Commentary: Mike Pompeo has poisoned the State Department
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Commentary: Mike Pompeo has poisoned the State Department

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At one level, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo's decision to fire the department's inspector general tells us nothing we didn't already know. Even before Pompeo enabled the smearing and sidelining of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch last year, he had made it clear that he would tolerate political attacks and even retaliation against members of the U.S. foreign service.

Just ask Inspector General Steve Linick, whose previous investigations into such instances and calls for accountability were flicked off by Pompeo. Yet Linick's own Friday-night defenestration may have far more sinister consequences than past insults and indignities. Whether Linick was sacked for investigating Pompeo's role in legally dubious arms sales to Saudi Arabia or his alleged use of State personnel to run personal errands is irrelevant. Either way, his unplanned departure tells the men and women of the State Department that there is no impartial recourse, no objective outlet for complaint. Pompeo is the final arbiter. Perhaps that is what Pompeo meant when, on his first day on the job, he pledged to bring "swagger" back to Foggy Bottom.

Linick's firing will also have more subtle effects that will darken the building's increasingly decrepit and empty hallways for years. Careers in the State Department, where I served for eight years from 1989 to 1997, often rise or fall on the basis of "corridor reputation": your demonstrated competence, specialized skills, schmooze ability and friends higher up.

A case can be made that corridor reputation counted for too much at the State Department, especially in its heyday as a stratified white boys' club. But there can be no argument that, under this administration, only one thing has really counted: loyalty to the secretary of state and the president.

On North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, China and Russia, President Donald Trump has made clear that he does not put much stock in strategy, expertise, consistency, process or, finally, multilateral diplomacy. His gut and ego are his sole guides. Under his administration, career officers at State who have risen to positions of responsibility increasingly come in three types: Those who are true believers in the MAGA movement; go-along, get-along professionals willing to swallow outrage; and those who are overseeing issues or parts of the world that Trump either doesn't care about or (more likely) doesn't know exist.

It's this third category that concerns me. If some of them have been made ambassador or deputy assistant secretary or special representative, then good for them. After all, more than a few of the classmates with whom I entered the Foreign Service have suffered in what should have been now their glory years: deputy chiefs of mission thrown off embassy parapets by wealthy Republican donors, "acting" officials who will never get the nod because their loyalty is suspect, former "water-walkers" (superstars) turned into hall-wanderers hoping for a job somewhat befitting their experience.

But in today's toxic State Department, in an administration better known for its malice than its competence, anyone who has risen in these last three years will be forever suspect. Did they finally get the brass ring because they were good at what they do - or good at catering to the whims of higher-ups, and seen as unlikely to resort to the dissent channel or the inspector general's office? After more than three decades of public service, diplomats shouldn't have to entertain those kinds of disquieting questions or dispel those kinds of suspicions. And such ethical question marks are hardly inspiring for those who will follow in their footsteps.

Finding a new inspector general won't be hard. Today's party-line committee approval of the previously withdrawn nomination of John Ratcliffe as the new director of national intelligence suggests the Republican-controlled Senate would confirm a ham sandwich if that's what Trump wanted. But restoring morale, much less faith in the State Department's willingness to defend its professionals and principles? That may take a generation.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

James Gibney is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

Visit Bloomberg News at www.bloomberg.com

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