Ben Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has had enough of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mismanagement. On Tuesday, he sent a blistering letter:
“More than six months into the administration, a majority of positions requiring Senate confirmation — 86 out of 131 — remain not just unfilled, but without even a nominee. There are no Assistant Secretary nominees for the Middle East or Asia at a time of daunting new challenges from Russia, ISIS, and China. There is no nominee to serve as our ambassador to South Korea even as we confront a deteriorating situation with North Korea. There is no assistant secretary nominee for Africa, which faces unprecedented humanitarian challenges.
“At the same time, there are frequent reports about reshuffling and downsizing of key offices. There have also been reports that the Policy Planning office will see a considerable increase in size, indicative of a change in function and role ahead of any proposal on reorganization itself. … The absence of assistant secretaries means no one is at the helm to direct policy and set priorities toward which thousands of the State Department’s public servants can contribute their expertise in implementing on behalf of the American people.
“So long as the assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security remains vacant, there will be no one charged with overseeing embassy security, leaving us vulnerable in an area that the department’s inspector general cited as the ‘No. 1 priority,’ and one that this administration had repeatedly highlighted as an issue of utmost importance. It also leaves an uncertain path forward for implementing the Benghazi Accountability Review Board recommendations.”
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The notion that one can run a giant organization out of a senior staff office is something an oil executive might think up; in government, it’s a disaster. Cutting out thousands of professional diplomats deprives one of not only expertise but also bandwidth (try managing two or three major crises with only a couple of dozen key players). It’s a recipe for leaks, sabotage, and foot-dragging from those cut out of the policy-making function.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (probably the most respected and effective secretary of state in the past 30-plus years) has a saying: “If you want me in on the landing, then include me on the takeoff.” In other words, you better have everyone you need to buy in or at least participate in the development of policies so that when you hit turbulence, they are invested in finding solutions, not bailing out and pointing fingers.
Cardin also blasted the secretary for the proposed decimation of the State Department budget. “Under the president’s proposal, embassy security, construction and maintenance would be cut by 62 percent, and diplomatic and consular programs would be cut by 14 percent,” he said. “The combined funding for bureaus that lead planning and implementation of diplomatic security-related activities, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, would decline by approximately 13 percent relative to the FY2017 enacted level.”
For all intents and purposes, it looks as though Tillerson is trying to miniaturize the staff, budget, and mission of his department, thereby crippling our “soft power” capacity.
Cardin sent Tillerson a list of questions with a response deadline of Aug. 30. They included such basic queries as: “How are you ensuring that the current vacancies are not harming the department’s ability to carry out its mission?” and “How does the Department plan to address all current security responsibilities worldwide when facing such a large budget shortfall compared to the last fiscal year?”
Cardin is not alone in expressing frustration and concern about a dysfunctional State Department. Members of both parties and outside foreign policy gurus are gobsmacked that there should be such paralysis and confusion seven months into an administration during a time of such upheaval and danger caused by multiple state and non-state actors. Tillerson and the administration are doing immense and possibly permanent damage. The loss of staff, expertise, institutional memory, and consistency will mean less proactive diplomacy, more crises, and more mistakes. It may take years to recover from the Tillerson train wreck.
It’s not clear whether Tillerson is deliberately hobbling his department or whether he is inadvertently — through incompetence, poor judgment, and lack of understanding of the government and diplomacy — leading to the same result. In either case, the State Department is in deep trouble — which means the United States is as well.
Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.