By Patricia H Kushlis
Last Sunday’s New York Times lead editorial “The Shriveling State Department” excoriated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for his deplorable management of this country’s oldest cabinet department, and his mishandling of its most senior career officers to the detriment of US foreign policy expertise – and in particular - his poor treatment of and regard for the US Foreign Service in general. The Times followed a few days later with a lengthy news report by Gardner Harris “Diplomats Sound the Alarm as they are pushed out in droves."
Convinced that the tiny Department was bloated before having even crossed its threshold last winter, Tillerson had already decided to cut the budget by 31% to $37.6 billion (or 14% of the military’s request) and reduce personnel by 2,000 by November 2018 – a reduction in force of about 8% according to David McKean, head of State’s Office of Policy and Planning from 2013-16, in a November 26 article in Politico Magazine.
How Tillerson came up with these numbers remains a mystery and how he plans to take a 31% budget cut but reduce staff by only 8% makes no sense for a department which relies largely upon staff expertise. Maybe he just expects that his flying solo management style and refusal to fill vacancies will make any number of staff look for greener pastures elsewhere as apparently happened when he headed Exxon. And maybe he's right.
He’s already been told by Senate Foreign Relations that the 31% budget cut is dead on arrival but then the question becomes whether he will simply refuse to spend the appropriation allocated by Congress or ultimately grudgingly acquiesce to Congressional demands.
Regardless, Tillerson began by summarily firing senior career officers at the very top of the agency upon arrival. At latest count, 100 senior officers have been fired or left voluntarily after seeing the handwriting on the wall. This has reduced the number to 388 – from 464 based on statistics from the American Foreign Service Association which the Politico article incorrectly identified as an alumni association. In fact, AFSA is the professional and labor organization of the Foreign Service to which both active duty and retired Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists belong. (Note: I was a member for years before retirement and have retained my membership thereafter.)
Back to Tillerson: He is reportedly relying upon two staffers with sparse knowledge or expertise in foreign affairs or management to develop and oversee implementation of a major departmental reform with assistance from two private sector firms contracted to conduct a study of the department’s operations and make recommendations for change without much thought given to the companies’ abilities to do the job.
In August, Tillerson brought in Maliz Beams, as Counselor to the Department of State, as a consultant to implement the radical reform plan. She abruptly quit after just three months on the job. No explanations have been forthcoming.
A “listening” questionnaire sent by email to a selection of staff earlier this year was supposed to provide career staff buy in. A small group of career employees sworn to secrecy regarding its implementation is another part. When the resulting product was first unveiled to the Hill, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who know far more about the State Department than Tillerson and his merry band of so called reform experts found laughable.