The Decline and Fall of the State Department

Ronan Farrow’s book War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence recounts episodes from the Obama-Trump militarization of U.S. foreign policy. While the book begins with and has been marketed with the story of Trump firing lots of key diplomats and leaving positions unfilled, much of its content is from the pre-Trump, Obama-era and even Bush-era erosion of diplomacy as something distinct from war and weapons sales.

The distinction between employing diplomats whose opinions are allowed to matter only when they agree with the Pentagon and not employing them at all is not as sharp a distinction as people may imagine. As with the distinction between drones that fire on unknown people when some poor schmuck is ordered to push a button and drones that decide when to fire all on their own, the question of whether or not you have diplomats sounds dramatic but can make little actual difference on the ground.

Farrow might partially agree with my assessment, but he writes as someone who believes that the United States responds to North Korean threats, rather than the reverse, and works nobly to “contain” Iranian pursuits of “regional hegemony,” rather than strives for global hegemony at all costs.

While Obama was president, the State Department helped break all records for weapons sales, the United States bombed several countries, the U.S. and NATO destroyed Libya, drone wars came into their own with catastrophic results, serious action on the earth’s climate was carefully sabotaged, and the U.S. military expanded into much of Africa and Asia. The crowning achievement called the Iran Nuclear Agreement was not some sort of advance in human rights, peace, justice, or cooperation. Rather, it was the unnecessary and pointless product of U.S. propaganda creating a false threat from Iran, belief in which may outlast the agreement.

A large chunk of Farrow’s book is a portrait of Richard Holbrooke as a power-mad schemer but frustrated advocate for non-militarized diplomacy. This is the same Richard Holbrooke, I had to remind myself, who publicly told Congress that the State Department’s job in Afghanistan was to support the military. This is the same guy who claimed that if the United States ended the war, the Taliban would work with al Qaeda which would endanger the United States — while at the same time admitting that al Qaeda had virtually no presence in Afghanistan, that the Taliban would be unlikely to work with al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda could plan crimes from anywhere in the world, there being nothing special about Afghan air for that purpose.

Asked at a U.S. Senate hearing in 2010, the year he died, what in the world he was doing and toward what end in Afghanistan, Holbrooke repeatedly failed to produce an answer. That could explain his deathbed conversion and his final words to his surgeon: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” As if his doctor could do what he refused to play any role in, or at least failed to play any role in. It’s hard to picture Holbrooke as struggling for peace when we recall that this is the very same man who in 1999 intentionally raised demands to include what Serbia would never accept, so that NATO could begin bombing.

The least we can say is that Holbrooke was employed as a diplomat, a job that can sometimes involve choosing peace instead of war. And nobody replaced him. So, we now have to expect peace out of people employed to wage war.

But the notion that the State Department is now engaged in or was until recently even partially engaged in pursuing peace is difficult to swallow because no account of life inside the State Department can compare with our encounter with that life itself as it was slipped to us through WikiLeaks in the form of all those cables.

It’s interesting, for sure, to read about the frustrations of those who want to actually provide humanitarian aid but whose intended recipients need to not be publicly associated with the United States due to its unpopularity. But the need to kiss up to the war makers is something we’ve seen in public. And the State Department cables reveal an institution dripping with contempt for humanity, democracy, peace, justice, and the rule of law.

The solution is not, I think, to shout “good riddance!” and dance on the grave of diplomacy. Though it is to get out of the way and allow the two Koreas, and numerous other partners, to engage in it unmolested. In the end, what we need is to recognize diplomacy as something incompatible with war mongering and to choose the former over the latter.

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