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.
All new administrations have the prerogative to bring in their own top staffers to fill Schedule C positions so it is not surprising that a new Secretary of State would ask career officers occupying such positions to leave to fill them with others more to his or her political persuasion. But if the career officers affected still have employment rights in accordance with Foreign Service regulations as at least some of them do, this should not result in their departures from the Department.
Nevertheless, what is just as, if not more, troubling is that Tillerson has nominated almost no one to fill the vacated high level Schedule C positions in the department and the one appointment he attempted to make backfired. This was to move a career officer from Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asia to Assistant Secretary. Trump vetoed it.
To outsiders, the ways in which the Foreign Service operates is a black box. It is a hierarchical system which functions in accordance with the Foreign Service Act of 1980, a hybrid system that includes elements of both the uniformed military and the civil service. When the Act was created, the goal was to reinforce an up-or-out rank in person system which trained and retained the very best of high level foreign affairs experts who were expected to culminate their careers as Ambassadors or in other equivalent high ranking positions that were reserved for the very best of a very competitive professional service. One new requirement added was that everyone else who had made it into the service’s mid-ranks but not promoted into the highest ranks would be summarily retired after about 20 years of service in the middle grades.
It sort of worked until 1994 when right wingers Jesse Helms then Chair of Senate Foreign Relations and Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House decided to decimate the foreign affairs agencies and their budgets. To comply, State implemented a reduction in force through 1) a “stealth riff” of class-1 (equivalent to military colonels and GS-15s) officers which mainly forced out those with the language and area expertise upon which much of US foreign affairs expertise rests but allowed the officers already in the senior ranks to re-up indefinitely making it almost impossible for too many in the mid-ranks to move into coveted higher level management positions; and 2) by simultaneously stopping the hiring of new officers.
After 9/11 just seven years later, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and then Hillary Clinton made it their priorities to increase the number of State Department Foreign Service Officers and Specialists substantially. Both went on hiring binges with Congressional blessings as well as gained increases in the Department’s budget to meet the challenging requirements facing the US in the more threatening world.
As it turned out, however, much of the funding and the staff increases gained by Powell and Clinton went to support an enhanced Diplomatic Security effort that included the hiring of more security officers and staff and the construction of one size fits all fortress embassies in the outskirts of capital cities where they may or may not have been needed.
Fast forward to 2017: the Foreign Service Act of 1980 remains in place and its weaknesses are once again being exploited for cheap political reasons.
The career service is under siege by a right wing that detests globalism and everything the Foreign Service stands for and seemingly doesn’t care about the representation of American interests in the world or in understanding how diplomacy can be used to further the country's interests and not in just a quid-pro-quo – or transactional - way.
The world is far more complex than a simple business model. A childish president – elected with the help of an adversarial foreign power – thinks that he, and he alone, represents US interests and, on top of that, he has been lulled into believing by his handlers he is doing a magnificent job.
Yes, the State Department does need reform. A part of that should include a re-examination of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 - now nearly 40 years old - but it needs to be done by people who know what they’re doing and who have the support of a capable Secretary with the backing of a capable White House. None of which exist today.