Inside the asylum

The Guardian column today by former senior adviser to President Clinton Sidney Blumenthal is built on quotes from “a senior State Department official” or two criticizing Bush administration policy in Iraq. Blumenthal’s column is “The tethered goat strategy.”

In part Blumenthal refers to the State Department’s role in providing “provisional reconstruction teams” or PRTs led by foreign service officers, many of which remain unfilled by the requisite volunteers. According to Blumenthal, the Pentagon in any event has refused to provide security for those PRTs the State Department has in the field. Blumenthal’s column concludes:

“Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that after Vietnam we’d be doing this again?” one top state department official remarked to another last week. Inside the department, people wonder about the next “strategy” after the hearts-and-minds gambit of sending diplomats unprotected to secure victory turns into a squalid fiasco. “Helicopters on the roof?” asked an official.

The column represents another chapter in the war of the State Department bureacracy on the Bush administration, the only war that bureaucracy has its heart in. As it happens, we ourselves heard from a “senior State Department official” this morning commenting on Blumenthal’s column. Initially the official wrote:

You see what we in the Administration have had to deal with for 6 years? Did the foreign service folks who leaked all of this turn to Blumenthal because they are kindred spirits, or because they couldn’t peddle their half-truths to someone who knew better inside the beltway? Sadly, probably both. When I see pieces like this, it confirms my worst assumptions about some of the folks that I have to deal with on a daily basis.

When we asked for elaboration, our “senior State Department official” wrote this:

I don’t know if the department will answer this or not — I doubt it — but he is incorrect in every respect except that many foreign service folks do not like what we are doing in Iraq. That’s not big news. I don’t have time to respond to everything he says, but I’ll mention PRTs because they are important — I think even critical to the Iraq project.

The PRT effort, in short, is State’s effort attempt to be as good as Col. McMaster’s cavalry regiment in Tal Afar. DoD has 150,000 soldiers out mingling with Iraqis every day on every street corner in Iraq. The State department, on the other hand, has 2000 employees entombed behind the green zone walls, talking to each other inside one of Saddam’s former palaces. When they do talk to Iraqis, it is only the governing elite.

There isn’t a problem with DoD “guarding” the PRTs. The PRTs would be fully integrated with military units (or vice versa). Unfortunately, Zarqawi doesn’t like to define his operations in terms that mesh well with the USG’s bureaucratic institutions. His is neither a purely military nor political threat. He is a little of both, and we need to adjust accordingly. The feeling among too many State career folks is that integrating the military into these PRTs, and working on civil-military matters together with DoD, is allowing “them” into too much of “our turf.” It’s a turf war, which the department is more adept at fighting than a real one. Nobody will say it, but too many around here see themselves sophisticates, who don’t mingle with DoD troglodytes. It’s shameful.

Naturally, some in the department feel that it is “not their job to talk to the masses.” I actually heard someone say that yesterday. Rather, they see their position as more of a 19th century man of leisure, dining with privileged elites. I actually saw a guy last week wearing a monocle. I know it has nothing to do with any of this, but it’s a funny anecdote, and funny anecdotes are all that keep from from going insane sometimes.

The Secretary is fighting a lonely battle. President Bush’s State Department staff is about 30 people in total by my count. All the rest are Hillary Clinton’s transition team.

And this:

1) The military isn’t withdrawing from hostile towns — just the opposite. The military is taking residence in them. In places like the south and north, where it is quieter than Georgetown, we are handing over the role to Iraqi troops (but that’s been going on for 15 months now and certainly isn’t news). Places where the Iraqis have taken over remain happy and peaceful.

2) I haven’t heard of people getting dismissed [as Blumenthal reports], not that I’m saying it didn’t happen, I just hadn’t heard that. I can’t imagine the upper level management even getting involved in such a thing. I will say, though, that I haven’t noticed any glaring gaps in the embassy’s capabilities caused by their absence.

3) I can’t resist the helicopter imagery. The urban legend in the Department is that when Wolfowitz was director of policy planning (way back when), he used to pull our ambassadors in and ask them to point to their country on a map. More often than not he would have to correct them and point to the United States. After all the leaks, attacks on President Bush, the undermining of his policies and people, and the almost open campaigning for Kerry, it seems the helicopter imagery applies more to Foggy Bottom than Baghdad…30-40 folks standing on the roof of the State Department waiting to be airlifted to safety, and out of the clutches of the enemy.

UPDATE: Reader Cleveand Marsh writes:

The reference to Wolfowitz asking ambassadors where their country is…hmm. The legend has it (I was a Reagan/Bush I era foreign service officer) that Secretary Shultz used to ask senior FSO’s on their way to assignment to point to “their country” on the globe in his office. Sadly, many pointed out the country of their assignment…not the U.S. I doubt if Wolfowitz used this convention, knowing that it would only result in an even more disappointing result than 20+ years ago, given the drift of State since then.


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