NGOs calling on the administration to nominate a qualified USAID administrator very soon."

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