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Pompeo’s exit leaves new secretary of state with task of regaining department’s trust

No statues were toppled at the state department after Mike Pompeo’s departure. It was a changing of the guard, rather than regime change. But in one case at least, his legacy was brought down quickly and visibly.

On the day of the inauguration, workmen brought down a giant placard about “professional ethos” that the former secretary of state had erected at the main entrance to mark his first year in office.

The Trump era was particularly tough for US diplomats, who were regularly maligned as part of the “Deep State” by Donald Trump – and the state department was hollowed out and often sidelined under Pompeo and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.

In April 2019, staff had been gathered in the foyer, and Happy by Pharrell Williams was played through the state department public address system, as the “ethos” placard was unveiled.

Foreign service officers were told they were each a “champion of American diplomacy”. It was supposed to be a morale-boosting exercise but had the opposite effect. To experienced diplomats, it felt like condescension.

“We are confident that our colleagues do not need a reminder of the values we share,” Ned Price, the incoming department spokesman, noted drily this week.

The giant sign had also become a monument to hypocrisy as Pompeo was subjected to a string of inspector general investigations about his use of departmental resources for his private ends, sending government officials out for dry cleaning or to walk the dog, and flying his wife, Susan, out on state department trips. Pompeo had the inspector general fired.

A state department spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that the “Madison Dinners” Pompeo and his wife had staged in the diplomatic reception rooms had been discontinued. His critics said that he was using the well-heeled guest list at the taxpayer-funded events to build up a donor base for a 2024 presidential run.

In Pompeo’s day, the ground floor corridor leading to the press room was lined with pictures of him in action around the world. Since his departure, it has reverted to tradition, with photographs of several former secretaries going about their work.

Another Pompeo legacy that has been quietly dropped is the Unalienable Rights Commission a panel of conservative historians and political philosophers, whose report every state department employee was instructed to read. It told them that America’s founding fathers believed that private property and religious freedom were “foremost” among human rights, and that US foreign policy should follow that example.

At his confirmation hearing, Pompeo’s replacement, Antony Blinken, said he would repudiate the commission’s findings and reaffirm US adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his first speech at the headquarters in Foggy Bottom, Blinken promised staff he would begin “rebuilding morale and trust”. He did not mention his predecessor, but his speech sought to salve the bruises he left. Career diplomats had largely felt ignored, and betrayed when Pompeo declined to defend them in the face of groundless attacks from the White House.

“I’ll seek out dissenting views and listen to the experts, because that’s how the best decisions are made,” he said. “And I will insist that you speak, and speak up, without fear or favor. And I will have your back.”

The new management style has not been entirely welcomed. While the nominations for the top jobs in Washington and at the United Nations have gone to highly experienced and competent people, almost all have been political appointees – most of whom had left the department and become politically active – rather than career promotions.

“The career people feel like you’re sending the message: if you want the top jobs, you’ve got to cozy up to a campaign and raise some big money. And that’s a terrible precedent,” Brett Bruen, director of global engagement in the Obama White House said. “It’s being seen by people who had high hopes for this administration as a slap in the face.”

Price, the new spokesman, responded by saying Blinken’s “first task will be to invest in the department’s greatest asset: our people”.

“Under Secretary Blinken’s leadership, career experts will always be at the center of our diplomacy, and he is committed to ensuring that they will help to lead it by serving in many of the department’s most senior positions,” Price said.

Bruen said most of the top jobs in Washington and New York have already been filled, but the next test of the new secretary of state will be the appointment of ambassadors.

“Biden said during the campaign he was going to empower and elevate career diplomats,” he said. “Pretty clearly, he hasn’t done in the senior positions so fine: with the ambassadors, appoint fewer than 10% political.”

Contenido publicado en The Guardian

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