The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has spent some time in 2017 pointing out Rex Tillerson’s many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many flaws as secretary of state. In the month since the last time I bothered to point this out, things have not gotten any better. Barbara Stephenson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, recently reported some bleak numbers about the state of the senior diplomatic corps:
While I do my best, as principal advocate for our institution and as a seasoned American diplomat, to model responsible, civil discourse, there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us.
There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half. The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January. Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today — and are still falling.
These numbers generated some media attention. The possible politicization of the Foreign Service has generated even more. And then there’s the recent news about State Department buyouts. As the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris reported:
The State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed on Friday.
The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.
To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide.
All of this has enraged Congress across partisan lines and managed to alienate the one power player who Tillerson had befriended in recent months: Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). As Politico’s Nahal Toosi wrote:
Corker’s annoyance with Tillerson also has turned heads because both men have business backgrounds — Tillerson is a former ExxonMobil CEO and Corker make a fortune in real estate — and both wish to make government more efficient. Corker shares Tillerson’s basic goal of reshaping the State Department. But he is frustrated with Tillerson’s execution of the plan, observers said.
“Corker saw in Tillerson a kindred spirit,” said Tom Hill, a former senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who is now with the Brookings Institution. “But the more that this has played out and looked so fumbled, he, as a former businessman himself, feels that these opportunities are being squandered.”
In fairness, Tillerson and his political staff at the State Department have attempted to push back on the failure narrative. But as the Associated Press’s Matthew Lee recounted, even the pushback required some acknowledgment of bad news:
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said there was a need to better communicate plans.
“Admittedly, the department could do a better job of communicating every single step along the way of the redesign process,” she told reporters. “There is a morale issue and the department realizes that we need to say more.”. . .
Nauert appealed to frustrated diplomats not to leave their careers in frustration.
“There is a morale issue in this building and that’s why I say, you know, folks, hang in there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to be done. Please don’t give up. Don’t give up on this building. Don’t give up on what America’s doing. Don’t give up on the importance of this job and this career.”
In other words, the official Tillerson narrative is that morale is low because poor communication rather than poor management. That’s… unpersuasive.
A recent New York Times editorial laid out the effects of all of this managerial chaos:
Mr. Tillerson has shown that business experience isn’t easily transferable to government, where the driver is not the bottom line but the national interest. An engineer, he seems obsessed with management minutiae and metrics; last week, for instance, his deputy secretary spent part of a senior staff meeting telling his underlings how to write effective memos to the boss. Mr. Tillerson seems no less obsessed with control, recently telling senior officials that henceforth his office, not they, would issue the boilerplate statements recognizing this or that country’s national day.
Critics faulted James Baker for relying too heavily on a small coterie of aides when he served as President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state. But those aides all had previous government experience, and Mr. Baker eventually came to integrate career diplomats into his decision-making team. For the most part, Mr. Tillerson’s close aides have no such experience, and the professional diplomats who should be part of his team feel alienated and disrespected.
What this means, in practice, is an incoherent policy toward China and North Korea, and lesser failures elsewhere. There is still no American ambassador in South Korea, thus weakening the ability to develop a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is no sign the administration has a plan for dealing with Syria, now that the Islamic State has been degraded, leaving Russia and Iran in commanding roles.
Measuring the effects of Tillerson’s colossal mismanagement at Foggy Bottom is difficult. For example, the Trump administration has made a risky move in backing the recent Saudi power grab by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. To be fair to Tillerson, however, this seems more like Jared Kushner’s mistake. The thing is, Tillerson has managed to sabotage his standing in about 6,000 different ways. Even if his policy instincts are correct, he is so ham-handed as a manager and adviser that any acumen he possesses is irrelevant.
Equally problematic are the vast areas of the world in which Tillerson and his cronies don’t have a damn clue. Consider recent events in Zimbabwe. Last week, there were signs of a slow-motion military coup against long-standing ruler Robert Mugabe that had the tacit endorsement of local hegemon South Africa. On Sunday, Mugabe was ousted as the leader of the ruling party. Mugabe then addressed the nation, with everyone expecting him to step down as president. The Post’s Kevin Sieff reported what happened next:
Zimbabweans watched in disbelief Sunday as President Robert Mugabe, who they thought was going to resign, instead delivered a meandering speech on state television that made clear the 93-year-old leader has no plans to leave power. . . .
Now, Mugabe’s critics are trying to sort out another way to unseat him. While the party’s vote against him is a sign of its opposition, it does not have any immediate effect on Mugabe’s position as president. The party leaders have control only over their ranks and cannot influence the composition of Zimbabwe’s government.
Impeachment proceedings in parliament appear the most likely way forward, but they could take weeks, according to Zimbabwean legal experts, and would leave the country with a power vacuum in the interim.
Mugabe’s continued intransigence heightens the odds of continued political uncertainty in Zimbabwe, or perhaps a full-blown coup. This scenario has serious consequences for the region, but it does not really affect core U.S. interests. It should not occupy the attention of the president, or the secretary of state. Nonetheless, the United States needs to have a plan about whether foreign aid should be linked to refraining from a coup. Such a move might help correct the mounting consensus that the Trump administration likes strongmen better than democratic rule.
This is precisely the kind of issue for which there is an assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, and an assistant secretary of state for African affairs. These are the subordinates who should devise a strategy for this kind of situation. You know what all of these listed positions have in common? There is no political nominee for any of them.
So, to sum up: An incompetent secretary of state has demoralized the diplomatic corps, demonstrated zero ability to reorganize the State Department beyond vacuous PowerPoint presentations, alienated Congress, alienated every foreign policy observer inside and outside the Beltway, and is, in essence, flying blind on all of the regions in which he has no experience. Including Zimbabwe.
Tillerson cannot resign soon enough. He is no longer just embarrassing himself. He is embarrassing the United States of America.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated the State Department does not yet have a confirmed undersecretary of state for political affairs. In fact, Thomas Shannon serves in that role and was confirmed in February 2016.