Peter Bridges retired from the U.S. Foreign Service after serving as ambassador to Somalia under President Reagan and executive secretary of the Treasury Department in the Carter administration. More recently he worked for a small foundation in Washington, a large corporation in Houston, and an international bank in Prague.
Obesity in Foreign Affairs
One of America's great evils is bureaucratization, at all levels of our national life including our conduct of foreign affairs. Maybe "bureaucratization" is too long a word; perhaps we might call it office obesity. In any case the phenomenon goes undiscussed in the ongoing debate between Republicans who call government simply bad and Democrats who insist, equally uncritically, that it's good.
It is not just a Washington phenomenon. Staffs of small-town governments continue to grow even after towns divest themselves of main functions like power generation and trash collection. Small NGOs hire an executive director, and the director needs an assistant and soon hires a director of development. States have bicameral legislatures although Nebraska has shown for decades that one house works fine. Universities acquire ever more non-teaching staff. (The University of Illinois, for example, has 17 Vice, Associate, and Assistant provosts.) We have more four-star admirals and generals than we did at the end of World War II, although we had 12 million active duty military personnel in 1945 and there are only a million and a half today. Congressional staffs have grown to many thousands, and government consultants and contractors are yet more numerous. Corporations are not immune from the curse. The department I worked in at a large company was clearly over-staffed, but had surveyed similar departments in other companies and found them of comparable size--so all was well, until one year our company lost money and cut staff sharply, without decreasing efficiency.
Our foreign-affairs machine is a glaring example of bureaucratization. An American embassy may look, from outside its walls, like a single entity but our largest posts contain officers not just from the Foreign Service but from twenty or thirty Federal agencies. In Washington, rare is the agency that has not claimed a share in conducting our foreign relations, and these claims have seldom been challenged.
After 9/11 the Bush Administration claimed that there had been an intelligence failure. Indeed there was, at the very top, but the bureaucratic response was to create a new position, that of Director of National Intelligence, who was supposedly to coordinate intelligence efforts but was not given authority over the many existing agencies or the ability to consolidate any of their overlapping staffs. Soon what we saw was one more addition to the "intelligence...