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Wishful Thinking and Poor Planning: State Department Wastes $80 Million in Afghanistan

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The Washington Post informs with a story out of Afghanistan about how the Department of State, after signing a ten-year lease and spending more than $80 million on a site envisioned as the United States' diplomatic hub in northern Afghanistan, have abandoned their plans. Why does the State Department consistently make poor decisions like this?

Based on a leaked memo by Martin Kelly, the acting management counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (we'll expect to see his name again soon as Diplomatic Security no doubt begins an investigation into the leak, not the wasted $80 million), the story details how in an effort to "send a positive signal" of support to the Afghan people (who no doubt were unable to receive the message sheltering underground from U.S. freedom drones), now-deceased Ambassador Richard Holbrooke bullied the plans for the Mazar-e-Sharif Consulate through State's bureaucracy. All sorts of prudent security regulations were ignored because a VIP wanted it done. It is not that security conditions changed in Afghanistan -- they remain uniformly poor -- but that the State Department simply ignored the reality on the ground in favor of reality as they would prefer it to be.

Wishful Thinking, Poor Planning

The Post characterizes the process and the waste of the $80 million as "a cautionary tale of wishful thinking, poor planning." Blogger Diplopundit offers more detailed analysis of the affair here. For her part, regarding Holbrooke, Secretary of State Clinton tossed off, "Everything that we have accomplished that is working in Afghanistan and Pakistan is largely because of Richard Holbrooke. It may have to wait until I write my memoirs, but that is a fact."

Reading the Washington Post article, the $80 million's worth of mistakes are very obvious, things any idiot would notice like a lack of setback from the street, no place to land helicopters and a common wall with some nearby shops. They are not obscure problems that needed to be sleuthed out.

Long-tailed Cat in a Room Full of Rocking Chairs

Why does State so consistently make poor decisions? The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad cost close to $1 billion, and that was before then-Ambassador Hill spent another five million dollars to have sod imported so he might have a green expansive Embassy lawn in the middle of the desert. Other, thankfully less costly, examples stand out from my own career at the Department of State -- millions spent on live telephone operators in Tokyo because the Ambassador simply did not care for automated systems, Consulate staff who should have been helping American citizens after a devastating earthquake instead detailed to inventory the broken official chinaware, money for upgrading communications gear re-allotted for fix the boss' TV reception, hyper-expensive contractors used in place of qualified staff, political prisoners smuggled into the Beijing Embassy one day only to be dumped back out onto the street the next and so on. I wrote a whole book, We Meant Well, about a year's worth of dumb decisions in Iraq. Everyone makes mistakes, but what we have here is a long, long litany of obvious bad decisions, so obviously bad one cannot help but wonder how smart people made them so consistently.

Though not necessarily unique to State, the shutdown of dissent and logic in the face of a senior person's wishes drives far too many decisions at State. Good decision-making takes a back seat to bowing to the wishes of people who may have status but not brains. Since dissent is neither sought nor, after the first few slap-downs, offered at State, dumb decisions are allowed to proceed to their natural conclusive failures. This all tracks well in an organization that lacks clear goals and measurable results, and avoids 360 reviews of supervisors like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, meaning that actual success or failure is less relevant than "getting along." This is what State Department insiders call their "corridor reputation" and what outsiders might call sucking up to move up. In my own 24 years of managing people at the State Department, convincing those I worked with to disagree with me and bring up problems was the hardest task I faced.

The whole mindset was summed up by a senior State Department official in the State Department's in-house magazine offering serious advice on how to get promoted:

Support your boss. "But my boss is a jerk!" That may be true, but this is about you getting promoted and the "jerk" is still the boss. If your boss lacks charisma, humility, a sense of humor and table manners, that is not so good. Being a jerk, however, is not a federal offense. You do not have to feign affection for your boss, but you do have to support the mission with vigor, which not incidentally makes the boss look good -- perhaps in spite of him or herself.

Can anyone imagine executives at a well-run company like FedEx or Google encouraging employees not to innovate or save money or improve as the keys to success, but to suck up to their boss, at the same time allowing him to continue being a jerk as if it is a perk of rank?

How does such an institutional culture -- almost a cult of personality -- play out in real life? In cases such as the now defunct Mazar-e-Sharif consulate, it means $80 million of your tax money drips down the drain as no one may declare the emperor truly and utterly has no clothes on until the reality is so obvious that it appears in the Washington Post.

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