Secretary Tillerson and he State of State

By David T. Jones on March 18, 2017

Washington, DC - In recent media stories, there are floods of tears (some of the crocodile nature) regarding the degree to which the U.S. Department of State and Secretary Tillerson have (not) controlled U.S. foreign policy.

To an extent, this observation is accurate.  Secretary Tillerson stands alone atop a bureaucratic pyramid of senior State Department officials of the deputy secretary, under secretary, and assistant secretary ilk that are empty.  Or at least empty of specific designees selected by Tillerson and/or President Trump.  They are filled by “acting” officials, essentially long-term civilian government employees and career Foreign Service Officers.  Their political predecessors were defenestrated or made to feel sufficiently unwelcome that with their backs up against the wall, they read the writing thereon.  

Consequently, residual staff whinges about lacking guidance.  Nobody is available to tell them what to do, how and where to do it.  Nor do they consider this vacuum an opportunity to move forward with specific projects (either new or holdover from the previous administration) on their own initiative.  “Bureaucrat” and “cautious” are coterminous.

So far during his brief incumbency, Secretary Tillerson has traveled to Europe, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and China.  And, whine/moan with only one “pool” reporter for the Asia trip.  Although presumably the “geographic” bureaus provided the Secretary with briefing material and talking points, such did not have the wide “clearance” previously standard.  Of course, when even trivial material earlier required 22 clearances, perhaps Tillerson concluded that career professionals in geographic bureaus could provide professional insight and guidance.  

For Washington insiders, Tillerson was a surprising/curious choice as Secretary.  A hugely successful businessman as head of Exxon, he had no Washington experience.  A predecessor businessman, George Shultz, headed Bechtel, but was respectively Secretary of Labor, head of OMB, and Treasury Secretary before becoming Secretary of State.  Nevertheless, Tillerson had wide experience on obviously sensitive oil and gas issues in key geographic areas, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states.  It was considered a potential plus he was not one of Trump’s personal kitchen cabinet or a golfing buddy from Mar-a-Lago’s resort club.  Indeed, Tillerson reportedly had little/no personal experience with Trump.

Unfortunately, this independence has not, thus far, proved helpful.  Tillerson’s choice for deputy (Elliot Abrams) was rejected by President Trump.  And other staffing has been very slow.  Indeed, when tasked with the large number of unfilled government positions, a spokesman reportedly said that the Administration did not intend to fill an unspecified number of them.  To be sure, State may be regarded as open to reduction.  With one organizational chart listing 63 bureaus or offices, seven Special Envoys, 16 Special Representatives, seven Ambassadors at Large, 15 Coordinators, seven Special Advisors, one senior Advisor, one Senior Official, one Personal Representative, and one Senior Representative, pruning is likely.

Moreover, reality demonstrates that for more than a generation, technology has made it possible to conduct key negotiations, largely directed by the National Security Council staff or with small, specially created teams, independent of significant contact or coordination/clearance with bureaus or other elements of the USG.  For example, throughout the Clinton Administration, the Middle East Peace Process was conducted by a virtually hermetically sealed Special Middle East Coordinator office answering only to the Secretary and working directly with the White House.

Likewise, negotiations regarding U.S. foreign bases were frequently consigned to small teams, embedded in embassies, but not answering to the ambassador.

Coincidentally, the president can pick up the phone and speak directly to almost any foreign leader without bothering to coordinate—or even inform—the Secretary of State.  Sometimes, the best information on a presidential level meeting/conversation that Foreign Service Officers get is from the embassy or foreign ministry of the country involved.

Moreover, it is obvious to President Trump that State Department officials largely would have preferred their former boss, Hillary Clinton, as president.  When 900 State Department members signed a “dissent” to the president’s initial policy on immigrants and refugees, it could only reinforce the president’s conclusion that State is not trustworthy.  It is feckless to pronounce that we are foreign policy technicians willing to carry out legal executive directives regardless of personal views.  True, but not believable.

Indeed, Tillerson may find himself in the position comparable to William Rogers during President Nixon’s first term.  Despite long friendship with Nixon, Rogers found himself sidelined by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.  State didn’t return to relevance until Kissinger became Secretary.

Perhaps, State should anticipate “Secretary Steve Bannon.”

David Taylor Jones was former Senior Counselor at the American Embassy in Ottawa


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