News & Politics

Personnel Cuts at State Department Worry Foreign Policy Establishment

Rex Tillerson

Without much fanfare, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is downsizing the State Department bureaucracy and the foreign policy establishment is pushing back.

Besides the Defense Department, there is no more bloated federal department than Foggy Bottom. Tillerson says he wants to eliminate 2000 jobs by October of next year. More importantly, the top-heavy management at state will be cut in half.

This has current and former department personnel sounding the alarm.

New York Times:

The departures mark a new stage in the broken and increasingly contentious relationship between Mr. Tillerson and much of his department’s work force. By last spring, interviews at the time suggested, the guarded optimism that greeted his arrival had given way to concern among diplomats about his aloofness and lack of communication. By the summer, the secretary’s focus on efficiency and reorganization over policy provoked off-the-record anger.

Now the estrangement is in the open, as diplomats going out the door make their feelings known and members of Congress raise questions about the impact of their leaving.

Trump, like most presidents, prefers to keep policymaking in the White House. Bypassing the bureaucracy may hurt some feelings, but is usually necessary to keep department personnel from undercutting the president’s efforts at diplomacy.

In a letter to Mr. Tillerson last week, Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee, citing what they said was “the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January,” expressed concern about “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.”

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, sent a similar letter, telling Mr. Tillerson that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.”

Is that true? Is every one of those 100 “senior Foreign Service Officers” vital to the operations of the department?

Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has made no secret of his belief that the State Department is a bloated bureaucracy and that he regards much of the day-to-day diplomacy that lower-level officials conduct as unproductive. Even before Mr. Tillerson was confirmed, his staff fired six of the State Department’s top career diplomats, including Patrick Kennedy, who had been appointed to his position by President George W. Bush. Kristie Kenney, the department’s counselor and one of just five career ambassadors, was summarily fired a few weeks later.

That day-to-day diplomacy is not only “unproductive.” Lower-level bureaucrats are known to subtly alter policy to undermine initiatives they disagree with and even promote their own agenda.

None were given any reason for their dismissals, although Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Kenney had been reprimanded by Trump transition officials for answering basic logistical questions from Nikki R. Haley, President Trump’s pick as United Nations ambassador. Mr. Tillerson is widely believed to dislike Ms. Haley, who has been seen as a possible successor if Mr. Tillerson steps down.

Patrick Kennedy was one of Hillary Clinton’s most loyal aides when she served as secretary of state. That’s reason enough to fire him in my book.

As with any downsizing of a large entity, there are bound to be positions eliminated or that go unfilled that are actually vital to the operation of the organization. There is also an adjustment period as managers determine how to get the work done with a smaller staff. The bitching by the foreign policy establishment is to be expected given that they can’t possibly imagine how American foreign policy can be managed without three or four assistant secretaries for every nation or region on earth.

Since the foreign service group made no recommendations about how to trim staff, we must assume they didn’t want any staff trimmed at all. It may take a few years to adjust to the new personnel arrangements, but the State Department — and American foreign policy — will survive just fine.