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We should be thankful for the career diplomats who are testifying about Ukraine

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch arriving to testify in the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump on Capitol Hill on Oct. 11.
The impeachment-connected hearings this month have seized your attention as an aware citizen, or you wouldn’t be reading this. They have seized mine as well, because I’m a retired foreign service officer, and they involve people I know, Ambassadors Marie Yovanovich and William Taylor. Masha and Bill have risen far higher than I did, but I worked with them in the State Department on post-Soviet affairs, and I know what sort of people they are: skilled professionals, and decent human beings committed to the national good, faithful to their oaths of office. At more modest levels than they, I have also worked in embassies, and in Washington. I’ve defended my staff against foreign government attacks; I’ve been in disputes about how we should work with foreign leaders. Disagreements could be intense, even combative. But I’ve never seen embassy work undermined from our own side for partisan reasons.

Now, some think that diplomats don’t really deal with the hard realities of politics and policy in the U.S. — that we are naïve cookie pushers who are ‘shocked, shocked, I tell you!’ when we discover that politics influences foreign policy. After all, Mick Mulvaney claimed recently, “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” But there isn’t, not normally. Nor should there be.

It isn’t that policy decision-making in Washington, foreign and domestic, isn’t a battle, or as the saying goes, like making sausage – messy, bloody and, for many, best left unseen. I’d call it a contact sport — not physically, one hopes (except for raised blood pressure and decibel levels), but definitely in its level of intensity. Different parts of our government, even different parts of the same agency (my own State Department, say), have different priorities in different places and on different issues, and the policy process argues those out.

That’s normal, in every administration, and we all know that. Maneuvering to get that final signature from the appropriate senior official — an assistant secretary, a Cabinet member, even the president — can lead to side conversations, secret meetings, private memoranda, documents overclassified to limit distribution, and more. Some of these ploys may border on the childish, I concede — but their goal is to implement effectively a legal directive from Congress and the current, any current, administration. It’s the implementation of law through the executive branch, where the legal provisions still have to be meshed with other laws and policies, and turned into practical steps.

Eventually, a policy gets approved, and, overseas, embassies deliver that policy, through the ambassador for the really important items, at lower levels for the rest. You go over to the relevant office at the Foreign Ministry, explain the U.S. position, and listen to the other side’s requests, complaints, and reactions. Normally, everyone at the embassy is on board, and different offices (U.S. embassies have representatives from not just the State Department, but another five to 25 federal agencies — DOD, FBI, DHS, Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, Secret Service, and many more) all operate on the same instructions.

No, this doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes, one agency thinks the embassy isn’t pushing its issue hard enough, or that Washington made the wrong decision. It may voice to its foreign counterparts the position that lost back in Washington – where, as Secretary George Schultz once said, no issue is ever truly dead. I’ve seen this happen, but as soon as that rogue action becomes known, the ambassador will direct that person to leave the country, the offending office will be pulled back into line, and the embassy will make clear to the host country what our message really is.

Bill Davnie
Bill Davnie
So no one is naïve in this environment – we have all learned that bureaucratic nonpartisan politics can be at least as nasty as domestic partisan politics. But we also know that we all serve the national interest, and if another office’s or agency’s position wins the policy battle, so be it. In the Foreign Service, we deliver the official message.

But that’s not what happened in Ukraine. Congress directed the sending of military aid (with a presidential signature, don’t forget), and Trump administration policy supports anti-corruption efforts. What Rudy Giuliani did, undermining congressional intent and approved U.S. policy, in pursuit of the financial and political interests of his clients, would have gotten any U.S.G. employee thrown out of the country on the next flight. Ambassador Yovanovich began to grasp that something was amiss, as rumors spread smearing her sterling reputation; Ambassador Taylor saw what was happening and like a good diplomat took really good notes, as we could see last week. Both people know how to manage bureaucratic battles and competing agendas. But they and their colleagues should never have to fend off attacks from our own side, tolerated, perhaps even aided, by their own chief, the secretary of state, and the president.

Americans have little patience for “bureaucrats,” as my Foreign Service colleagues have recently been called. I’ve said to many groups, “If you don’t like bureaucracies, try living in a country where there isn’t one.” The systems we have as a nation, the structures that “keep the trains running,” rely on decent people doing important jobs, for professional satisfaction more than personal gain. Without bureaucratic systems and the people who sustain them, we become what some saw in Ukraine — a weak country whose leader could be manipulated for foreign purposes. And we become a country whose word cannot be relied upon, because it emanates not from considered decisions about national interests but from the personal desires of temporary leaders. We should be thankful for Masha, and Bill, and Phil Reeker, and Fiona Hill, and more to come — career bureaucrats all, who serve us well, who served this president as well, and who were betrayed while doing so.

Bill Davnie served as a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service for 27 years, including work in Moscow, Lithuania, Finland, Thailand, Hong Kong and Iraq, as well as Washington.  He returned to Minnesota, where he had lived as a child, in 2007, and has continued to follow foreign affairs and to travel internationally.


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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by William Duncan on 10/30/2019 - 09:27 am.

    When those career bureaucrats admit that Ukraine during the Obama Administration was a mostly failed regime change gambit to keep Russia in a box, then I will start listening. Barring that (padon the pun), I will continue to think of them as cynical political, partisan hacks.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/30/2019 - 01:42 pm.

      Thanks for conflating a long-held national goal of restraining the influence of Russia and the use of foreign policy pressure tactics for personal gain !

      Exactly equivalent, right?

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/30/2019 - 03:52 pm.

      So because you disagree with past policy decisions, the people that implemented them are “hacks”? Just more lame excuses to keep this failure of an administration afloat.

    • Submitted by William Duncan on 10/31/2019 - 07:50 am.

      If I read between the lines in your comments then, you all including Connie are ok with Regime Change efforts, removing democratically elected government in the name of promoting democracy?

      Are you aware that the Obama Admin worked with the neo-nazi party in Ukraine, Svoboda, in these efforts? Like we worked with jihadi types in Syria and Libya? Is that
      Ok? The ends justify the means, except our regime change efforts usually result in a ruined country? Is that worse or better than Trump asking the current leader of Ukraine to assist in our investigation of Crowdstrike and the origins of Russiagate?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/31/2019 - 08:50 am.

      Hilarious comment William. Career diplomats who’ve worked for every president regardless of Party for years are the “hacks”… but presumably Trump and is minions such as Giuliani are independent professionals with no political attachments or agendas. That’s a good one.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 10/31/2019 - 10:36 am.

        So hilarious….the way I am skeptical of government generally, and if I dare to critique it in this climate I am projected upon by Dems and liberals as a Trump devotee, while said Dems swallow whole whatever the intelligence community and military, by way of corporate media, tell them.

        Not even calling Trump a megalomaniac, or Orange Julius, or ham-fisted or assorted descriptor, redeems me in the eyes of the anti-Trumper.

        • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 10/31/2019 - 06:14 pm.

          I, too, dislike the policies of both political parties, which have served the elite while common folks suffer. Democrats rail against Trump, but they gladly supported an 85 billion dollar increase in military spending and do not criticize any increase in foreign interventions. Sadly, a recent poll showed that liberals are the largest group that has faith in the CIA.
          The absurdity of politicians and the corporate press is clearly visible when they support and promote foreign intervention and claim to support average members of the military, but few comments when Hilary implied that Tulsi Gabbard, a two-tour veteran of Iraq and critic of regime change wars, is an asset of Russia. Perhaps Hilary thinks that we don’t remember that her husband received $500,000 for a short speech to Kremlin bankers, after which Putin personally thanked him.
          Thomas Frank in “Listen, Liberal,” stated that the GOP represents the top 1% of the population, the Democrats represent the professional class in the remaining top 10%, and 90% of us do not have effective representation. As George Carlin said, it is a big club and we are not in it.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 11/01/2019 - 09:49 am.


            That is perhaps the most distessing thing to me about the Left in the age of Trump, they way so many have come to parrot the language of the CIA/Intelligence Community and the eternal war machine, and regime change abroad and at home.

            It is as if the America First language of Trump has driven the Democratic party to become the party of American Imperialism. Now the vacuum left by Dem indifference of the economic plight of working people has left an opening for the Republican party to control politics at the State and Federal level for a generation.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2019 - 11:28 am.

          William, it doesn’t matter what kinds of names you call Trump, if you support his position you are supporting his position. Trump is the one accusing these people of being part of some kind of deep state cabal, you are adding your voice to that complaint. You are who you stand with.

          By the way, intellectually legitimate “skepticism” is not a matter of searching for the most attractive conspiracy theory. Skepticism that renders facts irrelevant is simply facile.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 11/06/2019 - 08:56 am.

            Is it a fact thal all major media in America are corporate owned or controlled? Is it a fact that the Inelligence Community is fundamentally unaccountable? Is it a fact that the war machine has become a perpetual, eternal war making money maker? Is it a fact that corporations, banks and billionaires and most of our federal government leadership more or less work together to maintain all the economic and ecological pathologies of the status quo?

            The facts that are inconvenient to the devotees of both parties in America could fill to spilling over a proverbial Titanic. Trump is merely taking aim at a different iceberg. Dems seem to think throwing him overboard will evaporate the icebergs, full speed ahead.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/07/2019 - 08:18 am.

      “I will continue to think of them as cynical political, partisan hacks”

      I occasionally patronize my local food coop and in my observations I find the employees there to be a bunch of communists who think if they work 3 hours a day the world owes them a living and while they believe they are part of a new world order, solving all manner of problems from being pollinator friendly, cleaning up our water and solving climate change, in reality they are simply slurping at the capitalistic trough of their customers who can afford to pay a buck a pound for organic bananas because times are good in investment banking.

      Of course, I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS.

      Instead I believe anyone who thinks they can make a single categorical statement that classifies the motivations of thousands of people is seriously confused and misguided, and owes an apology to the individuals in the group they have so carelessly maligned…

  2. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 10/30/2019 - 03:06 pm.

    I submit that Trump devotees like Mr. Duncan simply do not know what they’re talking about, when they decide that all expertise in government, and all long-term governmental service, is somehow suspected of perfidy when those experts start testifying against this corrupt U.S. president.

    Cant is not reason. It’s cant, Mr. Duncan, and not convincing. I truly feel very sorry for those who blindly repeat Trump’s lies and misinformation.

    • Submitted by William Duncan on 10/31/2019 - 08:07 am.

      I comment here often and I am pretty sure I have never said anything that could label me a devotee of that megalomaniac Trump – any more than I accept whatever government and especially the “intelligence community” tells me as if it were Truth with a capital T.

      More like, I am apalled by the blind devotion to party that paints my monsters as saints but that other party’s monsters as the manifestation of evil. Trump seems to get a free pass from the Right, Obama and Clinton get treated like saints by the left. The right accepts Trump’s talk but ignores his walk, Dems accept the silky smoothe talk of Obama and Clinton, while ignoring all the blowback of their policies.

      As for those carreer bureaucrats, they are mostly products of American Imperialism, our corporate, banking and war profiteering ascendancy since Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union. This corporate imperialism that has hollowed out the economy of America and pitted regular Americans against each other. I am not an imperialist or a war profiteer, so I am dubious about the motives of bureacrats defending that system.

      • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 11/03/2019 - 08:39 pm.

        “I am not an imperialist or a war profiteer, so I am dubious about the motives of bureacrats defending that system.”

        So when a national security ‘bureaucrat” has a problem with the president withholding almost 400 million dollars in aid unless the Ukraine agrees to damage the opposing democratic candidate highest in the polls at the time, you see that as an example of that bureaucrat who is speaking out against bribery of “defending imperialism”???

        Boy, that’s some twisted reasoning IMO.

        You don’t express any concern about with the president of the United States trying to bribe a foreign nation into attacking his biggest political rival using US government funds, that’s A-Ok in your book apparently, nice sound and ethical behavior in your mind since you have expressed concerns or objections to it.

        But a ‘bureaucrat’ speaking out against that bribery is an “imperialist”!


        You have some funny, funny definitions of the word ‘imperialism’, and ‘political hacks’ for that matter.

        I guess in your mind, a dedicated civil servant would have said “Yes, the president is bribing the president of a foreign country, who cares?”, and then would have stayed silent about it.

        I suppose that’s being a ‘patriot’ and not being a ‘political hack’ in your mind, in spite of the fact that going along with the existing political power a bureaucrat works for (the Trump administration in this case) is the actual definition, for the rest of us, of the word ‘political hack’.

        To explain it to you, a political hack is someone who just goes along with whatever makes his personal work situation easy, and perhaps even brings him favor with the political higher ups and maybe salary increases and promotions. He doesn’t make waves, just looks out for his own personal situation.

        Look at Mike Pompeo as a good example – he’s never going to disagree with the president, he’s going to keep quiet and keep in his good graces as I think he believes that benefits him and his personal future political ambitions.

        These civil servants speaking out are doing the OPPOSITE of that and the opposite of what a political hack does – they are risking losing their jobs, and definitely aren’t going to be getting promotions, salary raises, or other benefits from the administration as a result of speaking out.

        Do you not get that you are completely unfair and 180 degrees wrong when you call these brave souls “cynical, political hacks’??

        If they were cynical, political hacks, they would have just stayed silent, and we never would have heard from them at all!

  3. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 10/30/2019 - 06:25 pm.

    Simply put, this is one of the best statements I have read anywhere that explains why career foreign service and national security officers are risking their careers and reputations to speak out about the withholding of Congressionally approved funds to achieve private political or financial ends. Thank you!

  4. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 10/30/2019 - 06:43 pm.

    “And we become a country whose word cannot be relied upon…”
    Before the breakup of the USSR in 1990, documents reveal that the USA gave assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand beyond Germany. Later during the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations NATO expanded eastward, now is on the Russian border, and recently conducted war games with thousands of troops from the Arctic through Central Europe.

    • Submitted by Bill Davnie on 10/31/2019 - 01:13 pm.

      The matter of US reliability isn’t new, I certainly agree. The wisdom of NATO expansion is hotly debated even now (as it’s not necessarily over, although unlikely under the current Administration). You might wish to read the pages on this issue in William Burns’ recently published memoir, The Back Channel.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/31/2019 - 09:27 am.

    “And we become a country whose word cannot be relied upon, because it emanates not from considered decisions about national interests but from the personal desires of temporary leaders.” Whoa! Elections have consequences, sir. Those “temporary leaders” were elected by the people to implement their policies, foreign and domestic. We didn’t elect you. In a democracy, that’s the way it works.

    And why was Yovanovich still in that job anyway? She should have left when Obama left. When she denied any wrong-doing by Joe Biden when he’s all over YouTube bragging about how he was going to deny $1 billion in U.S aid if the state prosecutor investigating his son’s company wasn’t fired, Trump knew she was protecting the corrupt Ukrainians who had worked to help the Hillary Clinton campaign and she had to go.

    This will all be coming out in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

    • Submitted by Bill Davnie on 10/31/2019 - 01:15 pm.

      Career ambassadors typically stay in place even through a presidential transition; political appointees usually resign. Yovanovich could certainly have been asked to resign, but the White House/State Department did not request it.

  6. Submitted by cory johnson on 10/31/2019 - 12:39 pm.

    Well today Tim Morrison just testified that Bill Taylor made multiple false assertions in his testimony. So which version of the non-partisan do we believe?

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/31/2019 - 03:27 pm.

      Well there’s this: “Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor has a close relationship with the Atlantic Council think tank. The Atlantic Council is funded by and works in partnership with Burisma, the natural gas company at the center of allegations regarding Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.” So there’s that.

      • Submitted by cory johnson on 10/31/2019 - 08:16 pm.

        Taylor also met with a Schiff staffer in August at a conference put on by the Atlantic council. But again, its all a coincidence and every State Department staffer that provides testimony to help Democrats is above reproach. I do love how quickly Schiff dropped the whistleblower once everyone in DC found out he was a partisan hack.

  7. Submitted by Kathy Van de Vate on 11/01/2019 - 12:07 am.

    Davnie’s is an excellent forthright article which is spot on. I served in government overseas for 25 years and have never seen anything resembling the current fiasco in the WH. Many of the comments on the above threads are extremely uninformed and reveal the very disrespect for government servants, and ignorance of how foreign policy is made, that Davnie is talking about. I venture to say that these commentators have not spent years mastering difficult foreign languages and taking themselves and their families to danger zones in the service of their government.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/02/2019 - 07:26 am.

      Well, other than my eight years in the submarine service, I’m sure I haven’t served my country in as much peril as you have. The problem is that Donald Trump’s election and the reaction from the entrenched administrative state has been a scary and instructive eye-opener about these people and their apparent belief that democracy is a quaint and antiquated notion about governments of, by and for the people.

      They not only intend to invalidate a presidential election but are now publicly admitting it when they insist that it’s THEY who run this country and set its policies, not some yahoo who managed to get himself elected.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/03/2019 - 10:06 pm.

        You know DT sounds just like a criminal, if it weren’t for the entrenched police and judicial system I could get away with murder! There seems to be a Trump quote similar, only he thinks he could!

      • Submitted by Larry Moran on 11/06/2019 - 02:51 pm.

        “They not only intend to invalidate a presidential election but are now publicly admitting it when they insist that it’s THEY who run this country and set its policies, not some yahoo who managed to get himself elected.”

        All three previous presidential impeachment hearings, if they had resulted in a conviction, would have “negated” an election result. That’s kind of the point. You could argue that Nixon’s cover up of a “third rate burglary” did not rise to a high crime or misdemeanor. You could say that Clinton’s lying under oath to keep his infidelity in the Oval Office secret was neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor. But nobody argued that if any of them were convicted that we were in danger of destroying our democracy. Many would argue, in fact, that these impeachments showed our democracy actually working and that presidents need to represent, and work for, the interests of the American people and not their own.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/07/2019 - 08:03 am.

        Interesting how Mr. Tester, as a young man, joined the Navy and the submarine service no doubt out of a desire to serve his country and experience a challenging and adventurous career. And I am sure he served with distinction through out his career.

        Let another young person enter the foreign service no doubt out of a desire to serve his country and experience a challenging and adventurous career and they soon become a part of the sinister deep state, controlling the levers of power.

        People, AKA a large, normal distribution of individual samples, are not that different from one an other in work ethic, morality and intelligence. Its always amazing how some will feather there own “exceptional nest” at the expense of others…

  8. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/06/2019 - 09:32 am.

    Well it definitely appears that the “Deep State” is really folks with; very high; ethics, patriotism, honesty, integrity, specialization, rationality, education, etc. etc. And the present administration, and apparently the Republican leaders in congress and the senate as well are doing everything they can to root out and destroy that deep state and those values in favor of corruption in most any form or fashion, to take our democracy and rule of law down.

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