Kai Bird
Kai Bird

Fellowship Title:

Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Service

Kai Bird
May 12, 1984

Fellowship Year

Once the most insular and sacrosanct of elite bureaucracies, the United States Foreign Service is rapidly becoming one of the most highly politicized agencies in the federal government. The trend did not start under the Reagan Administration, but it has certainly accelerated since January,1981.

What has this meant for the effective conduct of American diplomacy? If Reagan believes he now has people in place willing to carry out his particular policies, he also has engendered an atmosphere in which fewer officers are willing to be bearers of bad tidings.

Reporting from the field is the heart of modern diplomacy. Ideally, a diplomat’s reporting from abroad can inform Washington how its policy can be carried out given the realities of foreign circumstances. To ignore these foreign realities can be extremely costly, whatever policy Washington chooses to pursue. This was most graphically illustrated with Reagan’s decision to place U.S. Marines in the Lebanese morass. “If the people in NEA (the Near East Bureau) were given the power to dictate policy in Lebanon today,” says one high-ranking Arab expert, “they would ask for a complete reversal of present policy. Of course, that is not what the Administration wants to hear, so they’ve just stopped listening.”

If this Administration doesn’t like to hear contrary views, the message seems to have been received among Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) abroad. Since Reagan came to office the number of formal “dissent channel” cables filed from our embassies has sharply fallen. In the first year of the Carter Administration, 28 dissent cables were filed; during Reagan’s first year there were only 15 and in 1983 only five dissent cables were sent from all over the world.

“I’m very concerned by the fact that the use rate of the dissent channel is falling,” says John Reinertson, chairman of the State Department’s “Open Forum” program, which is in part responsible for managing the dissent channel. “I think it reflects a feeling among officers that policy making has been polarized and therefore alternative ideas are less welcome…. Fear is fairly pervasive in the Foreign Service that espousing ideas on their own merits is apt to put your career at risk.”

Reagan has waged a campaign against the career Foreign Service on five fronts. First, those regular FSOs who served the Carter Administration in top-ranking policy positions have been purged into retirement or forced to “walk the halls” (the State Department’s phrase for an officer without a job). Secondly, those FSOs thought to have been penalized by the Carter Administration as too conservative (or too closely associated with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) have been automatically rewarded with postings. Third, the Administration has appointed unprecedented large numbers of non-career ambassadors, particularly in Third World posts normally reserved for the career diplomat. Fourth, Reagan’s political appointments have reached deep down into the ranks of the State Department. Not only Assistant Secretaries, but also dozens of Deputy Assistant Secretaries, special assistants, office directors, and even one Consul General, have been chosen from outside the profession. Fifth, these political appointees have in turn chosen conservative young FSO’s and promoted them over the heads of their nominal superiors to serve in policy-making slots.

Politicizing The Service


The Foreign Service has in turn fought back. The result is a politicization of the diplomatic service that may help to explain why the President has sustained so many foreign policy failures, whether it be the failed embargo on the Siberian gas pipeline, the collapse of arms negotiations with the Soviets, or the fiasco in Lebanon. Neither camp is satisfied with what has become a stalemate. The career officers who manage foreign policy on a day-to-day basis are today a sullen, resentful lot. Distrust of the Foreign Service on the part of the men around the President is at an all-time high.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank that provided many of Reagan’s early position papers, recently issued a report entitled, “How the White House Can Regain Control of Foreign Policy.” The author, James T. Hackett, is a former FSO who has “always worn his ideology on his sleeves,” says Dennis Hays, 30, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing Foreign Service officers. (Hackett was one of those FSOs detailed to work with Henry Kissinger at the National Security Council in 1969. He left the Foreign Service in the early 1970s and was part of Reagan’s transition team in late 1980.) Hackett’s report reflects the conservative community’s conviction that “a pervasive old boy network of senior foreign service officers…seems determined both to run its own affairs and to instruct the administration in office on the formulation of foreign policy… It’s time to stop treating the Foreign Service as a government within a government.”

Hackett concludes with a list of demands which include appointing political candidates to the positions of Director General of the Foreign Service, Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Service, and Inspector General – all positions reserved by tradition or law for career officers. The Heritage report also calls upon the White House to appoint “a reasonable number of well-qualified, non-career candidates, who support the policies and philosophy of the President, to managerial and policy-making positions in the Department.”

Administration Blacklist


If the President has not satisfied the Heritage Foundation, he certainly has tried to impose his own men on the State Department. The Administration may not have won every round, but the battle scars sustained by the career diplomats are too numerous to be ignored. This Administration entered the Department of State with a blacklist of dozens of career Foreign Service officers thought to be too “liberal” to carry out new policies. Many of those on the public “hit lists,” which were published in Human Events, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite magazine, and Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest, are no longer in government. Every Administration brings with it a list of political appointees, but this Administration also had a list of career civil service employees targeted for removal. Dozens of career diplomats have been purged from the Department altogether or quarantined in inconsequential jobs.

Central America was hit the hardest. In this bureau, Carter’s Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, a career officer named William Bowdler, was told by Reagan’s transition team that he was to have his desk cleaned out by January 20th. “It was made clear to him,” says David Newsom, a retired Undersecretary for Political Affairs, “that there were no places for him in any slot because of his service to the previous administration.”

Bowdler had implemented Carter’s policy in Nicaragua to ease out Anastasio Somoza while trying to keep the National Guard intact. James Cheek, another Latin area specialist who was then serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, also was canned. John Blacken, Director of the Office for Central American affairs, was ousted and sent to the Dominican Republic as a Deputy Chief of Mission.

“Thus, they removed all the key policy people in the region,” says Ambassador Herman Cohen, presently Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “And they did it without any consideration for the individuals involved. These men were removed merely as symbols of the Carter Administration. It was assumed that these men couldn’t carry out new policies. In fact, policy really didn’t change under Reagan. It was, after all, Carter who made the decision in 1980 to supply arms to El Salvador and the Sandinista’s opponents…”

According to Cohen and other diplomats, if one was to examine Ambassador Robert White’s cables from El Salvador during the last six months of 1980, and compare them to the reporting coming out of El Salvador today, you would find the same policy recommendations. White resigned in protest against the Reagan policies and is today a vociferous public critic of the State Department. White dismisses any such easy symmetry, saying that his reporting all along emphasized that the military in El Salvador “were not the solution, but the problem.” But he does admit that even if “the threat of the insurgency was not a military threat,” one could not pursue a human rights policy in El Salvador without providing some support to the military establishment. “Otherwise,” says White, “you would lose all your influence over these people.” With a different emphasis, this is, of course, the Reagan Administration’s stated policy today.

If Central American policy hasn’t really changed much under Reagan, then Cohen says, “I really don’t think you can say these people were removed so quickly out of policy reasons…they had been carrying out virtually the same policies before he came in…No, they were thrown out merely as symbols of the previous Administration. Bowdler was in effect told, “Your career is finished…”

Bowdler doesn’t talk about his ouster, saying, “I have put that chapter of my life behind me.” But he does have an opinion on what happened to Reagan’s policies in Central America: “This Administration is filled with ideologues…but they found out once in office that events would dictate their policy…They came in with this heavy emphasis on military means to the exclusion of political overtures. For a solid year they pursued the military line. And during that time, the far left in El Salvador gained ground. They thus missed an opportunity, right after the January,1981 guerrilla offensive failed, to exert pressure for a negotiated settlement. They could have exerted a lot of pressure on the opposition through the Europeans and the Mexicans…Now the far left is much stronger and it will be very difficult to work something out…”

The people Reagan chose to run his policies in Latin America were a combination of political appointments, career officers with no background in Latin affairs, or FSOs who were known to have ideological disagreements with the Carter Administration’s policies. Thus, Frank Ortiz, a conservative FSO ostracized during the Carter years, had his career resuscitated with an appointment as Ambassador to Peru. Tom Enders, a Kissinger aide who selected bombing targets in Cambodia during the secret bombing campaign against that country, had been sent out of Washington by Carter as Ambassador to Canada. Reagan promoted him to become Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. (Ironically, even Enders would later be fired for being too “liberal” in his attitude towards the possibility of a negotiated settlement in El Salvador.) Frederic Chapin was made Ambassador to Guatemala, only because he was perceived by the Reagan crowd as a “hardliner.” Chapin had been expelled by the Marxist military regime in Ethiopia. (In fact, when Chapin’s tour ended earlier this year, the Guatemalan generals refused to award him the country’s highest medal, given to all previous envoys as a matter of course, because Chapin had “done nothing” for the regime.) Another Latin specialist, John Bushnell, worked very hard on Capitol Hill to push Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, but the White House never lost their suspicion of his ties to the Carter Administration. Bushnell was due for an ambassadorship, but after months of “walking the halls” he finally accepted a post as Deputy Chief of Mission in Argentina.

The ideological purge was not confined to Central America. Langston Walker, a Deputy Assistant Secretary closely associated with Carter’s policies in Southern Africa has been made to “walk the halls” because Senator Jesse Helms holds Walker responsible for the collapse of the Murozewa regime in Zimbabwe. Carter’s Ambassador to South Africa, William Edmondson, was kept on by Reagan for a period of six months. But Edmondson, thought to be a critic of the new “constructive engagement” policy with South Africa, was distrusted enough that when National Security Advisor Judge William Clark visited Pretoria, Edmondson was cut out of meetings with South African officials. Edmondson now serves as a Deputy Inspector General of the Foreign Service. The Inspector General’s office is one of those places where the Foreign Service “takes care of its own” when an officer is blackballed from a substantive job.

Patronage Tradition


If politicization in the Foreign Service is likely to result in bad reporting, or a withholding of the bad news, that can only hurt the President’s ability to carry out his policies. But what about the idea that the President should be able to appoint men politically committed to his policies? All FSOs ritualistically explain that they are “professionals,” capable of taking orders from the President to carry out any policy. But common sense tells us that any officer has his or her own political predilections and will probably have difficulty carrying out a policy which runs contrary to those beliefs. That is why ambassadorships are still handed out according to the Jacksonian patronage tradition. And most FSOs will insist that they do not object to non-career ambassadors, only incompetent political appointees.

Reagan has appointed a larger number of non-career ambassadors than most previous presidents. At times during the last three years, fully half of Reagan’s appointments have come from non-professional ranks. But the numbers really don’t mean much. About 42 percent of John Kennedy’s ambassadors were political appointees, but they were, on the whole, highly qualified and competent. Most had had some kind of experience in foreign affairs and they included men of clear intellectual stature like John Kenneth Galbraith. The best of Reagan’s political appointees, with few surprises, simply do not meet such standards.

“We are just going to have to recognize that politics in this business is here to stay,” says one career officer. “We have to resign ourselves to working under the car salesman from San Diego.” Indeed, Robert Dean Nesen, an old friend of Ronald Reagan’s, is our current ambassador to Australia. A confidential State Department assessment of Nesen prepared for his confirmation hearings and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reads: “Nesen, 63, of Thousand Oaks, California, is currently chairman, R. D. Nesen Oldsmobile-Cadillac, Inc….His entire background has been in the automobile and aviation business…his reputation for honesty and as a superb salesman should be useful in his personal dealings with the senior members of the Australian government. Nesen is the prototype of the non-professional envoy…” Quite so.

Every regular FSO has the same list of incompetent political appointees. They always include the movie actor John Gavin in Mexico, housing developer Milan Bish in Barbados, Chicago insurance executive Paul Robinson in Canada, uranium mining engineer William Casey in Niger, public relations executive Mark Austad in Norway, big game hunter Theodore Maino in Botswana, and Helene von Damm in Austria. The latter was Reagan’s personal secretary.

Milan Bish, Ambassador to Barbados
Milan Bish, Ambassador to Barbados
William Casey, Ambassador to Niger
William Casey, Ambassador to Niger

Many of these people are what Ambassador Cohen call “wild eyed ideologues.” Our Ambassador to Romania is a case in point. The State Department’s confidential assessment of David Funderbunk, prepared for his confirmation hearings, tries to reassure the Senators that “He has not been identified strongly by the public as an anti-communist. The Romanians see him as fair and impartial.” Funderbunk has, in fact, openly antagonized the Romanians with his stereotyped blend of anti-communism and strident Christianity. (He is the editor of the Journal of American Romanian Christian Literary Studies.)

In the spring of 1984, Reagan announced the selection of Thomas Anderson Jr., 38, to be his ambassador to Barbados. Anderson has been an assistant to the House Minority Whip, Representative Trent Lott, for a decade. But his chief asset seems to be the fact that his wife is an executive secretary to Craig Fuller in the White House’s Office of Cabinet Affairs. We now have an ambassador in Hungary, Nicolas Salgo, whose qualifications include the fact that as owner of the Watergate apartment complex, he is landlord to not a few of the rich and powerful in Washington.

None of this compares to what has been done inside the State Department itself with policy slots. Traditionally, most Assistant Secretaries have been drawn from the ranks of the Foreign Service. Today, in all the regional bureaus, where on a week to week basis policy is actually formulated and implemented, there is only one bureau led by a career Assistant Secretary. And that one, the Bureau of Near East and South Asian Affairs, has been cut out of the action by N.S.C. Advisor Robert McFarlane, who is conducting Middle East policy through “special envoys.” Even so, one of the bureau’s five Deputy Assistant Secretaries is a political appointee, Thomas Nassif. Reagan’s batch of Assistant Secretaries are exceptional ideologues. Jimmy Carter, in all fairness, must take part of the blame for these appointments. If Kissinger can be said to have started the process, Carter did nothing to stop it with his appointment of highly political personalities such as Pat Derian, who brought a near evangelical ardor to her position as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. “Derian was an affront to the Foreign Service,” says a retired senior FSO. “And when Reagan came in, he gave us conservative ideologues like Elliot Abrams as Derian’s replacement and Scott Burke as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights.”

Another officer working in African affairs says of the Carter appointments, “I remember the first talks we had with people like Tony Lake, Dick Moose, and Don McHenry…They almost came in with the attitude that because we had served under Kissinger, we were the enemy.”

Still, most of Carter’s top State Department positions were staffed by regular officers or officers who had left the service during Kissinger’s reign. Career or non-career, many of them might have worked in any postwar Administration. Reagan has men like Richard Burt, James Malone, Richard McCormack, James Purcell, Chester Crocker, and Gregory Newell – all political appointments. Ideologically, they are all Ronald Reagan’s men. Some, like Burt or Crocker, are viewed as competent. Some, like Newell, only 32 when nominated, simply keep out of everyone’s way. But some are utter disasters.

“Richard McCormack, the Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs, is a terrible ideologue who is also just incompetent,” says an officer in the Executive Secretariat, the Secretary of State’s staff of senior aides. “The real problem with these political appointments is that when they turn out to be totally incompetent, you have to try to work around them. Now, in a bureaucratic structure, where lines of authority are firmly established, that is a very hard thing to do without letting the other guy know he’s being cut out. With McCormack, nothing gets done when you cut him in on the business at hand…”

Effects On Policy


According to another officer in the Secretariat, Secretary of State George Shultz will not read a memo signed by McCormack. So, when Elinor Constable, a career officer who is McCormack’s senior Deputy, has an important economic paper that she thinks Shultz really ought to see, she will have it written within her bureau, but passed to Shultz via another bureau.

When McCormack first came on board, he insisted on personally scrutinizing every candidate slated for duty as an economic officer in every embassy around the world. The paperwork was just too much for one man to read. For a long time no appointments were made of economic officers to any embassies. And by the time decisions were finally made, many of the best candidates had taken other jobs. McCormack ended up staffing his embassy slots with his second or third choices.

How does such an incompetent political appointee effect substantive policy? More often than not under this Administration political appointees have been strong on rhetoric and simply inept in carrying out their hardline policy. Take the issue of export controls on sensitive computer technology to the Soviet Union. Reflecting Reagan’s campaign rhetoric on the issue, McCormack made stringent controls on such exports a high priority. The first thing he did was to create a new Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Trade Controls. A researcher from the American Enterprise Institute, Dale Tahtinen, got the job. There was already an Office Director, Bill Root, working on the same issue. (Root had been placed on “hit list” of officers to be purged published by Human Events.)

Though no Reaganite, Root was just as anxious as anyone to limit exports of sensitive technology. The issue became how to do it, unilaterally or through multilateral negotiations with our West European trading partners.

For two years Root worked hard at negotiating an agreement with the French, who had made it clear that if unilateral bans were imposed on Western exports to the Soviet Union of oil and gas technology, they would be more than willing to step in to replace contracts lost by American exporters. In painstaking negotiations that involved the personal prestige of Shultz himself, an understanding was achieved with the French on a multilateral agreement that would effectively limit exports to the Eastern bloc.

But then last September McCormack and Tahtinen stepped in and threw their weight behind a unilateral proposal that ideologically appealed to purist sensibilities. “It looked like the pipeline fiasco all over again,” says Root, who decided to resign. “I went to Shultz before resigning and spelled out what had happened. He eventually got McCormack to reverse himself after several months.” But the damage had been done. One more career officer was out. And to underscore how politicized export control policy had become, McCormack redefined Root’s job, requiring that his replacement be a non-FSO. Elliot Hurewitz, another ideologue from a conservative think tank, is slated to get the job.

Politicization has taken its toll much deeper down in the bureaucracy than the Assistant Secretary level. Now the Deputy Assistant Secretaries (DAPs) are often political appointments. And below them, country director slots, the heart of the State Department, are being targeted by political appointees.

A U.S. Marine is pulled from the wreckage of the Marine headquarters after it was bombed last October. WIDE WORLD PHOTO
A U.S. Marine is pulled from the wreckage of the Marine headquarters after it was bombed last October. WIDE WORLD PHOTO

This administration came into office saying that the Carter people had created too many deputy assistant secretaries. It was said that a quota existed which specified that in each geographic bureau at least one deputy had to be either a woman or a minority. Five or six years ago there were 30 to 40 Deputy Assistant Secretary and “Special Assistant” slots and virtually all of them were filled by career diplomats; today there are more than 100. And many of them are political.

In the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, for instance, the principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, James Michel, is a non-FSO. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Business Affairs, Richard Howill, is a political appointee. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America, Craig Johnston, a career officer, has a political appointee “special assistant,” Adis Vila, to watch over him. Two out of three of Assistant Secretary Elliot Abrams’ deputies in the Bureau of Human Rights are political appointments.

Below the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, several attempts have been made to appoint non-career people to desk officer or country director positions. Last year, it was suggested that a political appointee named Lewis Libby should take the country director slot for Thailand. “By means of a strategy of procrastination, and telling the fellow that there was a much better job available, one with broader responsibilities, we fought off the attempt,” says one concerned FSO.

Another political appointee wanted to become Director of the Office of Caribbean Affairs. He was fended off by giving him the unusual title of “Coordinator for Caribbean Affairs.” Richard Haass wanted to become a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs. Instead, a new job was created in that bureau with the title of “Deputy for Policy Planning.”

And when the Deputies are not political appointments, you often find that the positions have been filled with very young FSOs who have been promoted into slots normally reserved for officers of a much higher rank. These officers naturally come to be regarded by their colleagues in the service as somehow political. Richard Burt, the former New York Times reporter who is now Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs, runs one of the more highly politicized bureaus in the Department. As a reporter, Burt had been an open conduit for the hardline views of the Committee on Present Danger. “Burt is very energetic and articulate,” says one FSO in the seventh floor Executive Secretariat. “But his mind is already made up…He doesn’t encourage debate, or long-range thinking…Even the hint of a new thought in EUR is regarded with suspicion. Dissent is automatically regarded as pink.”

Burt is known to be a talent scout, always on the look for the bright, young FSO who can write a speech for him overnight. He has surrounded himself with young FSOs of mid-level rank and put them in positions normally held by ambassadorial rank (FSO-1). James Dobbins, 42, an FSO-3 in 1981, is another of Burt’s Deputies. Robert Blackwell was an FSO-2 in 1981 when he was brought by Burt into the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs.

When low-level officers fill senior positions for political reasons, the entire Foreign Service is affected. Not only is there one less senior slot open to a senior officer, but it becomes much more difficult to persuade a higher ranked FSO to serve under the lower ranked FSO. Secretary of State George Shultz’s executive assistant is a Ray Seitz, currently an FSO-2. But he is being rewarded by Shultz with the position of Deputy Chief of Mission for the London embassy, a position always held by a career FSO-1. Thus Ron Spiers, currently Under Secretary for Management, had the same number two slot in London several years ago, but he took it only after having served as ambassador to the Bahamas. The London embassy, for obvious reasons, is one of the most prestigious postings in the world. Even the chief economic officer in this embassy is normally filled by a FSO-1 officer. Now that Seitz is moving in as Deputy Chief of Mission, it will be very difficult to persuade a FSO-1 to serve underneath him.

The problem will no doubt be solved by simply giving Seitz an early promotion. It has happened before. Jerry Bremer is today Reagan’s ambassador to the Hague. He got there as a protégé of Henry Kissinger’s. At the age of 33, he was the Secretary’s special assistant. In 1976, when it became apparent that there would be a change in administration, Bremer wanted to get out of Washington. He was then only an FSO-4, but was nevertheless offered the position of Deputy Chief of Mission in the Luxembourg embassy. Bremer thought he deserved better and held out for the same position in a Scandinavian embassy. He got it.

John Gavin, the film actor whom Reagan nominated to be our ambassador to Mexico City, picked a young FSO-5 officer, Donald Lyman, to be his special assistant. Lyman told Gavin that he couldn’t take the job without financial sacrifice because his wife worked in Washington. Gavin persuaded Lyman to resign from the Foreign Service and then appointed him as a “Schedule C” special assistant. “The officer (Lyman),” says a career ambassador who was speaking not for attribution, “raised so much hell, that in effect he became the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM). As a result, Gavin has gone through three DCMs in three years. One fellow lasted only six months before demanding a reassignment.” At one point Gavin tried to have Lyman appointed as the official DCM, but the Service blocked it.

Fast Track Politics


In such an atmosphere, the young FSO learns very quickly that politics can project one’s career onto the fast track. Shortly after the November, 1980 elections, a junior black FSO, an officer who had broadcast his conservative political views, got himself scheduled for a short trip to South Africa. Violating normal diplomatic rank and etiquette, he sent out a cable to the Pretoria embassy demanding a slew of appointments with high-ranking South African officials. The ambassador in Pretoria met the officer up on his arrival at the airport and gave him a stiff lecture. The officer nevertheless managed during his trip to presage the new Administration’s policy of “constructive dialogue” with the South Africans. His chutzpah was rewarded with a fairly senior position on the Policy Planning Council.

“You have to have a rabbi on the seventh floor,” says one career officer, “to get ahead in this building. That’s how they refer to it, a patron, a fixer, a rabbi. I don’t know, maybe the Arabists have a different term for it.” The chief rabbi for many years has been Lawrence Eagleburger, who resigned May 1st as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Eagleburger, 54, left the Department’s senior-most position for a career officer to join Henry Kissinger Associates.

“Eagleburger is one of those professionals who watches out for his people,” says another officer. “He’s always made sure that his people get the kind of positions below him that will insure a continuation of his policies…such as a hardline on the Soviet Union.” Eagleburger is usually identified as a Kissinger protégé because in the early 1970’s he served as Kissinger’s executive assistant. It is forgotten that he has his own political connections.

Eagleburger’s mother was a major figure in the Wisconsin state Republican Party and the power in Congressman Melvin Laird’s congressional district. So, when Laird became Secretary of Defense in the Nixon Administration, Eagleburger’s career in the Department took off. He did indeed become closely associated with all of Kissinger’s policies and the men he has taken with him to the top have often been Kissinger men. (Just before Eagleburger announced his resignation, Peter Rodman, Kissinger’s speech writer, and the man who helped him write his memoirs, replaced a career officer as chairman of the powerful Policy Planning Council. Rodman is also a favorite of Shultz’s and is reportedly a critical player in Middle East policy.) During the Carter Administration, he left Washington to be ambassador to Yugoslavia. Carter, by contrast, had a low-key, almost apolitical career officer named David Newsom as Under Secretary for Political Affairs.

Competent Or Connected?


If Eagleburger was a career officer who made the most of his political connections, his successor, in a sharp break with tradition, is not even really a career officer. Michael Armacost, 47, was an associate professor of government at Pomona College until 1968, when he took a visiting professorship at International Christian University in Tokyo. He then became a White House Fellow in 1969 and served in the State Department as a civil servant. A year later he became a Foreign Service Reserve Officer (FSR) at the unusually high rank of FSR-3, particularly given his limited foreign experience. A short two and a half years later, he was promoted to FSR-2. His only foreign post until the Reagan Administration was a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in Japan at the time, Robert Ingersoll, a businessman appointed by Nixon. Four years later, Armacost was consecutively a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Reagan appointed him ambassador to the Philippines. How does one explain such a career? Armacost is no doubt one of those fast-track political officers who has served with some competence. But the fact that he is a pragmatic, California Republican whose brother is president of the Bank of America cannot have hurt.

Another Defeat


His appointment to Under Secretary is regarded by professionals as yet another defeat for the Foreign Service in protecting the Department from the trend toward politicizing positions once reserved for the career officer. As the new chief rabbi of the seventh floor, he can only accelerate the process.

There are many officers, particularly those who have joined the last two or three years, who believe a politically polarized diplomatic service is inevitable. “The standard Foreign Service line that a senior diplomat is capable of carrying out any policy is just not credible,” says one junior officer. That’s not the way things work. People have politics whether they choose to disguise them or not. When I joined the Service, I was surprised at the tendency of so many of my peers to always equivocate…even in bull sessions…It explains why people in the White House think they have to go on the outside to find people who are prepared to carry out aggressively their policies.

“In a sense, the Foreign Service is not political enough…It might be better if there were recognized liberal and conservative factions of officers within the Foreign Service. Then the White House would be able to choose professionals for policy making slots in whom they have political confidence.”

The Heritage Foundation would no doubt agree.

©1984 Kai Bird

Kai Bird, foreign affairs columnist on leave from The Nation, is investigating the U.S. Foreign Service.

Kai Bird
Kai Bird