Marie Yovanovitch, the Poster Child of #FSProud
These foreign service officers see themselves as superheroes, but behind the mask is pure partisanship and pettiness.
The State Department, where I worked for 24 years as a Foreign Service officer (FSO) and diplomat, reminds me a lot of my current hometown, New York City. Both places spend an inordinate amount of time telling outsiders how great they are while ignoring the obvious garbage piled up around them. It’s almost as if they’re trying to convince themselves that everything is okay.
Like New York City telling itself the Broadway lights mean folks won’t notice the homeless problem and decaying infrastructure, the State Department fully misunderstands how it appears to others. Across Facebook groups and internal channels, FSOs this week are sending each other little messages tagged #FSProud quoting former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s closing soliloquy from her impeachment testimony.
Yovanovitch’s testimony otherwise read like an HR complaint from hell, as if she were auditioning for a Disgruntled Employee poster-child position to cap off her career. She had already been fired by the time the alleged impeachable act took place—Trump’s July 25 phone call—and was stuck in a placeholder job far removed from Ukrainian policy. She witnessed nothing of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the House is investigating, and basically used her time to complain she knew more than her boss did so he fired her.
At the end of her testimony, Yovanovitch unfurled a large metaphorical flag and wrapped herself and the entire Foreign Service in it. Her lines had nothing to do with Ukraine: they were recruiting boilerplate about how FSOs are nonpartisan servants of the Constitution, how they all live in harm’s way, yada yada. She name-checked diplomats from four decades ago held hostage in Iran, and rolled in a couple of CIA contractors when tallying up the “State” death toll from Benghazi. She omitted the we-don’t-talk-about-that-one death of FSO Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan, whose 25-year-old life was destroyed participating in a propaganda photo-op.
This is the false idol image the State Department holds dear of itself, and people inside the organization today proudly christened Ambassador Yovanovitch its queen. Vanity Fairsummed it up better than the long-winded FSOs bleating across social media: “A hero is born as Yovanovitch gives voice to widespread rage at State. ‘I think people are feeling huge pride in Masha,’ says a former ambassador.” Yovanovitch uses her Russian nickname, Masha, without media comment, because of course she does.
And that’s the good part. Alongside Yovanovitch, bureaucrat-in-a-bow-tie George Kent issued pronouncements against Trump people he never met who ignored his tweedy advice. Ambassador Bill Taylor leaked hoarded personal text messages with Trump political appointees. Taylor’s deputy, David Holmes, appeared deus ex machina (Holmes had a photo of Yovanovitch as his Facebook page cover photo until recently!) to claim that back in the summer, he somehow overheard both sides of a phone conversation between Trump and political appointee, EU ambassador Gordon Sondland. Holmes eavesdropped on a presidential call and dumped it in the Democrats’ laps, and now he’s nonpartisan #FSProud, too.
Interesting that the major political events of the last few years have all crisscrossed the State Department: Clinton emails and Foundation shenanigans, the Steele Dossier and all things Russiagate, and now impeachment and Ukraine. And never mind that two major Democratic presidential candidates-in-waiting, Clinton and Kerry, had a home there. That’s an awful lot of partisanship for an organization bragging about being nonpartisan.
Gawd, I need to wash my hands. I am #FSProud that in my 24 years as a diplomat, I never perjured myself, or claimed to or actually did eavesdrop on someone else’s phone call, then spoon-fed the info months later to my boss on TV to take down a president mid-campaign, all while accepting cheers that I was nonpartisan and thinking my role as a snitch/bootlicker was going to help people view my organization as honorable.
FSOs see themselves as superheroes who will take down the Bad Orange Man. The organization flirted with the role before: “dissent” by State strayed close to insubordination opposing Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban. Everyone remembers the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server). The Department turned a blind eye to Clinton’s nepotism in hiring her campaign aides (remember Huma?) and use of America’s oldest cabinet position to create B-roll ahead of her soiled campaign.
Maybe the State Department’s overt support for Candidate Clinton did not make clear enough what happens when the organization betrays itself to politics.
While FSOs are gleefully allowing themselves to be used today, they fail to remember that nobody likes a snitch. No matter which side you’re on, in the end nobody will trust you, Democrat or Republican, after seeing what you really are. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his diplomats knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? State considers itself a pit bull when in fact it’s betrayed its golden nonpartisan glow. Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pets as their lunch buddies?
The real problems go much deeper. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed more than one fourth of all Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. At the senior levels, 36 percent of positions were vacant or filled with people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial mid-ranks, the number was 26 percent unfilled.
The thing is, that GAO report is from 2012, and it showed similar results to one written in 2008. The State Department has danced with irrelevancy for a long time, and its efforts to be The Resistance as a cure today feel more like desperation than heroism. State’s somnolent response, even during the mighty Clinton and Kerry years, to what should have been a crisis call (speculate on what the response might be to a report saying the military was understaffed by 36 percent) tells the tale.
As the world changes, State still has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian among its FSOs. No other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, where about a third of the posts are doled out as political patronage mainly because what they do doesn’t matter. The secretary of state hands out lapel buttons reading “Swagger“; imagine a new secretary of defense doing the same—and then being laughed out of office.
FSOs wade in the shallowest waters of the Deep State. Since the 1950s, the heavy lifting of foreign policy—the stuff that ends up in history books—mostly moved into the White House and the National Security Council. The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations further sidelined State. The regional sweep of the AFRICOM and CENTCOM generals, for example, paints State’s landlocked ambassadors as weak.
State’s sad little attempt to stake out a new role in nation-building failed in Iraq, failed in Afghanistan, and failed in Haiti. The organization’s Clinton-Kerry era joblet promoting democracy through social media was a flop. Trade policy has its own bureaucracy outside Foggy Bottom.
What was left for State was reporting, its on-the-ground viewpoint that informs policymakers. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off lunch—why listen to what some FSO thinks the prime minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real-time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The überrevelation from the 2010 Wikileaks documents dump was that most of State’s vaunted reporting is of little value. State struggled through the Chelsea Manning trial to convince someone that actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures.
For the understaffed Department of State, that leaves pretty much only the role of concierge abroad, the one Ambassadors Taylor and Yovanovitch, and their lickspittles Kent and Holmes, complained about as their real point during the impeachment hearings. Read their testimony and you learn they had no contact with principals Trump, Giuliani, and Pompeo (which is why they were useless “witnesses,” they didn’t see anything firsthand) and griped about being cut out of the loop and left off conference calls. They testified instead based on overheard conversations and off-screen voices. Taylor whined that Pompeo ignored his reports.
Meanwhile, America’s VIPs need their hands held abroad, their motorcades organized, and their receptions handled, all tasks that fall squarely on the Department of State. That is what was really being said underneath it all at the impeachment hearings. It is old news, but it found a greedy audience repurposed to take a whack at Trump. State thinks this is its moment to shine, but all that is happening is a light is being shined on the organization’s partisanship and pettiness in reaction to its own irrelevance.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.