Day: January 2, 2018

Excellent guide to a decaying enterprise

My friend Harry Kopp and his co-author John Naland have encountered a perfect storm in launching their third edition of Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the US Foreign Service just as interest in State Department careers collapses and the institution itself goes through unanticipated trials in a new Administration that took office after the manuscript was finalized. It’s a shame the likely market of Foreign Service aspirants has contracted, because this book is a fine testament to the glories and challenges of Foreign Service life. It really is a life, not just a career.

Caveat emptor: I spent 21 years committed to it, moving my family every few years and occasionally risking life and limb in service to the United States. Mine were admittedly great posts: Brasilia once and Rome thrice, plus being Sarajevo’s most frequent visitor during the last year of the Bosnian war and two stints at the State Department working on global energy and later European issues. Harry Kopp was my deputy chief of mission in Brasilia. We also went to the same big high school but didn’t know each other then.

You won’t find a better or more readable account of the US Foreign Service as an institution, profession, and career than this. I’ve delayed publishing this review because I found the book so interesting I read it all with some care. You’d think 21 years would suffice for me to become my own expert and able to skip a few things, but I still found this book put things in a structure that enlightens. It also includes vignettes based on interviews with active duty and recently retired diplomats that illustrate in personal terms important themes.

Harry and John Naland, whom I don’t know, are keenly aware of the Foreign Service’s not always illustrious history and try to keep it in focus as they discuss its present and possible future. Even without the Trump Administration, there were already a big question marks:  what is to become of an institution, profession and career in the digital age of wide open access to information, an age when women and minorities are claiming their rights and everyone is expecting better and more equal treatment? How does diplomacy deal with civil war, insurgency and terrorism, all of which are a far cry from the state-to-state relations that traditionally dominate diplomatic discourse?

Those questions have become enormously more complicated with the advent of the Trump Administration. Diplomats thrive on objectivity, accuracy, and reliability. They seek to strengthen the country’s position internationally, or at least protect its vital interests and slow its relative decline. What is the fate of the Foreign Service in an age of Fake News, when America’s president thinks the country has to be made great again and tries to upend its alliances and the norms-based international order America constructed so assiduously after World War II?

I won’t pretend to have the answers. What I’m sure of is this: as presently constituted and in this Administration, the Department of State and the Foreign Service that staffs so much of it are not today well-equipped to meet these challenges. As Kopp and Naland suggest, the Foreign Service needs more training and less conformity, more risk-taking and less reliance on tradition, more innovation and less continuity. Instead, our diplomats are being ensconced in well-protected fortresses that prevent them from doing what many of them joined the Service to do: get out and talk to foreigners, understand other cultures and countries in depth and on their own terms, and use that knowledge to further US interests.

In Brasilia more than 35 years ago, I was the science counselor of the US embassy. Brazil has forsworn nuclear weapons and its barriers to computer imports have changed, though I suppose the Amazon is still a sensitive issue. I would have new tools available: access to the internet and much better and cheaper communications. But I would still want to do what I did more than three decades ago: visit laboratories, climb over and around nuclear facilities, attend a missile launch, speak at universities, take a small boat with Brazilian scientists to the meeting of the waters at Manaus.

Terrorism has made that kind of outreach perilous, and “Benghazi” has made the State Department more nervous and risk-averse than ever. The Trump Administration is cutting both staff and budget. The Pentagon, used to running risks and endowed with far greater and rapidly expanding resources with which to meet them, is taking over large swathes of diplomatic work, making State every more beholden to military priorities and perspectives. The diplomatic career is appealing less, others are encroaching on the profession, and the institution is enfeebled. The Foreign Service this book so ably describes is in trouble.

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Six questions about Iran’s protests

Edward P. Joseph, a lecturer at SAIS, sent me this after I posted mine on Iran:
News often catches us off guard.  Once we recover from our initial astonishment, we typically spot reasons why developments were predictable all along.  The collapse of the Soviet Union is one example.  The Arab Spring (and subsequent Winter) is another.
Iran’s incipient wave of sometimes violent protests demand better explanation than those on offer.  Here’s why:
Explanation 1: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
Yes, Iranians appear to be fed up with longstanding economic deprivation.  But typically it isn’t the absolute economic standing of a country that drives protest — particularly violent protest — but rather the trend lines.  With the lifting of sanctions, the opening of Iran to foreign trade and investment, and the infusion of frozen assets, how is it possible that the economic trend lines in Iran are worse than when Rouhani entered the scene or when the nuclear deal was signed in the summer of 2015?  Yes, corruption has no doubt siphoned off some or much of the anticipated benefit, but all of it — to the point that the public discerns virtually no improvement?  That’s not straightforward at all; it would take hard work and skill to mismanage an economy to that degree.  Is that what’s going on Iran?
Explanation 2: ‘Rouhani raised public expectations with lofty rhetoric.’
Again, a seemingly straightforward expectation that defies common sense.  Sure, when he was running for re-election, it is likely that Rouhani — like politicians anywhere — inflated expectations.  But that election took place last May.  Why would any political leader continue to inflate expectations that he knew — and Rouhani surely knew this — were unlikely to be met?  To the contrary, the Iranian President has had seven months to dial back public expectations.  Why wouldn’t he do that?  How would that earn him the ire of his hard-line opponents, which is widely seen as his greatest constraint?
Explanation 3: ‘Rouhani was going to cut subsidies to the poor, raise fuel prices, introduce fees including a departure tax.’
This is a more plausible explanation.  Even as astute a politician as Margaret Thatcher got whacked for introducing an unpopular tax.  The baffling thing here is why Rouhani — whose hold on power, we are told, is tenuous due to those hard-line opponents — would make deficit-cutting and structural reforms a near-term priority.  Why not wait for the public to realize some of those ballyhooed benefits before taking away the punch bowl?  Surely, Rouhani and his advisers knew that there would be risk of public push-back; Iranians are not quiescent.  Iranians defied even the hardliners with massive protests in 2009 and have shown their mettle at times since.  What on earth was Rouhani thinking with these austerity measures?  Why didn’t he look to the infusion of long-frozen Iranian assets — up to $50 billion worth according to former US Treasury Secretary Lew — to address deficits?  If the answer is that the funds haven’t arrived, or that Khamenei or the IRGC siphoned them off, or Rouhani thought he could get away with only austerity and no progress, then that all needs to be explained.
In addition to these inadequate, question-provoking ‘explanations’, there are several other head-scratching puzzlers:
4.  Why haven’t Rouhani, Khamenei and the IRGC been able to distract public attention from economic problems given the perfect foil they have in Donald Trump?
It’s the go-to move for any beleaguered leader: distract the public by pointing to a foreign enemy.  And Donald Trump is a central casting, made-to-order foil:
— he spews anti-Iranian invective at a rate and intensity that would offend the national pride of even moderate Iranians.
— he refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, putting the Iranian economy in jeopardy.
— he has slavishly embraced Iran’s arch-rivals, the Saudis.
— he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, implicating an issue on which Iran (with its aptly named Al-Quds force) has utilized to expand its influence.
It would be different if Trump were somehow ‘winning’ on these issues, but they have left Washington — not Tehran — isolated.
We know that Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif routinely tweet about Trump.  Indeed, Iran’s Foreign Minister has already chided Trump for his expression of Schadenfreude on Twitter.  It’s stunning that Tehran cannot better exploit this walking, talking caricature of the overbearing American foe to engage the public’s passions.  This would be true in any country; it’s particularly puzzling given that Iranians have been exposed to nearly four decades of enmity with/from the US.
5.  Why can’t Rouhani deflect criticism?
In Venezuela (which is only to be compared because of its restive, much more seriously deprived population and its oil economy), the public has only one target: the regime of President Nicolas Maduro.  But in Iran, President Rouhani is not ‘the Supreme Leader.’  That makes the protests — which seemingly are aimed at both — all the more baffling.  Why can’t Rouhani effectively portray himself as ‘the good guy trying to do his best against an implacable, overly conservative foe’?  Yes, if he goes too far in that vein, he risks arousing Khamenei or IRGC ire; but surely Rouhani is deft enough to get away with distancing himself and doing a bit of scapegoating of his rivals.
6.  Where are all those French and German businessmen?
We are told that Trump’s non-certification puts US trade and investment with Iran at risk, i.e. gives the advantage to Airbus over Boeing and the like.  One of the reasons the Europeans look the other way on Iranian malfeasance in the Middle East is due to their economic interest in the country.
If that’s the case, then where are all those French, German and other European investors?  If they are present in the numbers suggested, then why on earth hasn’t Rouhani trotted out the images — photo-ops and ribbon-cuttings and the like that are the staple of politicians everywhere, even in much poorer, less sophisticated countries? If they are not present in such numbers, then why is that?  What is going on with investment and trade with Iran?