Our Undiplomatic Diplomats

By Matt Purple

Those of us who came of age during the Bush administration remember a simple dichotomy: hawkish Defense Department, dovish State Department.

Back then, it was the pugnacious defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld who was pushing hardest for war against Iraq, even if it meant maligning American allies like France and Germany as “Old Europe.” Secretary of State Colin Powell also wound up supporting the war (at least in public), but he was far more skeptical, and more than once found himself in Rumsfeld’s crosshairs.

Today, that dynamic has been reversed. It’s the generals who counsel restraint now, stung by 15 years of war that have left ISIS governing a chunk of Iraq and Syria, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, and the terrorist threat looming larger than ever before. For the military, the geopolitical is personal. “Every single one of these guys has signed too many letters to too many parents,” Maren Leed, a former Pentagon advisor, told the Washington Post.

But while the Defense Department feels hung over, the State Department is jonesing for another night of heavy drinking. Once cautious operators, our diplomats have become distinctly undiplomatic.

Start with the reckless memo that emerged from Foggy Bottom last week, demanding that the United States bomb the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The missive, signed by 51 diplomats, was submitted through the State Department’s dissent channel, but that’s only because it’s official agency policy to support the president. Behind the scenes, State has long supported striking the Syrian government, over the objections of the military.

That disagreement came to an instructive head during a White House huddle in 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry was banging on about how we ought to be bombing Assad when Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey decided he’d had enough. According to reporting by Jeffrey Goldberg, “Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.” Goldberg observes that it’s Kerry, not Dempsey or Obama, who usually sounds the most hawkish in those meetings.

John Kerry the warmonger? It’s difficult to imagine after the 2004 Bush campaign portrayed him as a Jello-spined Francophile. But it’s true. In August 2013, Kerry gave a soaring speech about Assad’s use of chemical weapons that sent many of us flailing towards our TVs: dear God, the man thinks he’s declaring war! Kerry warned about “previous storms in history” and admonished that Iraq fatigue “does not absolve us of our responsibility.” He later compared Assad to Hitler and Saddam Hussein. By the time he was finished, there weren’t many blanks left to fill in.

Kerry’s predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, had a similar predisposition. When civil war broke out in Libya, the Obama administration was once again torn asunder over what to do. The Pentagon was chary, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondering aloud, “Can I finish the two wars I’m already in before you guys go looking for a third one?” Arrayed against him was Clinton. Obama’s eventual decision to topple Moammar Gaddafi was characterized by Gates as “51-49,” with Clinton’s opinion tipping the balance towards war.

After Gaddafi was captured by rebels and battered to death, Clinton quipped, “We came, we saw, he died.” Also to die were thousands more Libyans in the ISIS-exploited violence that followed this imprudent, unnecessary adventure.

How did this happen? How did the State Department, charged with advancing American diplomacy, end up stumping for counterproductive regime change?

One of the reasons, perhaps, is that Obama’s secretaries of state tended to be more ambitious than their predecessors. Another is that, while the Iraq war was effectively started by the United States, Libya and Syria were ongoing conflicts waged primarily by their respective governments. Diplomats could turn on the news and see cafés they knew leveled, neighborhoods they recognized torn to rubble, all thanks to a dictator who was really just begging for an American bullet, wasn’t he? Robert Ford, the ambassador to Syria, resigned as early as 2012 because he didn’t think we were giving enough weapons to anti-Assad rebels.

The problem is that all too often our interventions only make these conflicts worse. So now the politics has shifted. The military brass is tired of fighting Washington’s wars. It’s the liberal internationalists at the State Department, as enthusiastic about government engineering abroad as they are at home, who are aligned with the hawks.

Perhaps that doesn’t make for such strange bedfellows after all.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on July 4, 2016. Read more HERE