The Trump Administration Is Decimating the State Department

Pulitzer-winner Ronan Farrow chronicles the demise of American diplomacy.

U.S. State Department being decimated.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and the U.S. State Department.

Before his Pulitzer-winning investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse, Ronan Farrow worked in President Obama’s State Department. His new book, War on Peace, documents the department’s loss of personnel and prestige under every recent president—especially the current one.

On Monday’s the Gist, Mike Pesca talked with Farrow about how every president warms up slowly to the value of diplomacy, the damage left in former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s wake, and journalism in the Trump era.

Read an edited version of their conversation below, or stream or download the full discussion via iTunesStitcherSpotify, the Google Play store, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Mike Pesca: How’d they woo you to go into that line of work [at the State Department]?

Ronan Farrow: I came to the government, and Afghanistan and Pakistan specifically, to work for Richard Holbrooke, who was this larger-than-life character who had made peace in Bosnia and died, as it turned out, trying to make peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while I worked for him.

It was an interesting, as you describe it, interview process that included you in an anteroom while he was taking a shower. This is like Robert Caro stuff.

There are some colorful anecdotes that I think will turn people’s heads as they read this, one of which is Richard Holbrooke was famous for doing meetings in bathrooms. This was not a #MeToo thing. He was a scatterbrained and oblivious kind of guy when it came to other human beings at times, but incredibly brilliant, incredibly loyal. So in the case of my job interview at the State Department, I interviewed with Hillary [Clinton] briefly in her antechamber. And there was me and a CIA guy that he was putting on his team. In the eyes of Richard Holbrooke, every hire was a momentous thing.

Or he made you feel like that.

Right, tremendous showmanship. I was just a little rookie guy at the bottom of the totem pole—I had no business meeting with the secretary of state, but he did this very gracious thing. Then, lobbing hardball policy questions about Taliban negotiations and assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan, brought me from the State Department to his townhouse in Georgetown, to the upstairs of his townhouse and proceeded to get in the shower. The door was sort of closed-ish but ajar. Did not break the flow of questions, just poked his head out and said, “Oh I’m just going to take a shower.” There we were, and it did lead to those years at the State Department.

What was your brief?

My brief was just talk to people on the ground.

But live in Afghanistan.

Well, no. We went back-and-forth. The process of being an American official and visiting these countries is not a process of immersing in the culture and understanding what it is to live in Afghanistan or Pakistan, particularly when you’re in Kabul, in the U.S. Embassy. You ain’t living in Kabul.

Every embassy that even wants to be outreaching has a fortress or a moat, and in Kabul, it has the fortress.

A fortress. My job was made doubly difficult by the fact that there were all these barriers. You couldn’t just talk to people. You go from point A to point B, and it’s a security detail, and what they call a “rhino,” which is this steel box you travel in that has little holes on the side that say, “Break glass and insert rifle here” in case you come under fire.

Just that alone, the vision of that, gets in the way of diplomacy. It also ties into your overall theme that we’ve essentially militarized our diplomats.

Right. Strikingly, actually, in the last few months, there has been a push to have diplomats engage in arms-sale transactions. This is a formal initiative by the White House. That’s part and parcel with the decimation of the State Department right now. We just don’t have negotiators and peacemakers anymore, and we’re shuffling them out as fast as we can and giving the work that they once did to non–subject matter experts—and honestly, as often as possible, soldiers and spies.

When Trump went to Saudi Arabia, his first foreign trip, which was unusual, the evidence of our great diplomatic relationship was this record-setting arms sale.

In a sense, we have the benefit of historical lessons that we are refusing to learn. A lot of the book is devoted to that. The pattern you see is in the first terms of a lot of these administrations: There is this absence of diplomacy, and then almost invariably, there’s a realization, too late, that you need diplomacy. The quote from Condoleezza Rice was, We realized we needed a few diplomats in the second term. [Bill] Clinton slashed the State Department budget and the USAID budget by 30 percent. That had disastrous results. It’s one of the reasons why we didn’t have adequate diplomatic capacity after 9/11. We closed all these embassies, and we shut down two government agencies that were related to very important foreign policy priorities, and you heard in Barack Obama’s rhetoric a commitment to that idea. I quote him over and over again, talking about how our might is not through our military.

The speech in Egypt.

Sure. A lot of people remember his legacy that way, and I think it’s instructive to realize that even in his administration, there was this phenomenon of the militarization of foreign policy and then an acknowledgement that that had been a mistake.

As you point out, he was as reliant on generals—or almost as reliant—as Trump was. I think he was deferential. I just don’t think he was confident early on.

Very few politicians are confident in the face of the military-industrial complex. It’s viewed as a political win to support our generals in a way that it is not to support our dusty bureaucrats at the State Department. That’s a fundamental misperception. There are huge problems with the State Department. It needs reform, it needs fixing, but this is a job of self-sacrifice. Like our men and women in uniform, they are working very often in the most dangerous places on Earth, but they’re not coming home to ticker-tape parades.

I’m careful in this book not to make it as black-and-white as “Pentagon bad” and “State Department good.” These are both systems that have strengths and are necessary, and I think every sober-minded person says, “We need both.” Probably necessarily, the Pentagon has got to be a good deal larger, but what those people also say is, “This is way out of whack. This is way, way out of proportion, and we just don’t have the capacity left on the civilian side anymore.”

One thing that I see that was made clear in the book is that our very best, or sharpest, or at least most opportunistic generals have seen and sensed that there is this maw, that there is no diplomacy. So they have crafted themselves as not just a general, but a diplomat-general. This is something [David] Petraeus does, and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis as the warrior-monk. This is not to impugn their motives. There’s a lot of what they do, because there is no diplomacy, that we’re relying on the military to do it, but it also could lull the rest of us into a false sense of security—we’re getting our diplomacy from the Army, and the Army is now social workers. As you point out, no, they’re not. They have guns.

Right. It’s a completely different skill set. What you lose when you shuffle off the diplomats is any kind of subject-matter expertise. There’s a chapter in this book about North Korea. That’s been a long-fraught diplomatic journey with a lot of failures along the way but also a lot of institutional knowledge gained. We are not relying on our experts there or anywhere else. The Afghanistan situation, when I was there, is really instructive about this. We had a period of maximum military leverage where what the Pentagon was doing could have catalyzed talks. Now, years later, I think there’s much more acceptance in the foreign policy establishment of the idea that you’re not going to win militarily in Afghanistan. You’ve got to talk to the Taliban. There’s got to be a political settlement, but at the time, it was verboten to even say that. We weren’t allowed to say it publicly. You couldn’t suggest it in meetings. Everything had to be done in secret.

You extracted a Taliban-affiliated guy nicknamed A-Rod. He could be a very useful guy to you, and he turned out to be, but he had to be very careful about publicly associating, or embracing, or even letting it be known that he was affiliated with this operation.

The nexus of the Pentagon and the White House really put the kibosh on numerous attempts to jump-start that process faster. What a lot of the people involved say, in retrospect, is, “We squandered the biggest window of opportunity we had to have a political settlement.” No one is suggesting that Richard Holbrooke could have waltzed in and fixed Afghanistan, but you could have had talks earlier, and you could have maybe saved some lives. It could have had a tangible difference for the current situation in Afghanistan, which is yet more military escalation.

President Trump talked about withholding funding from Pakistan. What will that do other than embolden the Chinese?

The Chinese are nipping at our heels. Actually, I think that the lesson about that the world over is we are ceding this space to China. Because as we are eviscerating our State Department, China is year-on-year spending more and more on diplomacy. There was this stereotype for a long time in American foreign policy of, “China is rapacious, and they don’t give a damn about human rights.” There’s a lot of truth to that, but also what we’re seeing is in places where China was the rapacious interloper who aided and abetted the bad guys, like Sudan for instance, now you’ve got a Chinese special envoy doing shuttle diplomacy and wanting big, splashy PR gains from brokering a political settlement. They are filling our space really fast.

Here’s the thing that surprised me about Tillerson, and your reporting bears this out: I assessed that his actual worldview is within the normal range. He correctly regards Russia as a potential enemy, and he is against terrorism, and he probably has some misgivings about United States excess in terms of torture, let’s say. But I was really shocked by how motivated he was to cut staff at the State Department. That seemed to be the reason he got up in the morning, rather than actually direct the State Department to achieve any policy goals.

That seems to be the source of bafflement for just about everyone. George P. Shultz, a former secretary of state who had also been in the private sector for years and years before stepping into that job, said, “I don’t know if that was an order he got or what, but you can turn down a job.” No one can quite figure out what he thought he was doing. There’s the call to service. I spent a fair amount of time with Rex Tillerson, and I believe that he sincerely wanted to serve his country, but I can’t imagine what he thought he was accomplishing, so faithfully executing those orders.

He’s more candid than he’s ever been, in these pages. He says that he pushed back behind closed doors. He says that he was inexperienced and maybe should have known, but didn’t, early in his brief tenure in the job, that you don’t go to the Hill and say, “Hey, senators and congressmen, don’t give me money.” To whatever extent he realized that that was the wrong approach, it obviously happened too late.

Every secretary of state fights with every secretary of defense. Colin Powell talked about fighting with [Donald] Rumsfeld. Tillerson pretty clearly points to not the secretary of defense but [Jared] Kushner as his major adversary. You illustrate this by talking about a dispute that saw Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf states cut off relations with Qatar, an important military ally. Trump issued a vociferous takedown of Qatar. That’s a contradiction of Tillerson that Tillerson tried to correct.

How much of Kushner’s decisions or motivations might be influenced by the fact that he was applying for a loan with Qatar?

A fellow reporter once said to me in the last couple weeks, “We’re not working on multiple stories. It’s all one big story.”

It’s all a kleptocracy.

I’ve been reporting on these secret election-season payments through the National Enquirer to silence stories. The Times recently reported on—and we’ve done some reporting at the New Yorker on—the meetings between David Pecker of the National Enquirer and the Saudis and the Kushner- and Trump-adjacent intermediaries who helped broker those introductions. This is all connected. I think the questions being asked right now about corruption and Kushner’s affinity for the Saudis and other foreign interests are merited.

How much worse has the Trump presidency and Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department made what you’re describing in the book?

A lot worse. I don’t think this would be the same book if Hillary Clinton were in office. This book is not always kind to Hillary Clinton, either, but certainly she had a nominal commitment to the importance of having some diplomatic capacity. We are at a time right now where the State Department is simply being wiped out. This set of events is not unprecedented in the sense that we’ve never toyed with sidelining our diplomats. We have, and I gave those precedents of under Clinton, under Bush, under Obama. The lesson has been clear each time. It’s a disaster for us, but we have never seen the kind of nosedive that we’re seeing now. We’ve never had this purge of the diplomatic workforce and this complete surrendering of any effort to recruit the next generation of ambassadors. You have Colin Powell in this book saying, “We’re mortgaging our future. This is going to be hard to turn back.” I think we still can, but we’ve got to do it before it’s too late. There is a lot of power in Mike Pompeo’s hands right now as he steps into that job.