I vividly remember my first few months on the 25th floor of Indianapolis’ City-County Building. I was the brand-new Corporation Counsel, suddenly responsible for the legal affairs of the city, and getting up to speed was both imperative and disorienting. I especially remember encountering situations where City Legal had previously taken positions that seemed…odd. Situations where I would wonder “Why did they do that?”
Fast-forward three years, to my departure, and I remember thinking “Boy, I wish I could put a memo in several of these files, saying ‘I know this looks strange, but there’s a good reason we did thus and so…'” At least there were long-time employees, civil servants who could explain some of these situations to the next appointee.
In any institution, public or private, institutional memory is incredibly important. (As the salesmen sang in The Music Man, you’ve got to know the territory!) In the federal government, that store of institutional knowledge is most important in the State Department, where understanding foreign cultures, the histories of complex relationships, and the idiosyncrasies of various heads of state can be critical.
So hearing that the State Department’s entire senior administrative team has just resigned was both significant and deeply troubling. As the Washington Post reported,
The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era….All are career Foreign Service officers who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations…
In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired Jan. 20, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. That amounts to a near-complete housecleaning of all the senior officials that deal with managing the State Department, its overseas posts and its people.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of these mass resignations on the ability of the United States to safeguard critical American interests.
“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” said David Wade, who served as State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”
As Wade emphasized,
“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death,” he said. “The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.”
America has installed a President who–to put the most charitable possible spin on it–doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And the people who could fill in the blanks–the people with the knowledge and experience to keep us safe and to protect American interests, the people who actually understand what those interests are, have bailed.
Not a good sign.
We really are in uncharted waters.