Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

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The Governmental Accountability Problem

On Thursday the State Department’s Inspector General issues a report stating that $6 billion in contracting money spent by the Department over the last six years cannot be properly accounted for. The report noted “significant financial risk” and “lack of institutional control” and, astonishingly, reported that the State Department could not even produce contract files documenting precisely how $2.1 billion was spent.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is the apparent utter lack of concern about accountability in spending our tax money. In the State Department, the inspector general position — which is supposed to be a kind of public watchdog — went unfilled for almost six years. Moreover, there have been fraud warnings and prior reports about slapdash controls and accounting for money shoveled overseas and paid to private contractors, and the State Department failed to address the problems.

I have two reactions to this news. First, this is the kind of story that feeds the fury of fiscal conservatives, who believe that the federal government takes too much of our money and then simply wastes a lot of it. The government takes in and spends so much money that even an astronomical sum like $6 billion is only a drop in the bucket — but we’ll never know precisely how that $6 billion was spent and how much of that money was lost to fraud, corruption, or simple overspending by unconcerned bureaucrats. How could an important position like inspector general go unfilled for six years?

People who support big government spending tend to pooh-pooh the focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but I remain convinced that a federal government that actually had to tighten its belt because of budget reductions would find lots of places where money could be saved or spending reprioritized. At present, with the federal government awash in cash fueled by constant, large-scale deficit spending, the government has no incentive to be careful and prudent in its spending — and as a result reports and warnings about financial accountability tend to be ignored.

Second, this story can’t help whatever presidential aspirations Hillary Clinton may have. She ran the State Department for much of the period when accountability was lacking and warnings apparently were disregarded. As I understand it, part of her pitch is that she would be more fiscally conservative than other Democrats who might seek the presidency — but this report really undercuts the perception of careful stewardship of the public fisc that Hillary Clinton is trying to project. If you strongly believe that the government needs to get its fiscal house in order, how can you vote for someone who presided over a department that couldn’t even document how it spent $6 billion? If a public company were in a similar situation, the CEO would be fired, the SEC investigators would be knocking at the door, and private lawsuits would be inevitable.

It may never happen, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if we elected administrations that actually paid attention to the unglamorous nuts and bolts of accounting for their spending, reassessed whether long-time programs were still truly needed, tried to save a penny here and there, and acted like they took financial responsibility seriously, rather than worrying about immediately jetting off to some faraway location for a photo op with a reset button?

The Embassy Closures

The United States closed 21 of its embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa on Sunday, and most of those facilities will remain closed this week.

As usual, our government seems incapable of speaking with one voice on exactly why it has taken such a step.  The State Department says the closures are “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to a new threat, whereas talking heads on the Sunday shows said the closures were in response to the most serious threat identified by intelligence-gathering efforts in several years.  There also has been an apparent intelligence leak disclosing that the United States reportedly intercepted an exchange of messages between al Qaeda leaders about a plot against an embassy.

Although I wish our government could get its act together on messaging, I don’t see a viable alternative to closing the embassies.  If we have received credible intelligence information that our embassies and consulates in the Muslim world are targets of an impending attack, there are few options.  Physical security arrangements can’t be enhanced overnight; far better to get our people out of harm’s way until better information about the threat is developed.  Although some people may criticize that course as showing weakness, it seems like the only prudent option.  We don’t need another Benghazi-like situation.

The deeper issue here is what this apparent threat means about al Qaeda itself.  With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the publicized deaths of countless “high-ranking al Qaeda leaders” over the years, we’ve been led to believe that al Qaeda has been severely diminished.  If al Qaeda is capable of attacking an American embassy, that fact suggests a resurgent organization — or one about whom the reports of decline have been greatly exaggerated.  If the former is true, how much of the resurgence is due to the bad feelings generated by the continuing American presence in the Middle East and our aggressive use of drones?

The recognition of substantial al Qaeda capabilities that is implicit in the decision to close the embassies is sobering, to say the least.

Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?