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When Donald Trump appointed Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State, the conventional wisdom was that though Tillerson did not have previous government experience his time as Exxon’s CEO would make him an effective manager of the State Department.  Five months into his term Tillerson has succeeded in building a strong relationship with the President – a key element for any influential Secretary of State.  However, his managerial decisions have left the department dramatically weakened doing great harm to American diplomacy.

The most immediate problem is that Tillerson has left vacant nearly all of the Assistant Secretary slots in the department. These appointees are a key cog at the heart of the State Department’s machinery, intended to ensure that the Secretary is getting the best expertise and information the department has to offer.

Each Assistant Secretary is responsible for leading a regional or functional bureau – the key organizational entities which define the structure of the State Department.  An effective Assistant Secretary uses their role to leverage the hundreds of desk officers and issue area experts both in their bureau and in embassies across the globe to get the best analysis and information.  And then they use their seniority and relationship with the Secretary of State to act as the primary advisor to the Secretary on their portfolio of responsibility. 

Instead, with few announced appointments, weak Acting Assistant Secretaries are playing the role of placeholders. They have little access to Tillerson and when they interact with their foreign counterparts it is clear they have no mandate or influence on U.S. policy.  The result is that Tillerson is relying almost exclusively on only two aides – his Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin and Head of Policy Planning Brian Hook. Most of the department’s expertise are going unused and the Secretary is not getting the best information.  On top of that the situation is creating major bottlenecks as two aides do not have the capacity to cover the entire world for the Secretary of State.

Moreover, there is a lot of diplomatic work that does not merit attention from the Secretary of State, but is still important for protecting U.S. interests.  Assistant Secretaries usually deal with these important secondary issues or cover for the Secretary if a true crisis arises that forces his attention elsewhere.  But since there are so few appointees at the State Department right now with sufficient political influence much of this secondary work is going undone. 

For example, for the past week Tillerson has cancelled travel and dropped most of his other responsibilities to focus on the crisis between Qatar and a number of its Gulf neighbors. That is a perfectly reasonable decision, but when this happens there are not enough other senior level officials to step in and fill the holes and focus on a major crisis unfolding in Venezuela for example or in trying to manage a potential escalating situation with Iran and Russia in Eastern Syria.   

Tillerson’s rationale for keeping these positions vacant is that he is in the midst of conducting a major internal review of the department’s operations and will move forward with appointments once he is done – likely not before the tail end of 2017.  A department review is certainly a healthy thing, but in what world will the Secretary of State not need a point person for the Middle East, Europe, or East Asia?  And why does he have to wait to appoint those people?  Can American diplomacy afford to wait a year while these jobs remain vacant?

Tillerson insisted last week to Congress that he is going into this organizational review with no preconceived notions.  That is simply not true.  The core assumption of the review is that the State Department can afford a 30% cut to its funding.  Tillerson argued to Congress that such a cut would simply return the Department to its historic funding levels.  But numerous outside studies as well as public statements by one Secretary of Defense after another have insisted that lack of funding at the State Department is harming U.S. interests making it impossible to convert gains on the battlefield into sustainable long-term political successes.  As current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis explained in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Perhaps the most striking recent example of this imbalance is in U.S. policy towards Afghanistan.  Earlier this month President Trump gave Mattis the full authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, and a significant increase is expected in the months ahead.  But even as we deepen our military commitment, the State Department just announced the closing of of the office that, since 2009, has been responsible for our Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy.

Eliminating the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) position and returning that responsibility to the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) might make sense as part of Tillerson’s broader restructuring.  However, SCA is being run by an acting Assistant Secretary who is primarily a management expert with little policy experience.  Moreover, the department was given only 24 hours notice before this decision was taken, giving SRAP no time to ensure that its institutional knowledge is transferred to SCA. The bottom line is that at a time when the United States is sending thousands of troops into Afghanistan there is no one at the State Department with primary responsibility for the diplomatic portfolio.  This is a recipe for a deepening military commitment with no political endgame.

Ultimately what we are seeing early on from the Trump administration is a President who is increasingly devolving authority to the military.  At the same time we have a Secretary of State who is dramatically weakening his own department.  The end result is a national security policy being driven almost entirely by military considerations.  This is not a recipe for long-term success. 

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About the author

ILAN GOLDENBERG is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to CNAS, Mr. Goldenberg served as the Chief of Staff to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at the U.S. Department of State. From 2012 to 2013, Mr. Goldenberg served as a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering Middle East issues for Chairmen Kerry and Menendez. In that capacity, he acted as one of the lead drafters of the Syria Transition Support Act which provided additional authorities to arm the Syrian opposition. From 2009 to 2012, Mr. Goldenberg served first as a Special Advisor on the Middle East and then as the Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.