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Why is Rex Tillerson running the State Department?

By Daniel W. Drezner

July 20, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives before President Trump speaks at a dinner with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Blue Room of the White House on Monday, June 26, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If you teach international relations, you quickly develop an aversion to black-and-white thinking. You become comfortable in all of the shades of gray. That's because, in foreign affairs, there is rarely an obvious right call and an obvious wrong call. In most situations, the people who have to run foreign policy face difficult trade-offs. They have to make tough decisions, whereas all I have to do is sit in the peanut gallery and crack wise.

I bring this up because, every once in a while, I look at what I have written about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and worry that I've abandoned all those shades of gray. Consider  a sampling of headlines from pieces focusing on him since January:

Just scanning these headlines, the academic in me thinks I am being too harsh on Tillerson. True, it would seem that Tillerson has been a bad secretary of state. True, it seems as though America's influence in the world has been ebbing throughout 2017, with the United States retreating from places as diverse as Syria and Burma and the hearts and minds of Europeans. True, Tillerson has advised Trump so badly that the president keeps getting played on every high-profile foreign visit. Surely, however, there must be some rational explanation for why Tillerson is doing what he's doing, right?

Last week Tillerson did provide a small window of his thinking to reporters after a failed effort at Middle East shuttle diplomacy. According to the Los Angeles Times's Tracy Wilkinson:

"Well it is a lot different than being CEO of Exxon because I was the ultimate decision-maker," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday in unusually candid comments to reporters….

In his comments aboard his flight home, Tillerson said he did not mean to criticize the U.S. government but that, on a whole, "it's largely not a highly disciplined organization."

"Decision-making is fragmented, and sometimes people don't want to take decisions. Coordination is difficult through the interagency [process]."

This is the stereotypical lament among the private-sector individuals who enter the public sector. And it's true, crafting foreign policy requires cooperation among a decentralized batch of semi-feudal bureaucracies. So I get his frustrations in that area, even though anyone who knows anything about foreign policy could have told him that this is the life.

The thing is, Tillerson is at the apex of the State Department hierarchy. He should be able to run Foggy Bottom similar to how he ran Exxon. But the steps he has taken this past week make no sense.

Consider three stories about the State Department in the last week:

1. Colum Lynch, "Tillerson to Shutter State Department War Crimes Office," Foreign Policy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is downgrading the U.S. campaign against mass atrocities, shuttering the Foggy Bottom office that worked for two decades to hold war criminals accountable, according to several former U.S. officials….

The decision to close the office comes at a time when America's top diplomat has been seeking to reorganize the State Department to concentrate on what he sees as key priorities: pursuing economic opportunities for American businesses and strengthening U.S. military prowess. Those changes are coming at the expense of programs that promote human rights and fight world poverty, which have been targeted for steep budget cuts.

"There's no mistaking it — this move will be a huge loss for accountability," said Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program. The war crimes ambassador's "organizational independence gave the office much more weight," he added.

2. Nick Wadhams and Nafeesa Syeed, "Tillerson to Shut Cyber Office in State Department Reorganization," Bloomberg.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is shutting down an office that coordinates cyber issues with other countries, according to two people familiar with the plan, in a move that critics said will diminish the U.S. voice in confronting hackers.

The Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, established under President Barack Obama in 2011, will be folded into the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement. The coordinator will no longer report directly to the secretary of state, going instead through the bureau's chain of command as Tillerson pushes ahead with a department-wide reorganization, they said.

"It's taking an issue that's preeminent and putting it inside a backwater within the State Department," said Robert Knake, a senior fellow for cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who was director of cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council under Obama. "Position to power matters both within the U.S. government and within the international community."

3. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Robbie Gramer, "State Department Suspends Yet Another Fellowship Program," Foreign Policy.

The State Department has suspended a program that fast-tracks top recruits, sparking outrage from students and graduates who planned on joining the diplomatic corps.

The Diplomacy Fellows Program (DFP), established as part of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative in the early 2000's, allows recipients of several prestigious fellowship programs to fast track their applications to the elite Foreign Service branch — a notoriously long-winded process layered in bureaucratic red tape.

Critics fear it could choke out the next generation of talented diplomats, particularly while scores of senior foreign service officers are poised to retire and Foggy Bottom grapples with hemorrhaging talent amid morale problems and steep budget cut proposals.

"The U.S. government has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to train us," said one graduate student affected by the suspension who requested anonymity due to the sensitive of the application process. "And they're going to lose out. Because the most talented people are going to find something else to do."

It's that last quote that truly boggles the mind. Surely, as CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had to know the value of being able to recruit top-tier personnel. It is already difficult to recruit top people for the public sector when their salaries languish compared to the private sector. To quash the pipelines of human capital into the State Department is straight out of Dumb Management 101.

Is it debatable whether Tillerson meets the classic criteria of a secretary of state, but there is no disputing that he is the CEO of the State Department. What, however, is he trying to do as the head of it? How is he making it a better organization? Does he understand how the secretary of state exercises influence in the world? Every single step he has taken appears to weaken and undermine the very department he heads. I simply do not understand why he is in charge of the State Department.

I miss the color gray, and so sometimes I worry that I am being too harsh on Tillerson's management of the State Department. Increasingly, however, I worry that I am not being harsh enough.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

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