As the State Department grapples with top foreign-policy priorities abroad, it’s weathering a political firestorm at home. U.S. President Donald Trump’s senior diplomats are trying to revive stalled nuclear negotiations with North Korea and peace talks in Afghanistan, a protracted crisis in Venezuela, and winding down the deadly conflict in Syria.
But in Washington, the department is reeling as it finds itself at the center of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into Trump. Career diplomats, including former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, acting Ambassador William Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and others were thrust into the national spotlight as they were compelled to testify before the bitterly divided congressional panel investigating Trump. The president and his allies have castigated the career diplomats, plunging the diplomatic corps’ morale to new lows and sharpening the divide between career and politically appointed officials in Foggy Bottom.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first came into office in 2018 vowing to restore the State Department’s “swagger.” But the secretary of state—eyeing his political future with a possible Senate run in Kansas—has avoided defending the career diplomats drawn into the political storm.
Here are five reads on the rocky year America’s diplomatic corps has had—and the impacts on U.S. foreign policy abroad, from Ukraine to China to Iran.
1. U.S. Diplomacy’s ‘Gordon Problem’ Goes Way Beyond Gordon Sondland
by Robbie Gramer, Nov. 21
The high-profile impeachment saga has had the side effect of bringing national attention to presidents tapping political donors with no diplomatic experience as ambassadors. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, is wealthy former hotel magnate and campaign donor who muscled his way into Ukraine policy and found himself at the center of fiery House hearings investigating Trump for impeachable offenses. This piece analyzes the trend among Democratic and Republican administrations to gift deep-pocketed donors ambassadorships and outlines how some former career diplomats see Sondland as a warning for future U.S. foreign-policy missteps if the trend continues—something Washington may regret as China beefs up its own diplomatic presence in all corners of the world. Thus far, only one Democratic candidate in the 2020 election race—progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren—has pledged to stop the practice of handing off ambassador posts to wealthy novices.
2. Fear and Loathing at Pompeo’s State Department
by Robbie Gramer, Colum Lynch, and Elias Groll, with Amy Mackinnon, Nov. 1
Some career diplomats feel betrayed by Pompeo’s refusal to offer any public support for the officials dragged into the impeachment investigation, even as the president and his allies continue to criticize them and cast doubt on their loyalties. But if Pompeo’s exact role in the events that led up to the impeachment inquiry isn’t yet completely clear, one thing is: He has a bright political future in the Republican Party. The department’s waning faith in their boss doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on his rising stardom in Trump’s Republican Party. As Pompeo inches closer to running for Senate in Kansas to shore up a hotly contested Senate map in 2020, Trump’s base and other factions of the Republican party have high hopes for him.
3. The United States Can’t Cede the U.N. to China
by Michael McCaul, Sept. 24
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised the alarm bells in September of China’s growing clout at the United Nations, an issue the Trump administration has tried to respond to even as it castigates the international body and pares back U.S. commitments to it. McCaul expresses concern that China will use its growing power to “bend the U.N. system in support of its own authoritarian agenda.” Other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle share his concern, reflecting a broader and growing battle between the United States and China on the diplomatic front.
4. A Republican Rainmaker Comes to Turtle Bay
by Colum Lynch, with Robbie Gramer, June 4
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley quickly emerged in the chaotic first year of Trump’s tenure as one of the strongest voices in the administration. Her successor, Kelly Knight Craft, hasn’t garnered nearly as much clout or headlines, but her appointment says a lot about how the Trump administration views the U.N. Craft is the first ever U.S. ambassador to the international institution who comes from a class of political donors with next to no government or foreign-policy experience before the administration started. Craft, the wife of a wealthy coal magnate, previously served as Trump’s ambassador to Canada, and her appointment reflected the administration’s interest in elevating political donors to senior government roles. This profile explains more.
5. Echoes of Iraq in Trump’s Confrontation With Iran
by Michael Hirsh and Lara Seligman, May 8
An analysis of the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Iran suggests disturbing similarities to the run-up to war with Iraq. Not least was the dominant role of then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, who as a senior official in the administration of President George W. Bush was a fierce advocate of war who was accused of manipulating intelligence to justify an invasion.
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