In the New York Times International Edition of 29 July 2017, Roger Cohen writes – Why is Trump hollowing out the State Department? Is it punishment for Hillary Clinton’s department? Or an extreme iteration of the “deconstruction of the administrative state” sought by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon? Roger Cohen writes…
WASHINGTON On the first Friday in May, Foreign Affairs Day, the staff gathers in the flag-bedecked C Street lobby of the State Department beside the memorial plaques for the 248 members of foreign affairs agencies who have lost their lives in the line of duty. A moment of silence is observed. As president of the American Foreign Service Association, Barbara Stephenson helps organize the annual event. This year, she was set to enter a delegates’ lounge to brief Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on its choreography before appearing alongside him. Instead, she told me, she was shoved out of the room.
Stephenson, a former ambassador to Panama, is not used to being manhandled at the State Department she has served with distinction for more than three decades. She had been inclined to give Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. Transitions between administrations are seldom smooth, and Tillerson is a Washington neophyte, unversed in diplomacy, an oilman trying to build a relationship with an erratic boss, President Trump.
Still, that shove captured the rudeness and remoteness that have undermined trust at Foggy Bottom. Stephenson began to understand the many distressed people coming to her “asking if their service is still valued.” The lack of communication between the secretary and the rest of the building has been deeply disturbing.
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.
The 8,000 Foreign Service officers are not sure how to defend American values under a president who has entertained the idea of torture, shown contempt for the Constitution, and never met an autocrat who failed to elicit his sympathy. Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of national self-amputation.
The president signaled early on that military might, not diplomatic deftness, was his thing. Soft power was for the birds. This worldview (in essence no more than Trump’s gut) has been expressed in a proposed cut of almost 30 percent in the State Department budget as military spending soars; a push to eliminate some 2,300 jobs; the vacancy of many senior posts, including 20 of the 22 assistant secretary positions requiring Senate confirmation; unfilled ambassadorships — roughly 30 percent of the total — from Paris to New Delhi; and the brushoff of the department’s input in interagency debate and in pivotal decisions, like withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Days are now marked by resignations, unanswered messages and idled capacity.
The reasons for this dismemberment are unclear. Is it punishment for Hillary Clinton’s department? Or an extreme iteration of the “deconstruction of the administrative state” sought by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon? Does it reflect the priorities of Trump’s base or White House suspicion of the “deep state” or the president’s love of generals? All these factors appear to play a part. The upshot is a radical militarization of American foreign policy, and that’s dangerous.
Tillerson, who declined my request for an interview and whose spokesman never responded to calls and an email, insists he knows what he’s about. The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil is a methodical man. He’s an engineer; nuance is not his forte. “What’s the rush?” he’s been heard to say, apparently oblivious to the storm brewing. At Exxon, he occupied the so-called God Pod, known for its remoteness. At the State Department, his chief of staff is widely seen as having walled him off. His well-regarded deputy, John Sullivan, has initiated some muchneeded outreach, but top leadership is still so depleted that communication stalls.
Olympian aloofness may work at an oil company. It won’t at a government agency whose leader is the nation’s face to the world.
The secretary has hired two consulting groups, Deloitte and Insigniam, to carry out a complete reorganization of the State Department next year. A survey went out to all employees; the process is very deliberate. Those empty name slots down the ghostly seventh-floor corridors may remain empty until mid-2018. There are certainly things to fix in a State Department whose mission has grown cluttered, with some two dozen special envoys and special advisers for everything from global youth to disability rights. But Tillerson has not explained to the department’s 75,000 employees what the revamp’s strategic aims are.
“The unanswered question with the cuts is: to what end?” McEldowney said. Another senior official, who has since left, pressed Tillerson for direction and was told: “It’s very simple. End terrorism. End radicalization. Deal with China.”
Besting Beijing, beating Islamist terrorism and boosting American business are clearly Trump priorities. As for the non-priorities, the possible elimination at the State Department of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as well as questions over how the Office of Global Criminal Justice will be reconfigured, are indicative. Trump wants value for money. American values — freedom, human dignity and the rule of law — are another story.
On May 3, in his one town-hall meeting (if an event where he refused to take questions may be called that) with the department staff, Tillerson declared, “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
This suggested Tillerson’s acquiescence to the valueless, transactional foreign policy emerging from the White House, a zero-sum game in which “Pay up” is the constant admonition to allies — and forget about any shining city on a hill. It’s hard to overstate how disturbing this is for many in the State Department. They know diplomacy is a tough business built around sometimes ugly compromise. But human rights are not some bargaining chip in the quest for the ultimate deal.
As Daniel Fried, another former ambassador who left this year, said upon his departure, “Values have power.”
Over the years, in war zones and outside them, I’ve known American Foreign Service officers for whom the word “noble” was not misplaced. They were driven by the determination to make a difference and extend the reach of human decency. Ambassador Chris Stevens, holed up in a Benghazi hotel, comes to mind, talking to me without illusions about the tiny chance for greater representation and freedom in Arab societies as dictatorships crumbled. For his values and commitment he paid with his life in 2012; his name is now on one of those plaques in the C Street lobby.
Asked about the situation at the State Department, Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, told me: “Our interests in the end rest on our values. I am concerned because the country seems to be veering away from values that are so foundational for us.” David Rank, the top American diplomat in China who quit last month over Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, echoed that: “It’s disturbing to have an administration so nakedly uninterested in our values.”
Of course, Foreign Service officers are pros; they try to do their jobs even if they’re unsure whether to continue as before or await unforthcoming instructions. Six months into Trump’s administration, the world has not gone over a cliff. The institutions Trump has mocked, including NATO, have not collapsed. The “One China” policy and the Iran nuclear deal have not been abandoned. Indeed, on Iran, Tillerson has been a voice of restraint, curbing, for now, Trump’s bellicose instincts.
But as William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it to me, “Beneath the surface, there’s nothing at all that’s normal.” Hard power and soft power are complementary. Cut out one and American leverage is lost. Wendy Sherman, an under secretary of state in the Obama administration, said, “Whether witting or not, this is not just the disruption of the State Department, it’s the destruction, and the minimization of the role of diplomacy in our national security.”
There is no identifiable policy in Syria, where a reprisal missile strike for Bashar al-Assad’s renewed use of chemical weapons occurred in a vacuum and was later likened by a cabinet member to “after-dinner entertainment.” On Russia, Trump is effectively paralyzed. With both Iran and North Korea the possibility of war has grown. China is scarcely quaking in its shoes. A marginalized State Department leads to the farce of the White House’s Israel-Palestine peace initiative, uncoordinated with the diplomats who know the issues and are needed to marshal regional support. Alliances have frayed: Both Germany and Canada have concluded that Trump’s America is unreliable and, as Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, the time has come to “take our destiny into our own hands.”
In the Saudi-Qatar eruption last month, the extent of dysfunction was clear. Saudi Arabia, with clear support from Trump, orchestrated a blockade of Qatar, where the United States has its largest regional air base, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. Never mind that such accusations coming from the Saudis are pretty rich. That was on June 5. Four days later, Tillerson appealed for reconciliation. The blockade was “impairing U.S. and other international business activities.” Barely an hour later, Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Throughout this time, Tillerson never contacted Smith, who was then still the Qatar ambassador, she told me. By contrast, she spoke four times to Defense Secretary James Mattis during the first week of the embargo; that communication line, at least, was open. Finally, this month, Tillerson spent a few days in the region trying to broker a deal between Doha and Riyadh, to no avail.
The Tillerson-Trump relationship remains a work in progress, with each blaming the other for the slow pace of State Department appointments. Tillerson is used to being in control; so is Trump; that’s complicated. White House attempts to sideline the secretary on Iran have fueled tensions, to the point that there is talk — denied by the State Department — of a Tillerson resignation, or “Rexit,” later this year. Tillerson said this week he’d stay “as long as the president lets me.”
Tillerson’s priority has been getting on good terms with his boss, but as he’s been managing up, frustration has grown down below. He needs to act fast if he is to salvage the situation. Talk of a “trust deficit” has translated into an atmosphere of growing unease in which people walk documents over to their recipients because they’re afraid emails will get leaked. The secretary needs to reach out to career officers and the American public. He needs to explain what all the cuts are supposed to achieve.
An American jewel is at stake, a place where honorable patriots take an oath to the Constitution — that is to say, to the rule of law, representative governance and the democratic processes that, with conspicuous failings but equally conspicuous bravery, United States diplomats have sought to extend across the world. They have done so in the belief that humanity, in the long run, will benefit from freedom. Since 1945, liberty has extended its reach. But now, at a time of growing great-power rivalry, a diminished State Department leaves a vacuum Russia and China will fill.
Tillerson needs to acknowledge that his first months in office have cast doubt on America’s fundamental mission, and make clear that soft power — diplomacy consistent with our values — is as critical a part of the American arsenal as the military.
Stephenson, the Foreign Service Association president, said: “People are struggling with how to honor their oath. The basic question is: How do you serve this great institution in what is one of the most trying times for our Republic?” She has hosted informal sessions with colleagues devoted to this question.
The answer is to speak truth to power. Trump may have besmirched the Republic with lies and attacks on the First Amendment and the judiciary; it cannot be easy for Foreign Service officers to walk into far-flung embassies and know your role is to represent America’s democracy to the world. Still, it is essential the State Department hold the line — for global security, for decency and for truth itself.
In her farewell speech on June 9, McEldowney, the director of the Foreign Service Institute — who had intended to stay seven more years but then found the situation untenable — said: “I learned that loyalty demands honest disagreement. I learned that our duty compels us to disobey an instruction that is legally or morally wrong. And I learned that we swear an oath not to a king or even a president, but to a constitution, a system of laws that Lincoln described as the only true sovereign of a free people.”
My friend Chris Stevens, who did not die in Libya for a business deal, would have approved of those words.