Rex Tillerson is the worst secretary of state in modern American history, according to a Slate article published this weekend.
Tillerson has not bungled the Middle East, negotiated a deal that put Iran on a path to acquire nuclear weapons, abandoned four Americans to die at Benghazi or meddled with the Brexit campaign in the U.K.
But Tillerson does not believe the State Department needs as many employees as it has. The department is overstaffed and underworked, according to Tillerson, and he set about redesigning the agency on a leaner, more efficient scale.
Tillerson was asked at an event last week to explain the sharp reductions in the State Department’s budget and the hollowing out of the diplomatic corps.
“The cuts are ‘reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success … in getting these conflicts [around the world] resolved,’ and therefore won’t need to have so many officials dealing with them,” Fred Kaplan wrote in his Slate piece.
“That may rank as the silliest comment ever made by a Cabinet secretary,” Kaplan wrote.
Kaplan offered three reasons Tillerson’s plan to reduce employment at the State Department by 20 percent or more could not work.
Hope is not a strategy, Kaplan said. You can’t cut programs and personnel on the theory something will work until you know it works.
Second, “anyone who thinks that any Americans, much less those on Team Trump, are going to solve this world’s conflicts has no understanding of history or politics and thus no business being anywhere near the State Department, much less running the place.”
Een if the problems were solvable, it would take a fully stocked diplomatic corps to do it, and Trump and Tillerson have “eviscerated” it.
Kaplan then undermines his own argument. He takes Tillerson to task for his claim that the 31 percent budget cut the secretary requested is not all that dramatic because, in 2016, President Obama had boosted the budget to a “record high” of $55 billion, and Trump was merely returning funding levels to a more “sustainable” status quo.
He then says, “This is simply a lie,” and presents a graph that shows spending on the State Department has climbed steadily since 2001. If one cannot take a look at an organizational chart grown dramatically and chaotically in response to a particular crisis 16 years ago and not find at least a few efficiencies, one might not be looking closely enough.
He scoffed at Tillerson’s claim that he is not so much slashing and burning the department as redesigning it to be more efficient.
Trump has left vacant right at half of the 153 State Department positions that are nominated by a president. These are almost all policy-related jobs, Kaplan said, “including the undersecretaries for political affairs, intelligence and research, politico-military affairs, conflict and stabilization operations,” etc.
Tillerson said most of the posts are filled by acting assistants and undersecretaries, and that this is adequate during the redesign. But Kaplan said this is unacceptable because it’s not clear to foreign governments these interim appointees – often junior officers from prior administrations – actually speak for the president.
It is likely that, as Kaplan says, Trump not filling these spots means he does not take them seriously. When Vladimir Putin kicked out 755 American diplomats earlier this year, Trump thanked him for cutting the payroll. When a Fox news anchor asked Trump about the empty spots, he said, “I’m the only one who matters.”
Trump is right about this. Moreover, in modern White Houses, far more of the work formerly done by various undersecretaries of state is being done at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Kaplan is right that employees are leaving because they sit at their desks all day doing nothing. The administration has no choice. T he political direction of the department cannot emanate from the department itself because of the anti-Trump bias of many of the holdovers.
The State Department is not going to look the same when Tillerson gets done with it. The mainstream media assumes that’s a problem; it almost certainly is not.