MEGAN: Having spent much of yesterday looking at that shirtless Obama-in-Kailua picture, I gotta say: this White Christmas shit is for the birds.
SPENCER: I saw the view from your kitchen of the snowdrift surrounding your garage. At least one famous blogger emailed me the shirtless Obama photo saying he was "just looking to be as badass as this guy."
MEGAN: I should take one of the front yard, after all the gusty winds yesterday, there was lots of drifting. And I swear there's a segue somewhere in there.
SPENCER: Snow drifts. Drifting. Policy drift... Policy drift tends to be filled in foreign policy by the Pentagon... The Pentagon's played an outsized role in foreign affairs for decades. Hillary Clinton intends to push the State Department back to prominence!
MEGAN: See, I knew there was one in there somewhere... Although I don't know that it was a vacuum at State that led to the Pentagon taking a more prominent — and, one might say, inappropriate role, given its mission — as much as that was a distinct purpose of Bush's (and Cheney's) choices in terms of personnel, funding and who they chose to listen to. Let us also not fail to mention that she's planning on grabbing some turf back from Bill Richardson over at Commerce and Tim Geithner at Treasury:
As Mrs. Clinton puts together her senior team, officials said, she is also trying to carve out a bigger role for the State Department in economic affairs, where the Treasury has dominated during the Bush years.
That last bit, in case it wasn't fleshed out enough for you, since it wasn't, was about China policy.
SPENCER: There's a structural defect at State that creates a vacuum in practice. The State Department doesn't really have an expeditionary culture, meaning it doesn't train its foreign service officers to, say, intervene in tribal disputes that take place far from embassies and consulates. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where that sort of intervention is key to the war efforts, the result is that a 30-year old captain ends up becoming a de facto diplomat without being trained for that mission. More money is useful and needed for the State Department, but it's defects like that that require a shift in department culture, incentives, training, etc.
MEGAN: Which is sort of interesting when you consider that, at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, they reorganized the recruitment structure to make it more difficult to shift personnel between functions — i.e., the cone system.
SPENCER: Ah Richardson. One of the hackiest stories I wrote this year was about Commerce's role in foreign affairs, just in the interest of having something to say about Bill Richardson the day of his announcement that was the slightest bit different than what everyone else was writing. What's the Cone System? I've never heard of that and Crappy Hour is for learning.
MEGAN: Actually, I know you hated the Richardson piece because it's not your beat and you thought it silly, but it was a good piece that brought up some interesting questions. But, to the cone system. So, it used to be that, if one wanted to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer, you took a written then (if you scored high enough) an oral exam. If you were the cream of the test crop, you did your 6 months of training and picked out a post/country based on openings — so most people ended up as a consular officer stamping visas somewhere and worked into policy/economic/public affairs jobs. Nowadays, when you sign up for the written exam, you pick your track — consular, administrative, economic, public affairs or political — and then your scores are judged against the other people in your track (Cone) and that's basically supposed to be the track for your career.
SPENCER: ...that sounds better.
MEGAN: In practice, it creates a system where the consular/administrative officers are lower-scoring on the exams because everyone sees him/herself as a political officer. And it makes it harder to shift personnel across tracks, leaving Foggy Bottom with less flexibility...
SPENCER: wouldn't it make more sense to have consular and administrative jobs filled by the State Department civil servants rather than Foreign Service Officers? Political affairs is more central to the department's mission, no?
MEGAN: Those aren't positions at Foggy Bottom! Consular officers are the people doing face-to-face interviews at embassies, processing visa applications. And administrative officers are the ones making sure the embassies run smoothly and hiring local support, that sort of thing. They're ind of all integral to the mission, and they're all in some way the public face of our diplomacy. And when they are poorly trained and scared out of their minds to let in the next terrorist and not given proper guidance, you have situations like the ones I documented in this Congressional testimony where they are systematically discriminating against female visa applicants in China based on stereotypes about women and women's roles.
SPENCER: Don't yell! The State Department has a civil-service corps that goes overseas as well to embassies and consulates — not everyone filling State jobs outside of Washington is a foreign service officer, as I learned when I covered this story. Notwithstanding the value of having a really on-the-ball fellow processing a visa application — and I'm not being sarcastic, it's a small-seeming issue with profound implications for, say, the world's outlook on American openness — it still seems like a track that overrewards political officers has value to it. I see your point though.
MEGAN: I just always think there is value in everyone having a similar group of experiences, like doing the grunt work of visa interviews, that can have value to the outlook a political officer brings to the job. But I always think people should have to do some grunt work before being handed everything on a platter. That said, I hope to GOD Hillary Clinton wrastles the control of China policy away from the Treasury Department.
SPENCER: It would seem like the sort of assignment that makes sense to give a joint team of envoys. The Times piece suggested that it's a Joe Biden kind of thing.
MEGAN: We need to stop having one economic policy on China and another foreign policy. Also, it will limit the influence of lobbyists on our China policy. Joe Biden's going to head the White House Task Force on Working Families. I want it, frankly, to be one of Hillary's babies. There has been so little nuance in our policy toward China the last 8 years — individual diplomats aside — that it is crying out for some high-level attention. It's the other test of our national power and what kind of nation we are going to be, and has as many implications domestically and for the rest of the world as our engagement in the Middle East.
SPENCER: Yes, absolutely. And add to that a completely incoherent military approach to the Chinese, where outposts within the Office of the Secretary of Defense's policy branch consider China an inevitable threat to American primacy — in part because of a troglodytic and cynical campaign by House Republicans in the 1990s" — but the Navy's current leadership considers the Chinese to be instrumental for responsible global security burden-sharing. And if only there were some blogger in the Crappy Hour orbit with an equal facility with both China and global finance...
MEGAN: I think the problem is that China is both of those things at the same time. We are inextricably tied to them economically and yet they are our biggest economic competitor. Ditto on foreign policy issues. We can't just erect a wall and shout at them from this side of it, and we can't continue without checks, and there's been no effort to find a balance.
SPENCER: Sure, but the problem comes from creating an incoherent and compartmentalized series of policy approaches both predicated on an inflexible and preordained outcome — the Shape Of China To Come, as Ornette Coleman or the Refused would say — that do not take into account such things as a) the future being unknowable; b) Chinese decisionmaking; and c) the fact that China owns the lion's share of our debt. It would be worth the while of whatever group in the Obama administration ends up taking the China portfolio cutting down on some of the more provocative elements of perpetual-motion Pentagon China policy efforts. Ideally you'd hedge against all bets and prepare for all contingencies. You just don't want to be in a situation where you guarantee the outcome you're trying to prevent, like a hostile China.
MEGAN: And, while they're at it, let's have some real discussion about the One-China policy, which is a large part of where any military hostility comes from an a place where State needs to have the dominant position.
SPENCER: I'd make a joke about dominant positions, but I'm having some blogger performance anxiety apparently. I swear this doesn't happen often. Don't tell your friends! Apparently China has had its way with me. Like it will with the UNITED STATES.