'Shoot First, Ask Questions Later': Ronan Farrow On A Diplomacy-Less State Department

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 8:51 am

Ronan Farrow just won the Pulitzer Prize for stories he wrote for The New Yorker, but before uncovering sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein for the magazine, he worked at the State Department as a special adviser in the Obama administration.

Farrow had worked for the United Nations in Sudan and then, as a young lawyer, went on to become a special adviser in the Obama administration for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as an adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on global youth issues.

In War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Farrow writes about his time at the State Department and what he sees as a dangerous whittling away of the agency's influence through mass firings and efforts to cut its budget.

"There is this transformation in the way America exists in the world, that we are becoming a nation that no longer has negotiators and peacemakers and in which our first response to crises is to shoot first and ask questions later or not at all," he tells NPR.

The chipping away at diplomatic institutions, Farrow argues in the book, did not start with President Trump or former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

"It's not unprecedented. This is something that has been a long time coming, and we know that during the Clinton administration, they cut diplomacy and development by 30 percent — and the results were disastrous," he says. "We shuttered embassies around the world. We abdicated a lot of our leadership — and then after 9/11 we did it again."


Interview Highlights

On what was happening inside the State Department when the Trump administration proposed big cuts to the agency

I open and close the book with stories of some of the diplomats as they react to those cuts and what became colloquially within Foggy Bottom — the State Department headquarters — as the Mahogany Row Massacre began to play out. Mahogany Row is sort of the most elite corridor of power in the State Department. It's where the secretary's office is. And one office after another began getting these calls saying, "We are removing everyone from their posts." They were emptying out the State Department. And I talk about ones who narrowly avoided firing, and I talk about ones who, after decades of serving this country and risking life and limb, lost everything. And I talk about the transformation that's had for the way we do business in all sorts of places around the world.

On how diplomacy has taken a back seat

I don't think anybody is claiming that it is perfect to talk to our enemies. But I do think is what history reveals, and what I found digging into each of these conflicts that I look at in this book, is that it's always better to give peacemaking a shot and to view that as the tool of first resort because it allows us to have a broader range of tools before we go to war.

On whether Tillerson believed in the proposed cuts to the State Department

I really struggled to make sense of Rex Tillerson as a human being — what was in it for him, the extent to which he was chafing against his orders. Clearly that was true to some extent by the time I sat down with him. He was open in this interview, for the first time on the record in this book, about saying that he did defy the extent of the budget cuts, that he pushed back behind closed doors and he was emphatic that he wasn't going to leak any accounts of that and he wasn't going to play ball in this war of the words. But the fact is the underlying realities of his tenure in the job were devastating for the department. And I think he realized too late just how devastating it was becoming. He told me point-blank that his ardent defense of these deep, deep cuts to the department was partly borne of inexperience. The idea of advocating for your institution, he said, he learned too late that it was something he was supposed to be doing. And that really astonished all of these other secretaries of state.

On his conversations with other former secretaries of state

Many of them said surprising and candid things. A lot of these people have controversial histories but also a lot of insights about how we go wrong as a nation. Colin Powell is someone who, despite a divisive track record in some ways with his involvement in the Iraq effort, was passionate about personnel at the State Department and really got emotional talking about the way in which it is being wiped out right now. He said we are tearing the guts out of our foreign policy; we are mortgaging our future. And that was actually a pretty common sentiment across these conversations with secretaries of state, that something dangerous is happening right now and it's happening quietly and we're not talking about it, but it is absolutely central to America's standing in the world.

Martha Ann Overland and Kevin Leahy edited and produced this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Journalist Ronan Farrow just won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. But before he was a reporter, he worked for UNICEF, the U.N. program for children. After that, he worked in President Obama's State Department. Farrow has written a book about his time at State and what he sees as a whittling away of the agency's influence through mass firings and efforts to cut its budget.

RONAN FARROW: There is this transformation in the way America exists in the world that we are becoming a nation that no longer has negotiators and peacemakers and in which our first response to crises is to shoot first and ask questions later or not at all.

KING: And Farrow argues in his book, "War On Peace," that this didn't start with the Trump administration.

FARROW: You see headline after headline calling this unprecedented what's happening at the State Department, ambassadorship after ambassadorship unfilled, people leaving in droves, new people not coming into the Foreign Service. But it's not unprecedented. This is something that has been a long time coming. During the Clinton administration, they cut diplomacy and development by 30 percent. We shuttered embassies around the world. You know, we abdicated a lot of our leadership. And then after 9/11, we did it again.

KING: Farrow says that diplomacy has taken a back seat to the Pentagon, and as a result, America has stayed at war and missed chances for peace. He talked with our cohost Rachel Martin.

FARROW: The repercussions are, you know, in places like Afghanistan, where there were windows of opportunity to, for instance, negotiate with the Taliban, at points at which we had maximum military leverage and really could have cornered people into coming to the table in the eyes of a lot of experts. We instead had a policy process that was shackled to generals who were pressing for escalation. And one of the interesting parallels of history, Rachel, is Vietnam. And there are a lot of differences in those two conflicts, and I talk about those differences. But for sure in both cases, you saw a Situation Room overtaken by generals. And the consequences on the ground are very real.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: At the same time, there were advisers telling Barack Obama that these are bad people, the Taliban are bad people and you shouldn't negotiate with them. You can't leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban again because it will open up another opportunity for al-Qaida.

FARROW: Sure. And this is an argument that comes up in a lot of these conflicts. It's, of course, one of the big arguments that's weaponized against the Iran deal. I don't think anybody is claiming that it is perfect to talk to our enemies. But I do think what history reveals and what I found digging into each of these conflicts that I look at in this book is that it's always better to give peacemaking a shot and to view that as the tool of first resort because it allows us to have a broader range of tools before we go to war.

MARTIN: You sat down with Rex Tillerson in January, just months before he would be fired by President Trump. As you spoke with him, did you get the sense that he was following orders by making these dramatic cuts to the State Department, or did he believe in this as a key component of his mission?

FARROW: He was open in this interview about saying that he did defy the extent of the budget cuts, that he pushed back behind closed doors. But the fact is the underlying realities of his tenure in the job were devastating for the department. I mean, he told me point blank that his ardent defense of these deep, deep cuts to the department was partly born of inexperience. The idea of advocating for your institution, he said, he learned too late was something he was supposed to be doing. And that really astonished all of these other secretaries of state that I talked to.

MARTIN: What else was the through line in your conversations with all these former secretaries of state?

FARROW: Many of them said surprising and candid things. You know, a lot of these people have controversial histories but also a lot of insights about where we go wrong as a nation. Colin Powell is someone who, despite a divisive track record in some ways with his involvement in the Iraq effort, was passionate about personnel at the State Department and really got emotional talking about the way in which it is being wiped out right now. And he said, we are tearing the guts out of our foreign policy. We are mortgaging our future. And that was actually a pretty common sentiment across these conversations with secretaries of state, that something dangerous is happening right now. And it's happening quietly, and we're not talking about it, but it is absolutely central to America's standing in the world.

MARTIN: The book is called "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." We've been speaking with the author, Ronan Farrow. Ronan, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

FARROW: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.