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Hard Lessons From Inside the State Department

A former Secretary of State’s memoir points at the direction that real bureaucratic reform must take.

Former Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Speaks At The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation And Institute
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love, by Mike Pompeo, Broadside Books, 464 pages.

When Mike Pompeo, then CIA director, secretly met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean supreme leader quipped, “I didn’t think you’d show up. I know you’ve been trying to kill me.” Not missing a beat, Pompeo leaned in and said, “Mr. Chairman, I’m still trying to kill you.” 


In his new memoir, Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love, former Secretary of State Pompeo relates this and similar stories in recounting how his unique combination of humor, toughness, and principle made him the foreign-policy star of the Trump presidency. The book is worth the cover price just for the author’s blunt, America First assessments of numerous dodgy world leaders and international personalities. Pompeo also fires away at those who tried to undermine the Trump foreign-affairs agenda from the inside, like senior officials Jim Mattis and John Bolton, as well as the hostile federal bureaucracy, most of all at the State Department.

The careerists at Foggy Bottom were the source of constant frustration, and in the end, Pompeo threw in the towel. “It is much to my embarrassment,” the former secretary concedes, “that during my tenure we were unable to restructure the Foreign Service in a meaningful way. The State Department doesn’t suffer from lack of numbers. It suffers from leaks, fragmentation, layers of bureaucracy, and a model of career advancement that disincentivizes risk-taking and ingenuity among the diplomatic corps.”

Despite all of Trump’s rhetorical rage about the “deep state,” the administration was remarkably unprepared to actually do anything about reforming the federal bureaucracy. Trump won the White House with no idea about whom he wanted to send to Foggy Bottom, improbably turning to the Bush foreign-policy team (Condoleezza Rice) for the recommendation to name Rex Tillerson as secretary.

Although a committed conservative, Secretary Tillerson produced no master plan for reforming the department beyond tinkering with State’s budget. To his credit, he did push out some senior foreign service officers, immediately sacking Patrick Kennedy, who had enabled Hillary Clinton’s private email server and acted as undersecretary for management for an incredible ten years. Tillerson also insisted the department provide timely responses, as required by law, to its massive backlog of Freedom of Information requests. For his modest efforts, Tillerson was pilloried in the media by State’s vigilant defenders. Barely a year in the job, Tillerson clashed publicly with the president and was out by March 2018.

Trump then moved Pompeo from CIA director over to State. No previous secretary appointed by a modern Republican president has matched Pompeo’s passion for at least attempting to undertake structural reforms inside the department. George Shultz and James Baker had been content to maneuver around the careerists; others such as Colin Powell and Condi Rice were never bureaucracy-reforming conservatives. 


Pompeo arrived determined to make a mark, as he had done at Langley, but things would prove much harder inside the “Temple of Doom” (the late Senator Jesse Helms’s moniker for the Harry S. Truman building, State’s main headquarters). Secretary Pompeo brought his West Point can-do spirit to the job, enlisting trusted confidantes Brian Bulatao and Ulrich Brechbuhl, who shared Pompeo’s military and private sector experience, but as outsiders inexperienced with the department’s pitfalls they were soon mired in never-ending, tactical bureaucratic battles.

Pompeo famously messaged to the rank and file that State’s “swagger” had returned and attempted high-minded gestures such as announcing a new department “Professional Ethos,” a guiding statement of principles for American diplomats. But the secretary and his small team underestimated careerist cynicism and the pandemic of Trump Derangement Syndrome throughout the Foreign Service leadership. A conservative occupying the secretary’s office suite on State’s seventh floor is only a precarious beachhead. “What the State Department needs” Pompeo writes now after time to reflect, “is fundamental structural reform, something that I believe will take eight years to do the right way.”

Exactly. No matter how well intended, a new standard like Pompeo’s “Professional Ethos” would require years to implant in a hostile bureaucracy, and it was later predictably swept out the door when the Biden administration arrived and restored “business as usual.” Events proved convincingly that, even determined as he was, Secretary Pompeo did not have near enough firepower to simultaneously orchestrate Trump’s global diplomacy while also fundamentally restructuring a hostile department. 

Conservative foreign-policy thinkers typically have no patience for fixing State (John Bolton is an exception); they prefer dealing with the high-profile “real” issues like China, Iran, or transatlantic policy. They likely also fear the storm of denunciations and personal attacks that establishment media can unleash on such a project (just search “Pompeo-State Department” to read the fury).  Pompeo actually deserves enormous credit for his personal bravery. Attempting to turn around State is as daunting as remaking a large Ivy League university: both are deeply globalist and very woke, with powerful defenders.

Implementing conservative reforms at any federal department is the classic Sisyphean task, but whoever is daring enough to follow Pompeo at State must use a guerrilla-warfare strategy that starts long before naming political appointees. It begins by organizing long-ignored allies in the department’s career ranks, where conservatives, although a distinct minority, can be found in the Foreign Service (a total force of about 15,000 members) and civil service (5,000). They will respond to a subtle right-of-center message. Organizing this valuable personnel resource is crucial to the success of the next conservative secretary, and when combined with other smart bureaucratic tactics, they can help to pull the State Department significantly rightward.   

A conservative secretary must focus on recruitment and training of new officers. State’s much-vaunted “diversity” campaign should mean more than hiring new employees hyper-measured by gender, race, and ethnicity. State’s problem is too little diversity of values, and a conservative secretary must find qualified recruits who truly represent diverse attitudes found across the country by personally reaching out to the right universities, communities and institutions. He should dedicate a seventh floor recruitment team to reevaluate and monitor the Foreign Service examination procedures, as well as the policy curriculum at the department’s training institute. 

Congressional recruitment programs, like the Pickering and Rangel fellowships, overlook conservative candidates, as does much of State’s normal hiring. A new secretary should work with Congress to establish a fellowship program that recruits qualified new diplomats from rural and small-town America, regions poorly represented in the ranks of the Foreign Service.

A conservative secretary needs a friendly professional association of State employees. The American Foreign Service Association (called AFSA) is an employee union with the exclusive right to bargain with State management. Despite its non-partisan pretense, AFSA is institutionally hostile to conservatives, but it does not legally hold a monopoly on representing the professional views of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), and it is high time to outflank AFSA with an association of career State employees who have right-of-center foreign-policy perspectives. Such an association should be a big-tent enterprise, offering a number of conservative viewpoints through an outreach program of speakers, workshops and discussion groups. The main goal is to network and organize department conservatives who are otherwise isolated and smothered by “official” opinion. Today, even department non-conservatives are dismayed by the Biden administration’s extreme “diversity, equity and inclusion” policies and primed to hear other points of view.

For years, State has allowed “affinity groups” that represent specialized interests among its employees; some are ideological and others are not. Pompeo writes fondly about how he encountered State’s affinity group for Christians, but it did not seem to have occurred to the secretary that his team could have adapted the same organizing tactic. Respected career ambassadors with genuine conservative leanings, such as Jimmy Story or Bill Brownfield, could have been recruited as the face of a new professional association. Pompeo did find an unlikely ally in career Ambassador David Hale, who presumably could still lead such an effort from retirement. Without this kind of formal group, department conservatives will remain isolated and canceled at State, unable to help change the status quo.

A conservative secretary should travel less. The secretary will always need to go abroad sometimes, but the constant and frenzied travel schedules which have marked all modern secretaries should end. Restructuring cannot simply be delegated; it will require the secretary’s personal attention, leadership, and presence at Foggy Bottom. Instead of the secretary spending weeks and weeks on the road, let more foreign officials call on him (borrowing a page from China’s “Middle Kingdom” playbook).

This strategy requires White House support and a secretary prepared to relinquish the travel limelight (Secretary Tillerson had possibilities), but unfortunately Pompeo was a captive of the “must-travel” school, as his memoir recounts how his “showing up for America,” particularly in small overlooked countries such as Montenegro and Suriname—totally off the president’s radar—supposedly paid off. Pompeo’s travel was at least more constructive than that of his globetrotting predecessor John Kerry, whose constant journeying included 34 visits to France, 28 to the UK and 20 to Switzerland. Kerry could undertake that constant travel, of course, because he already had Foggy Bottom in his pocket.

A conservative secretary should modernize the department’s “clearance process.”  All foreign ministry career staff feel compelled to instruct their leadership on how to think. At State, offices regularly draft countless policy and position papers, which by custom are circulated among all relevant department offices, which then make edits and re-edits until everybody can finally approve (or “clear”) the contents. The results are often unimaginative, group-think documents, overly cautious and heavy with foreign viewpoints, exactly the kind of bureaucratic, “risk-averse” approach that drove Pompeo up the wall. 

The secretary, of course, is not bound by recommendations that the bureaucracy piles on his desk, but understanding this document clearance process helps explain “State’s culture” and why the department consistently produces bland policy options. A conservative secretary needs a policy-recommendation process that from the start is aligned with his own objectives and diplomatic strategy. This is particularly important considering the department’s current system sends out scores of policy instructions that the secretary never even sees. None of the bureaucratic restructuring necessary to reinvent this process will be easy to implement, but one important tool for making change is the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff.

A conservative secretary should re-purpose and expand the Policy Planning Staff to communicate his diplomatic strategy to State’s rank and file. By tradition, the PPS is a kind of in-house thinktank, advising the secretary on strategic options and international challenges. Upon taking up their duties, most secretaries already have years of foreign-affairs experience under their belt and already know what they want to do with their high office. For a conservative secretary in particular, the much bigger priority than such academic planning is to ensure that department careerists are not out there making their own policies.

Thus, the PPS should be enlarged and converted into the secretary’s instrument to communicate his policy objectives to Foggy Bottom and diplomatic posts abroad. This effort must entail much more than the department’s tired practice of just sending out cables to the field. Using an active informational program of position papers, speakers, and policy seminars, transmitted through in-person gatherings and with virtual tools, the PPS can reach hundreds and even thousands of key employees. FSOs and civil service staff should be required to do short assignments that rotate them through the PPS so they can align their portfolios with the secretary’s thinking and return to their bureaus and embassies in tune with department leadership.

A conservative secretary should show up with his own lawyers. Pompeo writes about his constant battle with State’s career lawyers, who are indeed a formidable obstacle to change. No new secretary can simply sack State’s in-house legal staff, of course, but he can wisely dedicate two or three political appointee positions to hiring outside attorneys to join his leadership team. They would absorb the pounding of distracting legal matters that will come across the secretary’s desk—Pompeo’s book is replete with examples—but most importantly they would manage the storm of lawsuits that conservative reforms will unleash.

In response to all these initiatives, the likes of Clinton, Kerry, and Blinken will ring the fire bell, ironically charging that conservatives want to “politicize” State: they will file lawsuits, launch media smear campaigns and even attempt employee strikes. Although restructuring the department will always face scored-earth resistance, the next conservative secretary is wise to learn from Pompeo’s pioneering experience, and with White House support and a willingness to stay the recommended eight years, he can roll that boulder up the hill—and perhaps keep it from tumbling back down.