“Africa hand and current Ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto reversed U.S. policy and even prevented most defense attache communication with Somaliland,” By Michael Rubin
While the White House and many conservatives rail against the deep state, the problem within the State Department is actually more nuanced than most let on. Over the decades, the State Department has grown a Byzantine bureaucracy that few outside the department are able to navigate effectively. While the logic of political appointments is to infuse new blood and new thinking into government bureaucracies, and also to better guide departments to fall in with White House thinking, the State Department remains more impenetrable than most.
This reality is why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former secretaries Rex Tillerson, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, trusted only a tight circle of advisers. Simply put, nearly as soon as new secretaries enter the building, they give up on changing, let alone effectively working with, the State Department’s unwieldy and peculiar culture.
In theory, the processes put in place by the State Department enable U.S. foreign policy to shape events across the globe by filtering up important decisions through the bureaucracy so that each issue can be addressed at the appropriate level. In practice, the secretary of state, the deputy secretary, and the undersecretary work on big issues — China, Russia, India, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are a few — and lower-level officials do what they can to address issues elsewhere, knowing that they would be hard-pressed to get the front office’s attention.
There are exceptions. When the secretary travels, country teams are fleetingly in the limelight as they struggle to get their own policy recommendations into a speech or added to talking points. When the secretary’s airplane wheels go up for departure, however, the embassy returns to the routine of foreign service officers complaining that no one in Washington reads their reports or cares.
Some regional working areas, traditionally outside the daily focus of the State Department and Congress, thrive with a lack of attention from above. If career diplomats have spent almost their entire careers working on South America, Africa, Central Asia, or South East Asia, regions that receive only sporadic front-office attention, they resent dictates from above that may challenge their assumptions or preferred policies. Within the State Department, career foreign service officers are famous, even among their colleagues, for developing creative ways of foot-dragging to prevent any changes to their favored policies.
So it has been, until recently, with the Africa bureau. In December 2018, after months of interagency deliberation, the White House unveiled its new Africa strategy. Following decades of false starts and treating Africa only as a target for humanitarian aid or counterterrorism operations, the U.S. government finally signaled that it would implement a more holistic approach to recognizing that the United States was losing the great power competition on the continent.
Alas, within the Africa bureau, preservation of personal fiefdoms appears to be trumping U.S. national interests. China has now opened a naval base in Djibouti within miles of Camp Lemonnier, from which the U.S. runs military and counterterrorism operations across the continent. Chinese forces have even attempted to blind U.S. pilots with lasers. Beijing also spends 10 times more on Djibouti than Washington and could leverage the U.S. out of Djibouti with a snap of President Xi Jinping’s fingers.
This is one of the reasons why the Defense Department seeks to reopen relations with neighboring Somaliland, an unrecognized state and former British protectorate that abuts the Gulf of Aden. When Somalia descended into chaos in 1991, Somaliland remained peaceful. For the next 25 years, the U.S. dealt quietly with Somaliland, effectively treating it as it does Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan. Longtime Africa hand and current Ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto reversed U.S. policy and even prevented most defense attache communication with Somaliland, never mind that its port and airfield in Berbera are perhaps the only regional alternatives the U.S. has to Djibouti.
The problem is not just one man who seems to be pursuing his own autonomous policy. Earlier this month, Taiwan recognized Somaliland, agreeing to set up diplomatic offices in each other’s capitals. The decision did not come out of the blue but appears to have caught the State Department flat-footed, if only because Yamamoto and his staff boycott more than they engage with Somaliland officials. The White House, however, recognized the wisdom of the Taiwanese partnership, especially as it denied a strategic territory replete with rare earth elements to the Chinese. The National Security Council, for example, tweeted: “Great to see #Taiwan stepping up its engagement in East #Africa in a time of such tremendous need. #Taiwan is a great partner in health, education, technical assistance, and more!”
Insubordination is subtle. Usually, the assistant secretary of state for Africa will use the bureau’s Twitter feed to retweet and emphasize any White House tweet or pronouncement that affects Africa. (See examples here, here, and here.) Any retweet or acknowledgment of White House congratulations on Taiwan’s move into Africa appears to be lacking, nor does any reaction to rumors of alleged Chinese bribery to the Gambian foreign minister to keep Gambia from following Taiwan’s lead, as its parliamentarians recommended.
What appears to have occurred is that career diplomats have put their personal policy views ahead not only of precedent but also official U.S. strategy. The only victor in such a situation, unfortunately, will be China. Pompeo, it is time to get the Africa bureau in line.
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.