The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has not been shy in expressing ever-increasing levels of disdain toward our current secretary of state. Rex Tillerson got off on the wrong foot in February and has been mostly tripping over himself ever since. By some metrics, this is the lowest-profile State Department in decades. In the past month alone, there have been a profusion of long-form autopsies, columns and op-eds eviscerating Tillerson’s tenure. Critics such as Max Boot are calling for him to resign. Axios is reporting that even President Trump is apparently disenchanted with Tillerson.
A case can be made that Tillerson just needs more time to move down the learning curve. He has, ever so slowly, grown a little more comfortable with the press. His willingness to distance himself from Trump’s Charlottesville remarks is certainly admirable. And there are aspects to his plans to reorganize the State Department that are laudable, such as the rationalization of special envoys.
The thing is, it took me 10 minutes to write the previous paragraph. It took that long to rack my brain to think of positive things to say about Tillerson. In total, his negatives massively outweigh his strengths as secretary of state. He is slowly strangling the department he is ostensibly supposed to be leading.
Tillerson has made three strategic miscalculations that will cripple his tenure from here on in. First, as previously observed, Tillerson allocated all of his political capital to ingratiating himself with Trump. There were defensible reasons for this choice, but it’s increasingly clear that it hasn’t worked. If Trump no longer trusts Tillerson, then he has no other political goodwill to draw upon. He has made zero deposits in Washington’s favor bank.
Second, Tillerson has prioritized the reorganization of Foggy Bottom to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. This has led to some truly bizarre outcomes. His reliance on outside consultants has led to much derision within the diplomatic corps. I recently had the opportunity to chat with several high-ranking diplomats at State. When I asked one affable consul general who shall remain nameless whether he had taken the consulting survey designed to elicit feedback, he quickly shot back an expletive and a “no.” It is readily apparent than most Foreign Service officers think the surveys will not provide much in the way of useful data.
Because of the reorganization, Tillerson has moved extremely slowly on political appointments. His counterargument has consistently been that reorganization comes first. But no reorganization is going to eliminate key undersecretary and assistant secretary positions that remain unfilled. Even mundane activities such as reporting to Congress have been micro-managed by Tillerson and his political staff. Former State Department official Amanda Sloat chronicled the degree of micro-management in USA Today:
Their first-hand knowledge is often ignored, as the secretary beefs up a policy planning staff with outside experts and has eliminated the authority of senior staff to make routine decisions. Twenty-two of 24 bureaus are headed by acting assistant secretaries, who are not empowered by Congress or the secretary to develop and implement policy priorities. Rumors fly about which offices and envoys will be axed.
A hiring freeze, which was imposed by Trump but lifted three months later across the federal government, remains in place at State pending the ongoing review. Until last week, State officials were barred from serving rotations in the National Security Council on financial grounds. Officials borrowed from agencies have long staffed the NSC, enabling departments to ensure their perspectives are incorporated into White House policy-making. Spouses of diplomats, who often give up rewarding careers to follow their partners overseas, are now prevented from filling positions at embassies. Civil servants, unlike their foreign service counterparts, are not currently eligible for promotion nor allowed to transfer to new jobs in different offices.
This is Jimmy-Carter-managing-the-White-House-tennis-court-schedule level of stupid. Furthermore, Tillerson appears to be taking his own sweet time with his big reorganization, astonishing members of Congress at the length of time his assessment would take.
What is particularly appalling is that all of the efforts at reorganization appear to have sapped any other efforts at, you know, diplomacy. Democracy promotion has been scrubbed from State’s mission. Lower-level initiatives such as the Community of Democracies have been allowed to atrophy.
Third, Tillerson’s emphasis on reorganization has resulted in the hemorrhaging of human capital from the State Department. There are myriad examples of top-notch Foreign Service officers retiring rather than having to endure the caprice of Tillerson’s obsession with reorganization. A month ago, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen collected some astonishing on-the-record quotes from recently departed Foreign Service officers:
An exodus is underway. Those who have departed include Nancy McEldowney, the director of the Foreign Service Institute until she retired last month, who described to me “a toxic, troubled environment and organization”; Dana Shell Smith, the former ambassador to Qatar, who said what was most striking was the “complete and utter disdain for our expertise”; and Jake Walles, a former ambassador to Tunisia with some 35 years of experience. “There’s just a slow unraveling of the institution,” he told me.
Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer note in Foreign Policy that one of Foggy Bottom’s top lawyers stepped down this week. Lynch and Gramer’s story is devastating to any defense of Tillerson’s management acumen:
Veteran employees have been leaving in droves since January, when the Trump administration forced the State Department’s top career diplomats, including Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management, and Tom Countryman, the acting undersecretary for arms control, to pack their bags. “This is extraordinary…I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one senior career State Department official….
“When serious hardcore professional diplomats that have records of exemplary service serving both Republicans and Democrats are deciding to head for the door rather than stick it out, something is very wrong,” said Reuben Brigety, dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the African Union.
“If you wanted to actually set out to break American diplomacy, this is how you’d do it,” Brigety said.
Just as State’s most senior staff is leaving, Tillerson has halted the pipeline of any fresh infusion of human capital. State’s hiring freeze has been extended to fellowship programs designed to entice the best of the best to consider a career in diplomacy.
Tillerson is such a bad manager that he has spurned both free money and free talent. The State Department has not spent $80 million authorized by Congress to fight misinformation and Russian propaganda. According to Politico, “Tillerson aide R.C. Hammond suggested the money is unwelcome because any extra funding for programs to counter Russian media influence would anger Moscow, according to a former senior State Department official.” (UPDATE: A State Department official wrote me after this post was published to say that last week, Tillerson approved the release of $19.8 million from that fund. Politico reported the same thing this afternoon, also after this was published.) Furthermore, State has spurned all of the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Affairs Fellows. This is a program that makes talented scholars freely available to U.S. foreign affairs agencies for a year. Council president Richard Haass confirmed to me that State has not accepted any of this year’s fellows, despite the fact that they come with zero cost.
Let’s be very clear: Rex Tillerson is purposefully downsizing the State Department.
Last month, the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison explained why the crippling of the State Department would be a long-run catastrophe:
Trump and Tillerson are not only hamstringing this administration’s foreign policy in another example of self-sabotage, but they are ensuring that future administrations will inherit a diminished, dysfunctional department. They are going to make it harder to secure U.S. interests abroad in the near term, and they are practically guaranteeing the erosion of U.S. influence everywhere. Insofar as the State Department is the chief institution responsible for American “soft” power, weakening the institution simply makes it easier for an already intervention-prone Washington to rely on “hard” power to respond to crises and conflicts. That means more unnecessary wars, at least some of which might have otherwise been avoided.
This isn’t rocket science. In less than seven months in the job, Tillerson has proven to be a feckless manager of his organization and a poor handler of the president of the United States. To be fair, even the savviest secretary of state would have his or her hands full with a president like Trump. The sharp contrast between Tillerson’s fumblings and the more nimble footwork of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shows that Tillerson is the opposite of a good secretary of state. Most of Trump’s private-sector cabinet officials have been dreadful, but Tillerson is the worst of the lot.
I do not take any glee in chronicling this litany of incompetence. I was agnostic about Tillerson’s nomination, and thought his first speech to the State Department set the right tone. I have agreed with some of his diplomatic instincts, and even the need for some reorganization. He has been so bad at every facet of his job, however, that I am no longer worried about who Trump would pick to replace him. At this point, an inanimate carbon rod would be a better secretary of state than Rex Tillerson.
For the good of the country and the good of the State Department, I beg you, Mr. Secretary: please resign.