State Bloat?

In a recent interview on Fox News, which does for Donald Trump what ANN7 does for Jacob Zuma, Trump defended his tardiness in making political appointments at the State Department. Some 70 top positions remained vacant. These included Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and ambassador to South Africa. The president said he was not convinced all of them needed filling.

As for the department’s career officers, “we have some people I’m not happy with their thinking process.” Then, illustrating why those people might not be entirely thrilled with his “thinking process” either, he went full l’état c’est moi. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”

Unsurprisingly, the department is hemorrhaging senior talent. Its leadership ranks were being “depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador who now heads the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, writes in the current issue of the Foreign Service Journal. By her count, 60 per cent of officials of ambassadorial rank have quit since the start of the year.

This does not bother Trump. He wants to slim the foreign service drastically. When Vladimir Putin demanded that US downsize its official presence in Russia by 775 last July, Trump thanked him, only half in jest. Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, may not deny calling the president a moron, but is on board with at least this part of his programme. Tillerson reportedly aims to cut 2 000 of the department’s roughly 25 000 full time positions through a mix of attrition and buy-outs.

Does he have a point?

Audits by the State Department’s inspector general would give pause to any bottom-line conscious business executive — and Tillerson was certainly one of those as ExxonMobil’s CEO.

The most recent available report on the US embassy and consulate in SA dates to 2011. The ambassador at that point was Donald Gips, among the very best. But was the gargantuan complement of 954 staff, compromising 357 US government employees seconded from the US and 597 local hires really necessary to advance US interests?

The inspector general himself wondered, inter alia, whether it was really necessary to have, in addition to press relations officers in every embassy in the continent, a parallel Africa Media Relations Hub based in SA giving rise to turf wars and bruised egos.

Did the US taxpayer get value from the 1 020 embassy employees in Nigeria as of February 2013? Or the 1 304 in Kenya as of August 2012? Or the 92 in Swaziland (June 2010) now housed in a new $182 million terrorist-proof embassy.

For comparison’s sake, the British embassy in Washington is Her Majesty’s largest. It gets by, according to latest diplomatic list, with 100 seconded officials. Putin manages with 126. Admittedly, these numbers do not include local hires and trade and consular offices outside Washington. But we are talking here about representation in what is still the first among major powers, not in a picayune nation of 55 million. SA, for what it’s worth, gets by in Washington with 50 seconded and local staff.

Trump, solidly in the tradition of populist American demagoguery, loathes the State Department and the “pointy-headed intellectuals” of the foreign policy establishment because they read and think and have experience and hold him in deserved contempt.

Tillerson, on the other hand, seems rationally keen to debloat the State Department and its ancillaries like the US Agency for International Development, deflate their vanities and make them altogether more fit for purpose. Unlike Trump, he is not driven by the demon insecurity or a craving for revenge upon his betters.



“Efforts will be made…to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity…Poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents…Everything possible will be done to set major western powers against each other…Where suspicions exist they will be fanned; where not, ignited.”

That, warned George Kennan, then deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow, was what the Russian regime had in mind for the West. The year was 1946. Stalin was in charge and the Cold War was just beginning. Seventy one years later, Soviet communism supposedly in the grave for a generation, Stalin’s latest successor, Vladimir Putin, appears to be guided by something uncannily akin to Uncle Joe’s playbook as Kennan described it in his famous “Long Telegram”.

Whether or not the active measures Putin’s security services deployed against Hillary Clinton in last year’s election were what put Donald Trump over the top is probably beyond knowing, given all the other variables. That they did meddle is incontrovertible.

They exploited social media platforms Facebook and Twitter to disseminate agitprop designed, in many cases, to inflame the resentments of carefully targeted audiences, in others, to suppress voter turnout. They hacked email accounts and made sure the fruits of their hacking were delivered to the media at strategic moments. If they failed to tamper with voter rolls, it was not for want of trying. This was war by other means.

No longer contested, either, is that people in Trump’s camp, including his son Donald Jr,. agreed to meet with creatures who represented themselves as close to the Kremlin and said they had dirt on Clinton. George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy adviser, has admitted to lying to federal authorities about the content and timing of discussions with Kremlin cut-outs who were offering to supply the Trump campaign with “thousands” of Clinton-compromising emails.

Was there collusion between Teams Trump and Putin? That is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been tasked with determining. Announced on Monday, the indictments of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the bottom-most of all Washington bottom-feeders , and sidekick Richard Gates, do not on their face get us any closer to an answer. Neither does Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

Much, of course, depends on how you define collusion. Does it only occur when the parties are actively and deliberately conspiring? Or can one collude passively, by letting things be done on one’s behalf which one knows to be improper but which one has neither directly encouraged nor requested? If blind-eye but mens rea collusion is actual collusion, Trump most assuredly colluded — or has no mens. But is that a crime? Or is it a purely political question, to be decided at the polls rather than by a court? Perhaps Mueller will supply an answer.

In the interim this we know: Trump, as a candidate for president, knew that relations between the US and Russia were, to put it mildly, adversarial. Otherwise why would he have campaigned on a pledge to improve them? He knew also that the Russians had stolen Democratic National Committee emails, yet he made light of it, openly inviting the Russians to find emails that had been erased from Clinton’s controversial private server.

A honourable man who cared about his country and its constitution, a genuine patriot, would have denounced the dirty tricks of a power known to wish the US ill, not encouraged or joked about them. Instead, he played and continues to play straight into hands of Stalin’s heir, setting Americans on each other at home and sundering America’s partnerships abroad — fanning suspicions where they exist, and igniting them where they do not.