When I worked at the Pentagon, 90 percent of my job was bureaucratic nonsense, and perhaps ten percent was substantive. My colleagues at the State Department, at least those based in Washington, described their jobs similarly. Within the U.S. government, managing bureaucratic exercises which long ago ceased their relevance involves hundreds of thousands of man-hours and costs the United States tens of millions of dollars.
Case in point: Country clearances. In an age where international travel is easy, visas for many countries are issued at the border if not entirely waived. But for anyone on official American business—even that which doesn’t involve diplomacy or meetings with foreign officials—the situation is unnecessarily complicated and involves getting a country clearance. In short, the U.S. embassy in the country where travel will occur must first be informed in advance that an American is coming, and then formally approve the visit. Earlier this year, for example, I had to get a country clearance for South Korea for a stay that was to be less than 12 hours—just enough to leave a ship and get to the airport—meeting no one along the way. That trip, however, involved endless bureaucracy amongst administrators in both the United States, and then some poor diplomat (or intern) to go through the hassle of formally responding. A 12-hour transit stopover in Lisbon required nearly half that time spent elsewhere on paperwork. Such nonsense happens hundreds of times each day.
Start any bureaucratic process and various offices in the government add their own hoops into the process. A few times a year, I will go to Wiesbaden or Grafenwohr in Germany to teach classes. That usually involves a United flight to Frankfurt or Munich, a night or two at a hotel, and then back home in time to feed Neocatservative and change his litter. But because the teaching is for the U.S. Army, country clearance requires ensuring that my online SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) training is up-to-date. Online SERE training is, of course, a joke and bears no resemblance to reality. Our servicemen go through actual SERE training to survive and resist interrogation should they be stranded behind enemy lines. What in theory is an 18-hour online course that must be taken each year in no way compares nor is it relevant. Does the State Department really think if I get a toothache in Germany, I need to know how to hunt in the forest for the proper herbal remedy? Perhaps I’m going soft, but I’d rather go to the 7-11 and get an aspirin. The real irony, of course, is that thanks to the U.S. European Command, travel to Germany now requires more bureaucratic hassle than travel to Iraq or Afghanistan.
In this day and age when budgets are slim, and fat must be cut, it may be time for the U.S. State Department to reconsider whether procedures that may have been relevant 50 years ago (in an age before international telephone service, let alone internet and 24-hour cable news) are no longer required. Maybe the U.S. embassy in Togo or Benin needs to know when an American is passing through those countries, but diplomats in London, Rome, and Berlin should certainly have better things to do. Perhaps if the State Department did not saddle its men and women with such silliness, the government could save money by downsizing administrators, and more diplomats might actually be able to get out and about to represent the United States.