- Not firing special envoy Brian Hook despite a pretty serious inspector general report detailing his tolerance of political purges at Policy Planning — as well as follow-on reporting by Vox’s Alex Ward that suggests the OIG report might have undersold what he did.
- Not cooperating with Congress on the impeachment inquiry to the point where Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, complained in his testimony about his lack of access to documentation.
- Not elaborating on additional reporting that details Pompeo’s contacts with Rudolph W. Giuliani and his office’s misleading of members of Congress about the early departure of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
- Not defending Yovanovitch after President Trump decided to tweet about her during her impeachment testimony.
- Not explaining how a scam artist wound up being hired to be a deputy assistant secretary, and a bigot wound up being hired as a senior adviser under his watch.
Pompeo is keeping busy doing a whole lot of nothing.
The last thing Pompeo has been busy not doing is disciplining some of the ambassadors who serve under him. To be fair, the secretary of state has a unique challenge in coping with U.S. ambassadors, because a record number of them — about 50 percent — are political appointees rather than career Foreign Service officers (in a normal administration, the percentage would be closer to 30). In the abstract, there can be good political ambassadors; they can bring political and managerial skills that traditional diplomats might lack. In the case of the Trump administration, however, the political appointees are not of that caliber. One person I spoke to helped organize a State Department instruction program for some of Trump’s political appointees. That ex-diplomat was both undiplomatic and unimpressed with the caliber of these appointees.
In the past week, two stories have come out about political appointees behaving badly. First, as Julia Ioffe reported in GQ, late last year U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson fired his deputy chief of mission Lewis Lukens, a 30-year veteran of the State Department. What did Lukens do that was so egregious? According to Ioffe, he gave a speech to university students and said something horrible: “He had unwittingly committed a fatal error in his speech: He had mentioned former president Barack Obama.”
The other story involves the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands. The Danish Atlantic Council had been organizing a conference with the U.S. Embassy to celebrate NATO’s 70th birthday, and had invited Stanley Sloan, a Middlebury College visiting professor, to speak at the event. The text of Sloan’s talk showed that he was going to suggest, among other things, that, “the American guarantee of European security has, under President Trump, become very uncertain.”
Should this have been a problem? Not really. The State Department has an entire public diplomacy program in which academics are invited to speak on issues relevant to their area of expertise. I have participated in this program multiple times, including during the Trump administration. The understanding is that speakers are not acting in any official capacity, and we are under no obligation to agree with current U.S. policy. Indeed, the very fact that the State Department will sponsor Americans who might speak critically of their government is a strong selling point for U.S. liberal democracy.
Apparently, that is not how Sands sees it. BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder reports that Danish Atlantic Council head Lars Bangert Struwe said, “[T]he Danish Atlantic Council via the official channels became instructed that Ambassador Carla Sands does not want presence at the Conference.” Struwe decided, in response, to cancel the conference, writing that, “we believe that Freedom of Speech is paramount in every democracy, and we do not see a conflict between the Freedom of Speech and participating as a Speaker at an international conference.” So much for critical debate.
I am fully confident that Pompeo will do a whole lot of nothing in response to this embarrassment as well.
In a world in which China is now surpassing the United States in global diplomatic presence, the State Department needs to up its game. This is not a great time for Secretary of State Pompeo to be less than fully engaged. And yet, he keeps not doing things.
Little wonder that even Linda Ronstadt is not showing him any love.