Stengel was Time’s managing editor and a widely respected journalist, so when he joined the Obama administration in 2014 to oversee State Department communications, it looked like laudable risk-taking on both sides. His mandate was to combat anti-American messaging. But it proved to be a case study in why government doesn’t work.
“I found government too big, too slow, too bureaucratic. It constantly gets in its own way,” he writes. “The dream of an outsider coming in to reform government is just that — a dream.”
When Stengel took his job, the big challenge was countering extremist messaging from what became the Islamic State. It’s a painful story. The State Department had a unit called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which had been established by Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2011. “From the moment of its birth, CSCC was a problem child,” Stengel writes, underfunded, misunderstood and mistrusted by the bureaucracy.
While the Islamic State rampaged online, CSCC deliberated. Tasks that should have taken weeks instead took months. Other agencies undermined anything that threatened their turf. During one long meeting, a lieutenant general whispered to Stengel: “I know how to defeat ISIS. . . . Get them involved in the interagency process.”