What was once considered the immensely capable and respected United States Department of State, the entity responsible for carrying out the complicated details of our political, economic, cultural, humanitarian and military foreign policy throughout the entire world, and the entity most responsible for maintaining what was once the United States’ dominant position as the leader of the free world, is crumbling into oblivion. It is being systematically dismantled through the deliberate destruction, the negligent inattention, and the amateurish bumbling of President Trump and the bungling of his cabal of amateurs, including his Secretary of State Tillerson. Most of us are not paying attention, and nobody seems to care.
We have been refining and honing this massive administrative behemoth of a department to implement and carry out our foreign policy for over 75 years – through 37 Congressional elections, 19 Presidential elections, and 9 complete reversals in administration from one party to another. The tradition has long been that the core machinery of the State Department is apolitical – unchanged and unchanging throughout the entire period, despite the political swings of the nation and the various changes in administration.
At the beginning of 2017, the department was a huge, labyrinthine web of interconnected diplomatic resources headquartered in Washington, with tentacles to every corner of the world. It employed over 70,000 individuals. It was a Department that, on a moment’s notice, could marshal the knowledge of thousands of employees worldwide and channel the specifics on any subject directly to the office of the Secretary, making him the best informed principal in the world at any given time and on any given subject. No country could come even close to matching the depth of resources and thoroughness of the U.S. Department of State.
All of this is changing, and much of the change is irreversible. On the day President Trump took office, he demanded that every political appointee of a predecessor administration within Department of State resign or be fired. These were not requests for “as soon as your replacement is appointed” actions, but rather “clear out your desk right now” demands. All of the political appointees were gone by the following weekend. Of the political appointees at the very top level of State, only a handful of positions have been filled. The critical position of deputy secretary, and most of the key undersecretary posts, remain vacant.
As soon as Tillerson assumed his office at the head of the department, he began to weed out and discharge career service employees – the core of the department that usually does not change with changes in administrations. He announced an intent to implement a 37% reduction in force. Tillerson encouraged the early retirement of many senior foreign service officers and career specialists in his plans of reorganization, while others were just laid off upon the grounds that their positions were being eliminated in the downsize. Lateral transfers are prohibited. Tillerson cancelled the incoming class of foreign service officers – a step akin to the military deciding to forgo commissioning the graduating classes from the service academies. Current managers are being told that three positions must be eliminated to support replacing one open vacancy. One result of this meat-ax approach is that the seventh floor of the Department State – the true nerve center of foreign policy for the entire world – is virtually empty.
The crushing impact of all of these moves upon the career officials throughout the department is telling. Morale is very low. Resignations and early retirement from frustrated career employees are pouring forth, with few applications from qualified individuals to replace them. The remaining career employees, excluded from consideration of policy issues, with normal channels of reporting and networking disrupted or eliminated completely, and without access to information or guidance from leadership, are appearing to wander aimlessly.
All of the ambassadors who had been politically appointed by any previous administration were recalled and dismissed. Only a handful have been replaced, and none of these are in any critical hot spots. Most of the European countries and most of the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan, have no ambassadors. In the critically important Pacific Rim, we have no ambassadors in Australia, China, Japan or South Korea. We only recently designated an ambassador to Russia.
The expectation that Tillerson would surround himself with knowledgeable experts in the specific areas where he lacked experience, did not happen. Instead, Tillerson has gone to outside consultants with no foreign service experience for the reorganization, ignoring the expertise available from within the department and paying no apparent attention to the relative value or importance to any of the particular positions and operations being eliminated. Tillerson eschewed building a personal staff with experience that he could rely upon; his staff, which in past administrations has approached 25 specialists in various areas, now consist of a chief of staff with no experience in state affairs and a former long range policy wonk. Two people. Period.
Both operate without immediate technical staff support and, according to some sources, are completely overwhelmed. They are not utilizing the resources of the department. They are suspicious of anything coming up the pipeline from career officials and yet do not have the knowledge personally. The result is that the entire operations of foreign policy being conducted by the Secretary or the President on almost a purely ad hoc basis. This has already involved critical interchanges where significant blunders have been made, involving China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, other states of the Middle East, the NATO allies, and Great Britain, Australia, Mexico, and even Canada. Canada!
While everybody is watching the machinations within the White House itself, no one is paying attention to the surging tides of foreign policy and the inadequacies of the United States’ responses that are forthcoming from State. While all of our attention is on the amateurs continuing to spin the White House into shambles, or upon the President continuing to fumble his way from one media disaster into another, nobody is paying any attention to what is happening a few blocks away at Foggy Bottom.
The marginalization of the core of our foreign service and the major disintegration of the diplomatic corps needed to carry it out is occurring right under our nose. The only one clearly cheering is Bannon from his new perch on the outside, crowing at last that the demise of the deep state is at hand. Experienced watchers now predict that it will take years to repair the damage already done the machinery of State, with worse yet to come.
And nobody seems to care.