A neutered State Department is against America’s interests
By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director, HALC
About nine months ago, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson sat before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for his confirmation hearing to become secretary of state. He was introduced with lavish praise by former CIA director and defense secretary Bob Gates. His fellow Texans on the panel took turns commending him on his experience and temperament. He testified about his foreign policy views, his ties to Russia and more and was ultimately confirmed 56–43.
Now, foreign policy experts and political analysts are calling on him to resign. What went wrong?
A confluence of circumstances has resulted in a greatly weakened State Department. At the outset, it began with treating the department like a business.
As CEO of the world’s largest oil and gas company, Tillerson approached managing the State Department like managing a board room. Being secretary of state is different, however.
The election of Donald Trump prompted a mass exodus of career foreign service officers. Others stayed on despite their instincts in an attempt to operate as a bulwark against what they perceived to be a disturbing shift in American foreign policy. Many were hoping Tillerson would be able to come in and steady the diplomatic ship. However, as Nik Steinberg reports at POLITICO, the situation at the department is dire.
In the months since Tillerson’s appointment, the State Department has seen some of its top talent leave or take early retirement. In August, a “black Friday” exodus saw the nation’s key officials in international organization affairs, narcotics and law enforcement, and European affairs abandon a department they saw as being weakened by a lack of proper management and president who views expertise as a liability rather than an asset. Heather Nauert, a co-host of the president’s favorite entertainment program, Fox & Friends who was selected to be the department’s spokesperson, has had a tough job defending the current situation.
The CEO-as-diplomat conversion has been rocky. An internal presentation described service to the department’s “customers,” as if managing the nation’s oldest cabinet agency is akin to managing a local Costco. Tillerson has embraced Trump’s proposal to slash the department’s budget by 30%. His deputy was on Capitol Hill last week defending the cuts, which have bipartisan opposition. As Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ed Royce said, “We need savings. But we should not, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our diplomacy and assistance improves our national security, improves our economic well-being for a relatively small amount of money.”
He’s also proposed slashing the number of the envoys by more than half and has stood by — publicly at least — as the president shrugged off the expelling of some 750 American diplomats from Russia. Meanwhile, according the Partnership for Public Service, of the top 130 posts that require Senate confirmation, just 44 had been nominated and 23 confirmed.
Such downsizing may win praises in the boardrooms of America, but in the policy world, in the yin and yang context of war and peace, less diplomacy simply creates more space for the instability and havoc on the other side of the equation.
Tillerson’s mistakes are not solely relating to staffing. For the career service officers who have remained — who have worked for decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations — a lack of outreach has caused great frustration and has hurt morale. Tillerson’s CEO approach meant he hired an outside consulting company to survey more than 70,000 State Department employees worldwide, and five steering committees made recommendations last month. Yet, “Tillerson has indicated the redesign of operations could take a year, leaving some policy priorities and programs adrift.”
The world’s crises move at a much different pace than corporate America. Progress isn’t measures in fiscal quarters but in the daily and weekly change of circumstances on the ground in hotspots around the world.
“Adrift” is indeed the most apt description of the current state of affairs at the department. Experts in their fields report not being consulted prior to major policy announcements, speeches or events. The “go it alone” attitude in the Trump administration has resulted in a host of embarrassing errors that could have been caught by these experts (just last week, the state department’s spokesperson appeared not to know that North Korea has already acquired nuclear capabilities).
Mismanagement, thankfully, can often be remedied. One can certainly imagine Tillerson stepping into and embracing his role. It is still quite early in the Trump administation and Tillerson has the added benefit of the fact that everyone wants the department to succeed. He can certainly become the leader the State Department needs in this time of change.
The overarching issue is, however, does he want to?
Tillerson’s “rookie mistakes,” as they are called by some, are compounded by a campaign of belittlement by President Trump. The president has frequently undermined Tillerson by publicly contradicting Tillerson’s stated policy positions. In a blistering piece, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank likened Rex to the president’s lap dog.
President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for diplomacy, and a tweet this week led many to say that even if Tillerson were a successful secretary of state, he should resign due to the president’s constant undercutting of his position. Richard Haass, who was once under consideration for Deputy Secretary of State and is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has called on Tillerson to resign.
At POLITICO, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write that “[i]n our combined 50-plus years at the State Department, neither of us ever witnessed as profound a humiliation as a sitting president handed his secretary of state.”
At The Atlantic, a State Department official summed up the situation: “One can never be sure whether the policies we’re working on will be supported by the president or not…It creates a great deal of uncertainty and obviously further harms morale in an environment in which morale is already very low.”
Responding to all this, during a press conference this morning, Tillerson stood by the president, claimed he never contemplated resigning and dodged questions about whether he called the president a “moron” in meetings. The president, for his part, took to Twitter to claim that reports of Tillerson’s possible resignation over the summer were “fake news.”
It’s clear that Tillerson has decided to stay at the department, despite the president’s behavior. He joins fellow cabinet member and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the roster of berated cabinet members who nonetheless publicly proclaim their admiration for the president and their commitment to the job. Tillerson’s next steps will be crucial, both for the state department itself and its influence on world affairs.
It’s not surprising that Tillerson has chosen to stay. Doyle McManus at The Los Angeles Times casts Tillerson in the same company as Gary Cohen and Jim Mattis, respected voices of reason who have chosen to stay on despite their deep policy and style disagreements with the president. “This isn’t a team of rivals,” McManus points out, “it’s a team of anguished dissidents.”
It’s natural to look at this picture and ask, if they’re so unhappy, why don’t any of them resign? But that’s not how Washington works. No Cabinet member has quit over a matter of principle since Cyrus Vance, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of State, almost 40 years ago. Most important, all those Cabinet members have accepted the traditional Washington argument about serving a president you disagree with: As long as you think you can do some good, you owe it to the country to keep your job.
So how does TIllerson “do good” at the state department?
Tillerson needs to come out from the shadows and exhibit the leadership qualities that prompted his nomination. Right now, America’s foreign policy conversation is taking place at a dozen different tables:
In Trump land, either by design or default, a cacophony of multiple voices are not just competing for the president’s time, attention and favor in private (which is very normal) — they’re actually carrying out the policy and shaping it publicly (which is not so normal). Kushner, for instance, grabbed or was given the primary lead on the Arab-Israeli issue and has played a major role in shaping U.S. interactions with China and Saudi Arabia. Gary Cohn seems to have the lead on Trump’s climate policy, such as it is. Wilbur Ross is playing an unusually substantive diplomatic role for a commerce secretary. Foreign capitals listen closely to Pentagon chief James Mattis, whose pronouncements are often interpreted as brushbacks of the president. And over at the U.N., the hawkish Haley has emerged as the nation’s loudest voice on foreign policy, largely by speaking unscripted about everything from Syria to Iran to North Korea. And then of course there’s Trump, the ultimate blooming flower who in tweets, phone calls and speeches makes his own foreign policy on the fly, frustrating and confounding his top advisers.
The public needs to see more of press-shy Tillerson and needs to hear clear pronouncements from him. The likelihood of divergence with the president on issues is significant — both in policy and substance. Tillerson should plod on, regardless of the president’s tweets.
Going forward, Tillerson must triage the chaos. First and foremost, reverse course on the draconian state department cuts. Streamline, yes. Sabotage, no.
Next, senior positions must be filled as soon as possible with the most qualified personnel willing to accept the positions. The Senate is ready and willing to confirm the president’s nominees. Tillerson should take advantage of the favorable environment and press the president to nominate these senior-level positions immediately.
Finally, Tillerson must act less like a CEO working in the boardroom and more like a spokesperson for American and Western values on the international stage. That means speaking more the press, making the state department more accessible, engaging personally more and, in a word, being present.
At today’s press conference, Tillerson said he stands by the president’s “American first” policy.
That means putting American diplomacy first. The Chinese general and war expert Sun Tzu wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” A sophisticated, engaged state department isn’t optional — it’s necessary if our nation is to avoid triggering or being pulled into more armed conflict. Tillerson has decided to remain in of the world’s most challenging jobs. He should embrace his role, its challenges and its potential. “America first” means nothing less.