Please God, Not Another Blue-Ribbon Panel

Here's how to really fix the State Department.


The first item on a modern secretary of state’s to-do list these days appears to be establishing a high-level review that promises to change the way America conducts diplomacy. Colin Powell launched the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. Condoleezza Rice bundled her reforms under the broad banner of "Transformational Diplomacy." Hillary Clinton conducted the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), modeled on similar efforts at the Pentagon. One can only imagine that the next secretary of state will feel inclined to conduct a second QDDR, or roll out another high-profile effort to reform the State Department’s archaic bureaucracy.

All of these reviews were conducted because of a realization by respective secretaries of state — Republicans and Democrats alike — that America’s foreign policy architecture is poorly structured to meet the demands of the very dynamic world around us.

So why does the United States continue to need such reform initiatives over and over again? The answer is simple: All of these blue-ribbon efforts have done a great job identifying the key problems plaguing the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. They just haven’t been able to fix them.

The reviews have resulted in some progress, but largely around the margins — some improved training, higher staffing levels, and the usual reshuffling of bureau names and responsibilities. None of them has been able to fix more fundamental problems, however, because none of these secretaries of state was willing to engage Congress in a major reform effort. Real reform requires not just a determined secretary of state, but buy-in from the legislative branch: Congress must pass new legislation to get rid of many of the existing and conflicting directives, objectives, and requirements that so muddy U.S. foreign policy.

It is no secret why Powell, Rice, and Clinton had little appetite for engaging Congress on these issues. Even minor pieces of foreign policy or foreign-aid legislation quickly get gunked up with a slew of amendments on abortion, religious freedom, guns, efforts to punish the dictator of the day, the United Nations and a host of other black-helicopter concerns. The idea of working with Congress to pass a major overhaul of the foreign policy architecture surely seems quasi-suicidal.

In an environment so rancorous that avoiding credit defaults and fiscal cliffs is difficult to manage, many have simply dismissed the idea of actually reforming State and USAID as impossible.

But it may not be as hard as it looks. The State Department should consider taking a page from the playbook of the Pentagon, which developed an interesting model for getting out of a similar trap. Whether the next administration is Obama II or Romney I, it would be wise to adopt an approach to foreign affairs reform modeled on the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission — or as it is more commonly known, BRAC.

The BRAC process was created to deal with an equally difficult challenge — how to get Congress to approve base closures and troop realignments when those decisions had immense political fallout in members’ districts. Efforts to redraw the map of bases in the United States had foundered again and again on the shoals of opposition by a handful of congressman and senators who were willing to sabotage the entire process rather than give up a base in their state.

The BRAC process was, and is, nothing short of brilliant response. The Pentagon established a high-level bipartisan and expert commission, appointed by the president in consultation with Congress. That was nothing new. But importantly, the commission bundled its recommendations as an all-or-nothing package. There are no amendments or special dispensations for a single base in the package. The up-or-down vote eliminated the ridiculous process of member after member of Congress standing up to offer amendments that they knew would be poison pills.

The president can accept or reject BRAC recommendations in their entirety. If rejected, the commission has a short period to amend and resubmit its findings to the president. Congress has the opportunity to reject a BRAC report once it has been approved by the president; if it does not, the recommendations become law. While the BRAC process was initially highly controversial, it has become considerably less so over time, and the Pentagon now has the ability to make basing determinations on the basis of real strategic need rather than simply rewarding the fiercest and most vocal lobbying efforts. It is not perfect, but it — along with the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which overhauled the military’s command structure while greatly strengthening the Joint Chiefs of Staff — demonstrated that institutional reform is possible on a grand scale in the U.S. national security establishment.

An enterprising secretary of state could adapt this process to meet the State Department’s needs.  Rather than focus on physical installations, as BRAC did, an international affairs realignment commission would not only look at the physical presence of consulates, embassies, and USAID missions abroad, but more importantly would recommend regulations that could be eliminated, programs and projects that have outlived their usefulness, or even suggest institutional consolidation or streamlining.

Setting the appropriate mandate for such a commission’s initial round of reforms would be crucial — one of the reasons BRAC succeeded was because it took on major issues without overhauling the entire base structure in one gargantuan bite. For example, the commission could start off reviewing the number of USAID missions around the globe, how best to unify trade promotion efforts, or the division of responsibilities between State and USAID in dealing with emergencies in places like Haiti or Sudan.

Once that has been accomplished, a commission could build on its momentum by tackling a long list of concerns that have piled up over the years, from how the U.S. government delivers food aid to how it trains and selects Foreign Service officers. In these times of straitened budgets, that would allow the State Department to do more with less — and maybe even save us from yet another blue-ribbon panel that is all hat and no cattle.

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