Pompeo should lose taxpayers' trust as well as trust of Foreign Service

Pompeo should lose taxpayers' trust as well as trust of Foreign Service
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I was escorted through a sterile corridor into a windowless conference room early one morning. A few other people were milling about, all well dressed, slightly nervous and obviously feeling out of place. A woman handed us a stack of forms. I asked if there was coffee. She pointed to a vending machine. It was the late 1990s and this was my welcome to the Foreign Service.

A week before I was a corporate lawyer. We did not drink coffee from vending machines — instead we had high-end gourmet brew and upscale catered food for any in-firm meetings. We held business deals and client meetings over lunches at some of Manhattan’s swankiest restaurants or in premiere club seats at sporting events.

In government, there are ethics rules which seem irrational from a private sector perspective. Many of these rules primarily minimize perceptions of conflicts of interest rather than actual corruption. A federal contractor, for instance, cannot take a federal government employee out to even a modest lunch. Employees generally cannot exchange even small gifts, and even the busiest boss working on the most important issues cannot ask employees to do simple personal errands. Government is just different from the private sector.

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Career folks know that public service means you buy your own coffee, sit in the bleachers, and walk your own dog.

America’s diplomats are generally foreign service officers (FSOs) who commit to spending the bulk of their professional lives overseas. The mission of the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad. This life attracts people who are passionate about public service and want to represent the U.S. around the world. The ethics rules become a part of the mission, an ethos that embraces the noble purpose of representing America.

Every FSO is familiar with representational duties. The movie stereotype is pin-striped diplomats hosting elegant cocktail receptions while engaged in high-brow discussions or political intrigue. The reality is much more nuanced.

Many missions abroad respond to complex crises. Many FSOs have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other war zone. Nearly all have worked in hardship assignments, far from home, under adverse and dangerous conditions. Today’s diplomats help American citizens abroad, dodge security threats, surveil pandemic risks, lead humanitarian responses, broker ceasefires, track terrorists, and advocate for trade favorable to American businesses. Senior officers are required to manage large budgets and hundreds of personnel. These diplomats work closely with the inspector general and Congress to account for U.S tax dollars. Oversight can be adverse of course, but good officers know that transparency drives better results and broader acceptance of the mission.

And there are receptions, of course.

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State Department guidance provides detailed regulation on taxpayer funded receptions — lavish expenditures are nearly always questionable. American diplomats know they must actively engage at receptions, almost always after a full day in the office, by developing new contacts and deepening existing ones for diplomatic purposes. Officers must be the first to the reception and the last to leave. Given its foreign policy purpose, the State Department requires that the American presence be less than half of the total guest list. Receptions are work.

In recent months, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHong Kong police arrest pro-democracy media tycoon: aide Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran Trump puts trade back on 2020 agenda MORE has placed political ambition, loyalty to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE and personal interests above his charge to lead the men and women of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. After the president fired the Inspector General, reports surfaced that the Secretary of State was under scrutiny for throwing lavish dinners, funded by taxpayer dollars, tilted heavily toward conservative influencers focused on Pompeo’s political interests. Beyond the personal dinner parties, Pompeo also apparently made a staffer do personal errands, including walking his dog and picking up dry cleaning.

In response, Donald Trump chirped that he would rather have Mike Pompeo “on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn't there or his kids aren't there, you know.” 

Most Americans likely regard the issues surrounding an inspector general investigation of the Secretary of State as inside the beltway politics — while otherwise consumed by protests, riots, curfews, coronavirus and economic collapse.

However, by placing his personal interest above the national good — and having taxpayers foot the bill — Pompeo devalued the Foreign Service and undermined its sacred mission to represent America abroad, again.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.