Former Ambassador Yovanovitch sees a State Dept 'in trouble'

"The State Dept. is in trouble," Yovanovitch said. "Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity and leadership." The warning has broad applicability.
Image: Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Yovanovitch testifies before House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, departs after concluding her testimony before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC2XBD9ESY34Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

After a career at the State Department that spanned nearly 34 years, former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was honored at Georgetown University last night, where she received a lengthy standing ovation and the Trainor Award for excellence in diplomacy from the school's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

In her remarks -- which she prefaced by warning students that she intended to be "blunt" -- Yovanovitch delivered what the New York Times described as "a candid and at times stark assessment ... of the declining health of American diplomacy."

"Right now, the State Department is in trouble," Ms. Yovanovitch said in accepting the award. "Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity and leadership." ... [She added] that "an amoral, 'keep them guessing' foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust cannot work."

The remarks were striking, though I found myself dwelling on that quote: "Right now, the State Department is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership." The assessment was more than fair: the Trump administration's State Department struggled under Rex Tillerson, but matters have grown considerably worse under Mike Pompeo.

But just as jarring is the broad applicability of Yovanovitch's framing. It's unsettlingly easy to take her stark warning, remove two words -- "Right now, the _____ is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership." -- and fill in the blank with any number of vital American institutions that find themselves imperiled by Donald Trump's presidency.

We were reminded this week, for example, that the Justice Department is in trouble, led by officials who lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership. The same can be said about the Environmental Protection Agency. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Department of Homeland Security is in trouble, led by officials who lack policy vision, moral clarity, and leadership. The same can be said about the Department of Commerce. And the Department of Education.

The Trump administration has been defined by a variety of breakdowns, and Yovanovitch deserves to be thanked for shining a light on the deteriorating state of American diplomacy abroad. But if we're taking stock of institutions "in trouble" in 2020, unfortunately we need not stop at the State Department.