No, America does not have a “deep state.”
It’s got something better: A State Department deep with diplomats who serve our country with honor and honesty, often under duress in hardship posts — attributes that describes Defense Department personnel, too.
Indeed, in recent days the character of career envoys and officers has been apparent as they testified in the impeachment inquiry about what they witnessed regarding relations with Ukraine. But that hasn’t kept some opposed to the inquiry from denigrating decorated soldiers or distinguished diplomats.
People like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq war Purple Heart recipient hashtagged a “traitor” on Twitter by some (several GOP lawmakers admirably rose to his defense).
In his testimony, Vindman indicated that patriotism is his North Star.
“The privilege of serving my country is not only rooted in my military service, but also in my personal history,” Vindman wrote.
“I sit here, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, an immigrant. My family fled the Soviet Union when I was three and a half years old. Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night. He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream. I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.”
Similar smears were directed at William B. Taylor Jr., selected by Trump to be his top envoy to Ukraine. Taylor told Congress about his career as a soldier-statesman in his opening statement, which read in part: “I have dedicated my life to serving U.S. interests at home and abroad in both military and civilian roles. My background and experience are nonpartisan and I have been honored to serve under every administration, Republican and Democratic, since 1985. For 50 years, I have served the country, starting as a cadet at West Point, then as an infantry officer for six years, including with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam; then at the Department of Energy; then as a member of a Senate staff; then at NATO; then with the State Department here and abroad — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jerusalem, and Ukraine; and more recently, as Executive Vice President of the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace.”
Describing this or similar service a product of a “deep state” is an insult, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Speaking before boarding a flight to Kiev, Pifer, who is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, added that “these are people who in every case served their country for two or three decades. … As military officers and Foreign Service officers they stand before Congress to tell the truth. And so what they’re trying to do is bring out the truth about a process that has gone wrong, and that was not designed to advance American national interests.”
Vindman, Taylor and other witnesses “remind us that there is a large corps of people who have chosen public service and they continue to represent the country, to think about the country’s best interests,” said Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School. Curtin, a former Foreign Service officer, added their actions “demonstrated the commitment to their oath of office to uphold the Constitution.”
Deep states do exist, but not among U.S. diplomats and officers, said Tom Hanson, who similarly served as an envoy and is now diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Speaking of the State Department — this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — Hanson said that, “our allegiance is to the national interests of the country as opposed to the interests of a state apparatus. ... When you think of ‘deep state’ you think more countries like Turkey or Russia or Pakistan, where in those cases you really do have underlying security structures that are pretty much running the state.”
Given the gravitas of envoys and officers like Taylor and Vindman, there wouldn’t seem to be much need for political appointees. But the U.S., under Democratic and Republican administrations, have more than most nations. Often, they’re politicians who bring prestige and a direct presidential relationship (many, like Democrat Walter Mondale in Japan and Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. in China and Russia, earned accolades).
Others are like Gordon Sondland. He’s the ambassador to the European Union caught up in the Ukraine scandal (his backchannel diplomacy was called a “drug deal” by former national security adviser John Bolton, and he spent an inordinate amount of time on and in Ukraine, considering it’s not in the E.U.).
Sondland, a former hotel owner, had no direct diplomatic background before being named to such a crucial role. But he did have a checkbook, and donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee.
What seemed lost on Sondland, but crucially clear to Taylor and Vindman (as well as Pifer, Curtin and Hanson) are the consequences of domestic politics that hold up congressionally authorized security assistance.
“After our meeting with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and I traveled to the front line in northern Donbas to receive a briefing from the commander of the forces on the line of contact,” Taylor wrote. “Arriving for the briefing in the military headquarters, the commander thanked us for security assistance, but I was aware that this assistance was on hold, which made me uncomfortable.
“Ambassador Volker and I could see the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.”
These stakes weren’t lost on State and Defense Department professionals, and they shouldn’t be lost on Congress or the American people, either.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.