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Viewpoint: The Deep State Isn't the Real Threat to Democracy

Hollowed-out institutions and battered and belittled public servants are a bigger problem.

In their public testimonies, Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Masha Yovanovitch demonstrated professionalism, integrity, and plainspoken courage.

I had the good fortune of seeing those qualities up close over our many years together in the diplomatic trenches—out of sight, out of mind, and far from the public spotlight. It saddens me that our fellow citizens will learn about these patriotic Americans because of an impeachment inquiry, but I’m heartened that they’ve provided a vivid reminder of the dignity of public service in these undignified times.

Through their actions and words over recent weeks and months, they’ve also reminded us that human beings animate our institutions and civic norms, not faceless bureaucracies. And they’ve reminded us that the real threat to our democracy is not from an imagined deep state bent on undermining an elected president. Instead, it comes from a weak state of hollowed-out institutions and battered and belittled public servants, no longer able to uphold the ever more fragile guardrails of our democracy or compete on an ever more crowded, complicated, and competitive international landscape.

It’s not just the Trump administration’s acts of bureaucratic arson, such as the systematic sidelining of career officers or historic proposed budget cuts, which have brought applications to the Foreign Service to a two-decade low. And it’s not just its acts of political arson, such as the groundless, McCarthyist attacks against career professionals perceived to be disloyal to the Trump regime. It’s the cronyism and corruption that have infected so much of our diplomacy and that we see on full and gory display in the Ukraine scandal.

Why shouldn’t governments ignore tough messages from ambassadors and embassies about fighting corruption across the board when the signals they get in other channels suggest a much seedier, transactional approach? Why shouldn’t authoritarian rivals conclude that the only thing that matters is the vanity of an eminently manipulable president? Why shouldn’t allies lose confidence in the requests of our diplomats when they can be overturned by the next tweet? And how much longer can we rely on officers with the experience and guts of this past week’s witnesses to do the right thing?

Tensions between elected political leaderships and career public servants are not new. Each of the 10 secretaries of state that I served over nearly three and a half decades harbored concerns about the diplomatic corps—some more openly than others.

We didn’t always ingratiate ourselves. We tended to relish telling new administrations why their big, new ideas were not so big, not so new, and not so workable. While individual officers could be remarkably innovative and resourceful, the State Department as an institution was rarely accused of being too agile or too full of initiative. As we lost our centrality in the foreign-policy process to the military and other agencies, we tended to become passive, and all too often passive-aggressive. Like other threatened species, we sometimes prioritized the survival and autonomy of our tribe over everything else. All of that led to inevitable—and understandable—frustration by new administrations looking to put as many points on the board as they could before the clock ran out on their time in office.

There is a difference, however, between bad habits and bureaucratic malaise, and active sabotage. In all the reporting, thousands of pages of deposition transcripts, and hours of public testimony, we’ve seen no hint of disloyalty and not a shred of evidence pointing to career officers in Kyiv or Washington or anywhere else skulking around and plotting against the president. In fact, we’ve seen exactly the opposite—disciplined Foreign Service officers committed to their country’s national interest and faithfully implementing policies of an elected leadership. That is their obligation.

When a new administration lays out its policies, it has to be able to depend on career officers to execute them. Those who labored on the Iran nuclear deal in the previous administration are now charged with its undoing. Those charged with implementing President Barack Obama’s directive to expand refugee resettlement and mobilize a global coalition to respond to the worst refugee crisis since World War II are now implementing massive cuts to the resettlement program and quashing the coalition they helped build. The senior diplomat on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish partners to fight the Islamic State one day, read President Donald Trump’s tweet the next day and then told them they were on their own. The fact is that the most undisciplined administration in generations can still count on a disciplined diplomatic corps to implement its policies.