Between Tillerson — an oil executive used to cutting headcount to keep profit-margins up — and a president who revels in his own ignorance of the world — and declares, “I am the only one who matters” in response to questions about a raft of unfilled slots — it is hardly surprising to see, after more than 10 months, key State Department jobs are not filled, morale is awful and a parade of seasoned diplomats have headed for the exits. The New York Times reported last week, “So far, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled, and for most of the vacancies, Mr. Tillerson has not nominated anyone.”
Tillerson, despite his obsession with org charts and cluelessness about the impact of lost expertise on American foreign policy, has still gotten the reputation as an “adult” restraining the president from even greater blunders than those we’ve seen. Bergmann, for one, isn’t buying it. “It is time to stop including Tillerson with the other ‘adults’ protecting us from Trump,” he argues. “In addition to deconstructing State, he’s slow rolling Russia sanctions, hamstringing efforts to respond to Russian disinformation, and turning away from U.S. support from democracy and human rights.” He contends that Tillerson is “not moderating Trump, he’s implementing Trump’s policies and in the process doing tremendous damage to America’s position in the world.”
Some Trump apologists on the right claim all of this is a positive development, a weeding out of civil servants who aren’t receptive to a Republican president. That’s a telling reflection of the anti-government, anti-expertise syndrome that’s gripped the right. It ignores, or even derides, the notion that people who know something about the world and about the nuts and bolts of foreign policy implementation are essential to maintaining U.S. leadership in the world.
Moreover, those cheering the elimination of foreign policy experts would be horrified if a Democratic administration ignored critical briefings and advice from those with particularized knowledge of the world and the department’s operation.
As the Times reported:
Mr. Tillerson turned down repeated and sometimes urgent requests from the department’s security staff to brief him, according to several former top officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Finally, [Bill A. ] Miller, the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, was forced to cite the law’s requirement that he be allowed to speak to Mr. Tillerson.Mr. Miller got just five minutes with the secretary of state, the former officials said. Afterward, Mr. Miller, a career Foreign Service officer, was pushed out, joining a parade of dismissals and early retirements that has decimated the State Department’s senior ranks. Mr. Miller declined to comment.
Hillary Clinton was pilloried for far less in connection with facility security in the wake of the Benghazi attacks and death of four Americans.
Unfortunately, the United States is shedding experience at a time the number and complexity of threats are mounting. Without adept foreign policy experts, the reliance on purely military options increases, and hence, military force become the first, not the last, resort. Moreover, for decades the United States may feel the loss of a cadre of foreign policy experts who have served both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Republicans celebrating the destruction of the State Department should reflect on the tenure of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, one of the most accomplished and respected secretaries in modern times. He, too, realized the tendency of career diplomats to resist direction from political appointees, especially ones in a Republican administration. Shultz however filled the political slots with accomplished and adept professionals, and then worked with them to earn the respect and loyalty of the career foreign service personnel. That’s how a skilled and diligent secretary operated. Alas, the current administration is neither skilled nor diligent. As a result, it weakens our diplomatic reach and harms our national security.
Those who celebrate such destructive impulses should be embarrassed — and held accountable when diplomatic disasters inevitably result.