How Rex Tillerson Did So Much Damage in So Little Time

How Rex Tillerson Did So Much Damage in So Little Time

Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing in January. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Rex Tillerson, who has clashed with President Trump and may be fired soon, has presided over the hollowing out of the State Department. The exodus of senior and rising Foreign Service officers will debilitate American diplomacy for a generation. It’s hard to imagine doing more damage to an institution and less good for America’s standing in the world in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, Mr. Tillerson’s sound instincts on the substance of foreign policy were routinely undermined by Mr. Trump and his incontinent Twitter feed.

Mr. Tillerson’s obsession with downsizing our diplomacy has colored his time at the State Department. Instead of defending the department against the White House’s proposed 30 percent budget cut, he embraced it. Fortunately, Congress stopped — for now — the gutting of our diplomatic, democracy and development programs. Mr. Tillerson imposed a hiring freeze, canceled programs to diversify the department’s personnel, left empty dozens of the most senior positions requiring Senate confirmation and encouraged officers to leave by dangling $25,000 buyouts.

Equally damaging, Mr. Tillerson’s insular management style alienated or marginalized many of the department’s most experienced hands. He and the small team around him seemed to view foreign policy professionals as the enemy — a “deep state” opposed to Mr. Trump’s agenda. In this they were profoundly wrong. Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked closely with hundreds of Foreign Service officers and civil servants through Democratic and Republican administrations. To a person, they take pride in checking their personal beliefs at the department’s door and working for the success of whatever administration they serve. I could not tell you the political affiliation of any of the officers with whom I served.

But instead of looping them in, Mr. Tillerson’s seventh floor locked them out of policy deliberations. The result was to deny Mr. Tillerson the intellectual capital he needed to succeed when policy was debated around the White House Situation Room table. And the department found itself grievously short-handed of the assistant secretaries and ambassadors who actually implement policy around the world.

It’s hard to overstate the lasting harm Mr. Tillerson’s tenure will do to America’s diplomacy. Last month, Barbara Stephenson, the head of the American Foreign Service Association, reported that “our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed.” Since January, the department has lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors — the equivalent of four-star generals — more than 40 percent of its three-star-equivalent career ministers and about 14 percent of its two-star-equivalent minister counselors. “Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks,” Ms. Stephenson noted in a message to her members, “I would expect a public outcry.” And the number of people applying to take the Foreign Service entrance exam has dropped by more than 50 percent.

The world does not organize itself. In the absence of an engaged, diplomatically energized America, others will set the agenda, shape the rules and dominate international institutions — and probably not in ways that advance our interests or values. America’s ability to mobilize others in the pursuit of common objectives will atrophy. And a whole host of challenges that require coordinated, collective responses — epidemics that defy frontiers, hackers who breach firewalls, terrorists who form global networks, aggressors who ignore borders, rogue actors who amass intercontinental arsenals, and an ocean that rises and a planet that warms — will go unmet.

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