These are difficult times for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Not only must he contend with a new spate of reports that his fickle, mercurial boss in the Oval Office is thinking of dumping him, he is being accused — credibly — by former State Department officials and members of Congress of gutting the department and demoralizing the diplomatic corps.
On Tuesday, Tillerson denied that there had been a “hollowing out” of the agency and accused critics of throwing around “false” numbers about personnel cutbacks. Earlier, he told a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek: “I walk the halls, people smile. If it’s as bad as it seems to be described, I’m not seeing it.”
The facts tell a different and more disturbing story of an agency with vacancies in crucial posts and dwindling allure to future generations of diplomats. As The Times’ Tracy Wilkinson recently reported, Tillerson, who is pursuing an 8% cut in the State Department’s staff, has left several top-level posts unfilled, including the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the official who would be responsible for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat. Kim Jong Un’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test on Wednesday reminded the United States again that no region in the world is more in need of skillful American diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the department has frozen most hiring, and senior officials with a wealth of experience have been dismissed or prodded to retire. Writing in the New York Times this week, Nicholas Burns and Ryan C. Crocker, who served as ambassadors in both Republican and Democratic administrations, complained that because of misguided decisions by the Trump administration, “we are witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations,” along with “a drop in morale among those who remain behind.”
Members of Congress from both parties have expressed similar concerns. In a letter to Tillerson earlier this month, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) warned that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.” A letter from Democrats in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, citing the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers, expressed concern about “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.” (That was the accusation to which Tillerson was replying on Tuesday.)
The attrition also has a ripple effect on recruitment to what historically has been one of the most prestigious forms of government service. The number of candidates taking the famously competitive Foreign Service Officer Test is expected to drop by half this year, according to the president of the American Foreign Service Assn. That will undermine promising efforts by the department to diversify what in the past has been a disproportionately white and male work force.
Any federal department can be made more efficient — at State, for example, by eliminating dozens of “special envoys” and consolidating duplicative positions. But that is different from the deep cuts the Trump administration has proposed and the policy of malign neglect that has driven away talented professionals and left important positions unfilled.
President Trump doesn’t appear to be worried about the department’s staffing or morale. Instead, he’s unhappy with Tillerson on a number of foreign policy issues, including his defense of the Iran nuclear deal and his efforts to step up diplomacy with North Korea. Tillerson didn’t help matters by reportedly calling Trump a moron.
Tillerson wasn’t our first choice to lead State. But even if he is failing to keep the department as strong as it should be, that doesn’t mean he should be canned. For all his flaws, and he has plenty, Tillerson has been one of Trump’s better appointments — one of the “adults in the room” in this irresponsible, inexperienced administration. To the extent that he has clashed with Trump it has tended to be over Trump’s nuttier positions, including his incendiary rhetoric about North Korea and his disparagement of the Iran nuclear deal.
Tillerson’s defenders argue that, like any entrenched bureaucracy, the State Department should be scrutinized for potential improvements and efficiencies and that Tillerson, a former oil company executive, is ideally suited to introduce modern management methods to a department that employs 70,000 people around the world. Tillerson also disputes some of the statistics offered by its critics and notes that he has made exceptions to the hiring freeze. The trend, however, is unmistakable.
McCain and Shaheen have urged Tillerson to consult with Congress before implementing any additional measures that could have long-term impacts on State Department staffing. They’ve also urged him to lift the hiring freeze on Foreign Service and Civil Service officers in the department, and to resume promotions “for the best and the brightest to avoid losing our top officers.” These are reasonable requests, and entirely compatible with Tillerson’s interest in making the department more efficient. He should honor them, assuming he’s around long enough to do so.
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