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Opinion Trump has handed Tillerson a house of horrors at the State Department

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to State Department employees on Thursday. (MANDEL NGAN/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The Wall Street Journal reports:

State Department officials are entitled to their own opinions but will need to work together on “one team,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday in his first speech to State Department employees.
“Each of us is entitled to the expression of our own beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team,” Mr. Tillerson said.

As one might expect, this was more team-building and pep talk than a master class in statecraft. (“Mr. Tillerson said he would be looking to make unspecified changes to the State Department to make it run more effectively, and promised to avoid ‘change for the sake of change.’ He said keeping diplomats safe would be a guiding principle.”) He has yet to name his deputy, who will be critical to managing a dispirited and rebellious department and on whom the novice diplomat Tillerson will need to rely heavily in cleaning up the messes President Trump already has made.

Tillerson’s first full day on the job coincides with a contemptuous retort from Iran to national security adviser Michael Flynn’s finger-wagging admonition that the mullahs were “officially … on notice.” On notice, of what, he did not say. Iran, as one would expect, did not seem impressed. The Post reports:

In Tehran, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fired back, saying that “the American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless,” according to the Reuters news agency, citing local media.
“This is not the first time that an inexperienced person has threatened Iran,” the adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, said. “Iran does not need permission from any country to defend itself.”

Meanwhile, the White House tossed aside a plan, handed over from the outgoing Obama administration, to arm the Kurds. The Trump team — which cannot manage to roll out its travel ban or get through calls with allies — sniffed that there had been insufficient staff work(!) on the previous administration’s part. How they would know what good staff work looks like remains a mystery. Once again, one hears a defensive, hostile tone from the Trump crew, usually associated with Flynn, whose short tenure has been plagued with mishaps and egregiously poor staff work of his own. (“A senior Obama administration official said the criticism was unfounded and a sign of the new White House’s ‘intelligence insecurity.’ In addition to the short memo that [Susan] Rice gave Flynn, the outgoing administration left a thick package of supplemental material, the Obama official said.”)

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From Flynn so far we have seen personal insecurity and unwillingness to take guidance from more experienced national security professionals. Worse, he has allowed the national security team to be thoroughly overrun by political hacks. (Stephen K. Bannon’s presence on the National Security Council has alarmed members of Congress, outside foreign policy gurus and professionals at State and Defense. No wonder, given he, according to multiple profiles, fancies himself like a revolutionary. One journalist quotes him as saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”) That denotes poor judgment, or a lack of bureaucratic finesse, or both.

The Trump team, in other words, is the last set of advisers that should be sniffing at poor preparation. Speaking of which, Democrats want to be briefed on the botched Yemen raid. Politico reports, “A Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is asking for an ‘urgent briefing’ on the SEAL Team Six raid in Yemen this past weekend that resulted in the deaths of a U.S. service member and civilians on the ground, possibly including an 8-year-old girl. Approving the raid was one of the first life-or-death decisions for President Donald Trump — and Democrats are raising questions about what may have gone wrong.” Given how closely the Benghazi debacle was reviewed, Republicans surely should show as much interest in this failed venture.

In sum, Tillerson has entered a house of horrors where leaking, confusion and incompetence are the prevailing qualities. If he can persuade Trump to use a script on the phone and demand Bannon, who is primarily responsible for the travel ban fiasco, out of the NSC, he will earn our gratitude.