3 misperceptions about the State Department sure to surface this week | Opinion

November 14, 2019 6:30 am

By Craig Lang

My students occasionally ask me if I miss my former diplomatic life. After leaving the U.S. Department of State in 2011 to pursue a career in academia, I respond that while there are elements I miss, I love my new profession. At this moment, however, there is an additional appreciation for life outside of Foggy Bottom.

Since 2016, State Department employees have endured a reorganization and hiring freeze, they have been sidelined by an administration fearful of a “deep state”, and they are engulfed in the House’s impeachment inquiry.

As I watch these events, I am troubled with the politicization of the State Department’s mission.

Moreover, as the House begins its public hearings related to President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, I am also concerned that many may not be aware of what the State Department does.

As the cavalcade of U.S. diplomats begin to publicly testify before Congress this week, it is important to address three potential misperceptions about the U.S. Department of State.

The State Department is secondary to the military in ensuring national security. 

The United States Department of State is a cabinet-level agency responsible for developing and implementing U.S. foreign policy. It has approximately 75,000 employees (both American and foreign nationals) stationed in the U.S. and throughout 275 diplomatic missions in 195 countries.

These individuals work on vital issues including counterterrorism, keeping illicit narcotics out of our country, resettling refugees, promoting democracy, creating markets for American businesses, and helping U.S. citizens abroad. These jobs can be dangerous, as illustrated by Ambassador Christopher Stevens death in Libya in 2012, and many diplomats serve in hardship posts where they operate in countries plagued by crime, poverty, and conflict.

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In light of its mandate and America’s standing in the world, a strong Department of State is central to U.S. national security. President Trump’s former Defense Secretary General James Mattis once noted, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Essentially, the United States is strongest when its diplomats and military work together.

As a former foreign affairs officer that helped manage approximately $250 million a year in rule of law and security assistance to Colombia, I witnessed firsthand how sustained cooperation among various U.S. departments and agencies can make a difference.

In 2016, the Colombian government and the leftist guerillas known by the acronym FARC, completed a peace agreement after more than five decades of conflict.

This agreement included provisions designed to limit the flow of cocaine to the United States. (Approximately 90 percent of the cocaine in the U.S. originates in Colombia, and the FARC was a major supplier.) Although this is only a first step in addressing the larger drug problem, it is hard to imagine Colombia’s move toward peace and drug reduction without consistent U.S. security and diplomatic support.

Career diplomats are part of the “deep state” and cannot be trusted. 

The current administration’s skepticism toward career diplomats is not new, although the depth of its hostility toward some is unprecedented. There have been a few presidents before the current one that have also spoken out against a bureaucracy they perceive to be working behind the scenes to further their own interests at the expense of a president’s.

After more than a decade at the State Department (including under both Democratic and Republican administrations), I did not find a cabal of bureaucrats attempting to undercut the democratic process. Rather, what I did experience and continue to observe are loyal, hard-working individuals seeking to enhance U.S. security and standing in the world.

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The U.S. diplomatic corps is comprised of individuals from all races, religions and political backgrounds. These public servants understand that administrations and policies change; and, while agreeing to serve different presidents, their oath to protect and uphold the Constitution does not waiver.

It is uncommon to withhold foreign assistance. 

The State Department and Congress often work together in deciding when to withhold aid to another country. In relation to my diplomatic work, millions of dollars in U.S. assistance was often tied to Colombia’s performance on human rights.

If Colombia was not meeting its obligations, Congress and the executive branch worked together to withhold aid until circumstance improved. If, however, President Trump withheld aid to Ukraine to benefit his reelection, this is something I did not witness under prior administrations, and it would jeopardize the integrity of the foreign assistance process.

As the impeachment inquiry unfolds, U.S. diplomats will be center stage. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, my hope is that all of us will remember that instead of contempt, these individuals deserve our respect for their years of service to our country.

Craig Lang is a visiting assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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