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.
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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