Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Professional Amateurs at State and the Chen "Crisis"

Regular readers of this little blog know what I think of the Obama misadministration, and that I consider Hillary Clinton a thoroughly failed Secretary of State. I, therefore, have a default tendency to lay the blame for the grotesque mishandling of dissident Chen Guangchen solely at the door of the Obamistas. In this case, I have to fight that setting. I can't ascribe all the blame to Obama and Clinton. The bulk of the blame lies with the culture at the State Department, a culture, nevertheless, which dovetails nicely with the natural tendencies of the Obamistas.

As a rule, State Department career officers are stunningly ignorant of US politics and domestic concerns. During my many years with State, I was constantly amazed at how otherwise bright, hardworking people had no idea that almost everything we did had at least three audiences: the foreign country; the US Congress; the US media/public. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) tended to think almost exclusively of the foreign government audience. On occasion, some might ask, "How will this play with Congress?" That, however, was rare, especially when dealing with Republican Congressional concerns--FSOs try to ignore Republican Congressmen and staff even when they are the majority. State culture is totally inept when it comes to dealing the press and with concerns from the public, especially if either comes from the right-of-center. Why? Well, for the same reason that the "highly educated elites" in America are inept: it is not in their background, it does not enter into their worldview.

FSOs exist in a self-contained environment: working at State is a complete experience. It is not unlike the military, but arguably even more cloistered, especially overseas. State employees, notably FSOs, work hard. The job is all-consuming. You are paid well; you have prestige within the Federal workforce and the public; you and your family are taken care of quite well; Mother State plans your life in two or three year segments; you are surrounded by people much like you, e.g., college grads with fancy degrees; and you are on call 24/7. You are constantly being assured that you are smarter and wiser than your rather simpleton fellow Americans, many of whom cannot even speak French, imagine that! It is a cult. FSOs have revealed wisdom. This attitude, as you can readily surmise, meshes well with the arrogance that dominates among the personnel in the Obama misadministration, and sets up the perfect storm when dealing with an issue such as Chen's bid for asylum.

I have no inside knowledge of how Chen, a fugitive on the run from the Chinese security services, got into the Embassy. It would seem, however, that somebody, almost certainly an American diplomat or family member, slipped him past the Chinese guards, probably in a car with diplomatic plates. Why? Not clear. Perhaps it was an act of personal compassion, or a result of some sort of crossed messages, or something not properly cleared up the chain of command. I don't know.  Once Chen got inside, however, he undoubtedly and quickly became a liability for the FSOs. Their job, after all, is to "make nice" with the host country, especially on the eve of important high-level visits. The Chinese regime acted as it always does, to wit, like the thuggish outfit that it is. Just like some Hollywood movie mafiosi, the Beijing authorities most likely put the heat on Chen's family. I have no doubt, despite the tepid denials, that the US Embassy officials, now panicking re the implications for their "make nice" mission, passed along the threats re Chen's family to Chen.

There was to be no Cardinal J√≥zsef Mindszenty redux! Whatever the thinking had been, it soon became to get Chen out, have the PRC issue some vague promise that "we will be nice to him," put an end to the "crisis," get good Employee Evaluation Reports (EERs) for all involved, and maybe even a few Superior Honor Awards for "tirelessly developing the successful response to a crisis that threatened to overshadow the Secretary's visit, and to hamper the evolution of Sino-American relations."  (I used to write that sort of crap.)

As I have noted before, no adult supervision exists in the Obama misadministration when it comes to foreign policy. The political appointees, including the Secretary of State, are markedly second-rate. Nobody can forcefully overrule the career crowd, especially since the majority of those careerists are ideological fellow-travelers. In the event of a "crisis," they are all too willing to listen to the "experienced professionals" on how to resolve it. To the extent any adults focussed on it, it was merely to receive assurances that the "crisis" was being handled.

To add more fuel to the fire, Chen is not a sympathetic dissident for the Obamistas. While he is blind, he is not a woman; he's anti-abortion and pro-family; he's heterosexual, not well-educated, and, apparently, pro-American. He is far from the Obamistas' "ideal"dissident, e.g., a Colombian lesbian labor leader struggling to set up abortion clinics in poor neighborhoods, while fighting the nefarious efforts of the Coca-Cola company to poison children with its sugary brew.

We have not seen the final chapter of the Chen story. It might still, because of the international interest and the involvement of the Congress, have a happy ending. It also could have a very inconclusive one as the famously obtuse Chinese bureaucracy drags out its granting of a travel permit to Chen and family.

This issue, again, draws attention to the need to resize and restructure the State Department and our entire foreign policy apparatus so that we have one that reflects our values, and actively seeks to protect and advance our core interests.

6 comments:

  1. I was surprised by a WSJ report that "[T]he U.S. didn't allow Mr. Chen to have a cell phone or call his friends freely while in the embassy." Is that just standard operating procedure?

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  2. I'm currently re-reading Herman Wouk's classic WWI novels, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance". A major subplot there is frustration by a Foreign Service Officer (Leslie Sloat) in his attempts to get the State Department to (a) pay attention to the increasing evidence of the Jewish Holocaust and (b) to specifically help a famous American (Jewish) expat, his daughter, and her son get out of Europe and back to the US. Having this whole Chan episode erupt while reading the novels gives an eerie sense of "the more things change...".

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  3. One can also bet that the amount of money owed the Chinese factored into State's behavior. Debt makes cowards of us all.

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  4. I will not disagree with your characterization of State, the current Secretary, of the entire "maladministration." But I was just a little surprised by the ineptitude they all demonstrated in the Chen affair, because my recollection of the China hands at State is that they were greater specialists than you would run into in any other geographic bureau (possible exception: WHA) and they tended to see the PRC government as the criminal enterprise it is. Of course I retired from the FS 15 years ago, so my recollection could be overcome by later developments. This current flap certainly does not reflect well on the embassy, the China desk, the Secretary, or the White House. Regarding the last two, I admit I am not surprised. But I truly expected better of the embassy and the china desk.

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  5. When the Secretary of State job is only seen as a place to stash a political appointment, this is what you get. But you are right that for many years, the value of a first rate Foreign Service/Policy has not been realized. You might trace it to the proliferation of cabinet level officers in the last 100 years. Lincoln's cabinet had all the people required for good decision making (War,Navy, State, Treasury, Justice, Interior) and the Post Office to make sure the orders were delivered. Even with Commerce and Labor added later, you could still have a small table discussion. Fudges like the NSC cannot fix the problem.

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  6. @BWebster: There's a reason I use "Leslie Slote" as my pseudonym.

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