State Department bureaucratic bloat undercuts Syria and Islamic State strategies
By Michael Rubin*
AMUDEH, Syria — On the day I left Syria, Special Envoy James Jeffrey visited to try to sell local leaders on his proposal for a buffer zone between Syrian Kurds and Turkey. America’s Kurdish allies listened politely, but confused. For the past 11 months, Jeffrey has been the “special representative for Syria Engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.” The Syrian Defense Forces were the tip of the spear to defeat ISIS and were largely successful. Their civilian counterpart, the Syrian Democratic Council, runs northeastern Syria generally with tolerance and efficiency on very little income. Schools operate, municipalities pick up garbage, and the region even boasts its own cellphone company.
To unravel that stability and security in a flawed attempt to appease Turkey is unwise. It is also not clear it is consensus U.S. policy.
Over the last several decades, special envoy positions have proliferated for the simple reason that the State Department bureaucracy can suffocate policy implementation. Under normal circumstances, the State Department is slow and unwieldy. The bureaucracy is byzantine and beset by petty turf fights that undercut cooperation to a common cause. Nor does every issue conform neatly to preexisting bureaucracy. The fight against ISIS, for example, initially involved Syria and Iraq (two different State Department desks), and coalition affairs mandated interactions with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, among other countries.
Still, most State Department reform efforts single out the proliferation of special envoys that often impose a bureaucracy upon an existing bureaucracy. A 2001 Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force report, for example, called on the State Department to “Reduce appointment and use of special envoys.” A separate Brookings Institution report the same year also found negatives to outweigh positives regarding special envoys. “Such innovations may provide political cover against charges that the administration is ignoring a foreign policy issue critical to a vocal constituency,” Clinton administration National Security Council officials Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay wrote, “but they undercut the nation’s diplomatic establishment.”
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson targeted the envoy positions in his anemic reform attempts, but his successor Mike Pompeo resurrected many positions. In September 2018, career Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne authored a Wilson Center report finding “the use of stand-alone special envoys or representatives should remain limited to a few roles of high importance and be well integrated into existing 'bureaus' and interagency structures. Otherwise, these ‘specials’ will likely add to the silos and bureaucratic infighting that have long complicated efforts to produce and implement a coherent foreign policy, and they can contribute to fragmented international policy.”
Back to Syria and Iraq: While Jeffrey is a special envoy, he is of equal rank to Joel Rayburn, deputy assistant secretary for Levant Affairs and special envoy for Syria. Add into the mix William Roebuck, deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and senior adviser to the special representative for Syria engagement who, grandiose title aside, acts as an informal ambassador often resident in northeastern Syria. Perhaps such special envoys were needed for the year plus in which Sen. Tim Kaine prevented a confirmation vote on the Trump administration’s pick to be assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs. But David Schenker assumed his post last month and so in theory should also oversee Levant policy.
It’s not just the State Department that is confused. Surveying senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad and Syrian Kurdish officials at a counter-ISIS conference in Amudeh, Syria, earlier this month, few officials had a clear notion of which American officials were in charge and whether the emphases of each interlocutor were personal or reflective of policy. In short, Iraqis and Syrian officials say some U.S. officials are pro-Turkish, others seem to emulate Lawrence of Arabia in their infatuation with Arab tribal politics, and others still are relatively seeking to make their voices heard.
The bottom line is Syria policy is broken, but the proliferation of diplomats taking charge only makes matters worse. Every additional envoy or diplomat working on Syria and Iraq gives Syrian and Iraqi officials a reason for confusion or an excuse to feign confusion. Five years ago, it may have made sense for the Obama administration to embrace a special envoy position to defeat the ISIS but, with that group no longer controlling territory, it makes far more sense to return to a more traditional State Department structure.
Certainly it is ironic that, for all the criticism that Trump made of President Barack Obama and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry during his campaign, Trump's team appears intent on replicating their bureaucratic bloat at the expense of effective policy creation and execution.
*Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.