Advancing a Free Society

Two Self-Defeating Decisions

Friday, December 9, 2011

Two announcements from the State Department this week showcase why State has such a difficult time gaining Congressional support.  The first announcement is that gay rights will become a major focus of U.S. foreign assistance.  The second is that State is restructuring its bureaucracy to give more emphasis to economic issues.

Foreign assistance is a very difficult sell in the Congress, even when our country is not so broke that we’re borrowing 40 cents of every dollar the government spends.  By selecting an issue like gay rights that is domestically divisive here in the United States, the Obama Administration makes even less likely that Congress will agree to fund foreign assistance.  Would it not be a better strategy to emphasize children’s nutrition programs, women’s education, immunization efforts -- things that have broad appeal?

In addition to its domestic consequences, making gay rights a central focus of U.S. foreign assistance programs will make many recipient countries deeply skeptical of our intentions.  Remember this is an Administration that castigated the Bush Administration for promoting democracy because it imposed our values on other societies -- how much more arrogant is the imposition of a gay rights agenda that affronts the religious and cultural beliefs of many countries from the Middle East to Indonesia?

The second announcement is creation of a new super bureau at State to “break down silos and to create greater efficiencies within the State Department and focus attention in developing economic statecraft.” This reorganization was decided a year ago in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; State is only now getting around to implementing it.  The reorganization creates some new offices (a chief economic advisor), pulls many others together under a newly-created Undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment.

They did, at least, choose someone with actual experience in the economy -- former Goldman Sachs VP Robert Hormats.  Whether it was judicious at this time to put a Wall Street banker in charge of economic development is a separate question; what is clear already is that Hormats has mastered the platidunous vacuousness State brings to economic issues.  When challenged that the reorganization was diminishing the importance of environmental issues, Hormats said: "The last thing we want to do is make the environmental bureau a subsidiary of the economic or energy bureaus...The goal is to find synergies among co-equals. That's the key.”  Does anything else really need to be said about why Congress doesn’t trust the State Department to advance America’s economic interests?

By it’s choices to politicize foreign assistance and expend its energy on internal reorganization, the Obama Administration is showing that it actually doesn’t care very much whether foreign assistance gets funded by the Congress or economic issues are advanced in our diplomacy.

(photo credit: John Martin)