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Opinion The State Department is a hot mess

Opinion: The State Department needs to get itself together. Now. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Karen Attiah, Daniel Mich/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated, 4:35 p.m.

The State Department needs to seriously get its act together.

Many concerned citizens of the world have been wringing their hands with anxiety over how President Trump’s  administration would handle a true international crisis. What if another Ebola-like catastrophe happens? What if Russia continues to up the ante? What if nuclear powers begin testing each other’s patience ?

As Post writer David Rothkopf pointed out this week, “an extraordinary constellation of complex global crises is boiling over right now in real time.” Six months into the administration,  the State Department is a slow-moving hot mess, operating without the budget and necessary personnel to actually make America’s foreign policy work.

Let’s take a quick trip around the world, to foreign policy crises that have escalated in the last week alone:

Russia: Vladimir Putin just ordered U.S. diplomatic missions to slash 755 staffers from their ranks, a retaliatory move in response to the U.S. imposition of sanctions, which Trump (reluctantly) signed into law this week. The move represents the largest forced reduction of U.S. Embassy staff in 100 years. Also this week, Putin prepared to dispatch up to 100,000 troops to a massive military exercise, which would be the largest display of Russian military power since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Venezuela: The political situation has gone from bad to worse, with a sham election, violent protests and widespread hunger. The United States slapped the Maduro regime with sanctions earlier this week.

Pakistan: The nuclear-armed nation just kicked out its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, after his family’s corruption was outed in the Panama Papers.

The Persian Gulf States: The United Arab Emirates stepped up its information offensive against Qatar, producing a documentary accusing it of having links to 9/11.

North Korea: Another week, another intercontinental ballistic missile launch.


Trump finally announced his nominee for ambassador to Russia on July 18. But that’s a rare bit of good news for a State Department that has been described as a “ghost ship,” rudderless under the anemic leadership of former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson. Cue the images of tumbleweeds rolling through the dust; the United States lists ambassador positions vacant in key countries such as Venezuela, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Germany and South Korea (not a great empty spot to have while North Korea continues its aggression). Dozens more undersecretary and assistant secretary positions remain vacant. Low morale is rampant among State Department personnel. Officials are also leaving key posts. My colleague Josh Rogin recently reported on the resignation of Bill Miller, the acting head for diplomatic security. And as Rogin has reported this week, Tillerson is considering axing democracy promotion from the department’s mission.

More in the video above. But long story short, a sleepwalking State Department isn’t calculated to “Make America Great Again” any time soon. The reality is that we are asking for disaster if the United States doesn’t get  its act together in a hurry.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the role of U.S. ambassador to Turkey was vacant. John Bass is the current ambassador to Turkey. He has been nominated to be ambassador to Afghanistan but hasn’t been confirmed. He is still posted to Turkey. This version has been updated.