The danger of forsaking America's civil service

The danger of forsaking America's civil service
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President Donald Trump and his administration are again engaging in brinksmanship with North Korea in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s most recent, and most powerful, nuclear test.  

The administration's preferred option appears to punishing economic sanctions that can be leveraged to forge a diplomatic solution, but the North shows no signs of ceasing provocations and even fully-implemented UN sanctions may never convince the regime to give up its nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, the fiery, unrestrained, and escalating rhetoric by both Trump and Kim Jong Un tips the scales ever closer to armed conflict.  

The consequences of renewed war with the North are horrifying to imagine: millions dead in Seoul within hours of a start of hostilities, missiles striking our friends in Japan, and a protracted, nuclear conflict that could spill into a great power war if China backs its erstwhile ally.  

But if you think things are bad now, just wait a while.  

The recent news that President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE is cutting back on pay raises for U.S. government employees was just another of many slights to a civil service that has been under siege since Trump launched his campaign pledging to “drain the swamp.”  Whether he and his ideological followers know it, or care, these dedicated professionals are not the swamp.

What they are is economists, engineers, intelligence officers, lawyers, park rangers, trade negotiators, and countless others who signed up for government service not to work for one president and his or her policies, but to advance our great nation’s interests.  

I ought to know.  I joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 to work for an administration whose president I did not vote for and whose policies I often did not support. I did not think twice about doing it; it was fascinating work in service of my country, and in a post-September 11 world when service was celebrated and honorable.

But now, I worry that those who would consider government service are thinking twice.  After all, who would want to work for a president who has shown so little regard for the agencies in which they would work and whose supporters, including in the media, rail against a mythical “deep state?”

We’re seeing the results of this assault already; Politico reported recently that applications in June for the State Department’s Foreign Service exam, once among the most sought-after opportunities in all of government, fell more than a quarter from the year before.

I wonder how many currently in the government want to remain working while constantly being maligned.  Good people are leaving the civil service, not in droves as political appointees do on Inauguration Day, but steadily and surely.

Federal government employment has fallen by 11,000 this year, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, and the administration clearly believes it to be a positive development.  But this drip-drop exodus is draining Washington of the critical expertise and experience necessary to design and execute complex objectives, not of swamp creatures.

During the 1990s, due to budget cuts and deprioritization of mission, the CIA lost significant numbers from its ranks; dedicated and talented civil servants who were told they were not needed.  That exodus decimated its institutional capacity, especially in the middle ranks where much of the demanding, technical work of the U.S. government gets done, and from where so many are leaving government now. 

The CIA was left in a weakened state, and these misguided cuts have since become widely cited as a significant contributing factor to the intelligence failures that precipitated the September 11 attacks.  

Today, as the Trump administration lurches toward a breaking point with the Kim regime, it increasingly looks like will they be doing so with a State Department — the target of so much vitriol from Trumpists — drained of diplomatic expertise and lacking the senior leadership so essential to dealing effectively with this crisis.  

Of course, this is hardly the only crisis this administration will face with one arm tied behind its back, nor is State the only department where this is occurring.  One does not have to stray far from the front pages to see the challenges posed by Syria, Iran, Russia, and ISIS; or climate change, natural disasters, and resurgent racism, closer to home.  

Frighteningly, this will only get worse, and as my former professor, Eliot Cohen, recently noted, has the potential to cause decades of lasting damage.

This keeps me up at night, and it should keep you up, too.

Brian O'Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is the former senior advisor to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and a former intelligence officer at Treasury and CIA.