- By Jon FinerJon Finer was the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and director of policy planning at the State Department. He also spent four years in the Barack Obama White House, serving as a senior advisor in the offices of the national security advisor and the middle east advisor, as a foreign-policy speechwriter in the office of Vice President Joe Biden, and as a White House fellow in the office of the chief of staff. Before serving in government, Finer was a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, and Gaza.
Elections have consequences and among them is the fact that the new administration gets to select its own team to implement its own policies. As a State Department political appointee in the Barack Obama administration, I was under no illusion after the election that I would be asked to stick around or, painful as it may be, that the policy initiatives that my colleagues and I had championed were likely to persist.
But what is happening these days at the State Department — where a slew of senior career diplomats and management professionals have been given the non-choice between resigning effective Friday and being summarily relieved of their duties and where several others have retired voluntarily — is different and could be damaging. These are not, for the most part, people who have any role in implementing signature Obama administration policies on which the new team has signaled a different direction, like the Iran nuclear deal, fighting climate change, addressing women’s issues globally, or managing the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Rather, many of the officials set to depart in the coming days are responsible for bread-and-butter diplomatic and bureaucratic work that benefits all Americans and should be beyond the reach of politics. They oversaw the production of 19 million U.S. passports last year, the second highest annual total in American history. They helped return some 300 children abducted abroad to their rightful American parents. They are responsible for arranging visas for foreign nationals who come to the United States to do business or spend tourism dollars. They oversee security for more than 275 diplomatic posts overseas. They executed Obama’s decision to close Russian diplomatic facilities in response to interference in our election. They make good on our commitment to transparency by processing an unprecedented volume of document requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And they arrange for the evacuation of American citizens amid, for example, medical emergencies or burgeoning foreign crises.
What is most troubling about these personnel decisions is not that the new administration wants to select its own people for these roles. Like it or not, that is to be expected — although it is worth noting that when the Obama administration came in, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replaced few, if any, of the most senior George W. Bush-era officials from the department’s management operation. What is most troubling is that these officials are being shown the door before successors are even named, let alone confirmed, and before a new secretary of state or deputy secretary is in place, leaving a gaping hole at the top of the institution during what is already a historically turbulent transition.
The catalog of unfilled senior positions includes a veritable who’s who of the department’s senior management officials: the undersecretary of state for management, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security (who retired, as long planned, on the last day of the Obama administration), the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, the assistant secretary of state for administration, and the chief FOIA officer, and the director of the Office of Foreign Missions. Those positions alone represent more than 100 years of combined experience. Other decisions will compound the impacts of their absence: The Donald Trump administration wants to eliminate entirely the position of deputy secretary of state for management and resources, who could have helped cover the absence of other senior officials, and the White House still hasn’t put a name forward for deputy secretary of state, the department’s No. 2 official, who will take on an even greater management role in the new structure.
Meanwhile, on the policy side, the career officer serving as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security — the department’s most senior official dealing with, among other things, nuclear nonproliferation, chemical weapons, and the monitoring of arms control treaties — was en route to meetings in Europe when he was directed to return home to resign by Friday. The assistant secretary for conflict stabilization operations received a similar directive.
If these vacancies seem unsettling, you’ll need to get used to it. Between the extensive vetting required of senior appointees and a constipated Senate confirmation process, it will almost certainly be many months before these top positions get filled, leaving a vacuum that will impair the department’s ability to manage U.S. foreign relations, operate overseas, and serve the interests of the many millions of Americans who live or travel abroad.
To some extent, this self-inflicted wound can be chalked up to a campaign apparatus still pivoting from a surprising election victory to the imperatives of governance. For months leading up to the election, senior State Department officials prepared memorandums in anticipation of meeting their successors — a good faith attempt to facilitate as seamless a handoff as possible. But the “landing team” sent to facilitate the transition was constantly in flux, and very few — if any — of us, including Secretary of State John Kerry, ever met the people who would replace us, and most didn’t know the names of our successors by the time we were out the door.
Intentional or otherwise, the message that the Trump administration is sending through these early personnel moves is not just that the new team is still getting its act together or wants a break from the past, both of which are understandable, but something potentially more pernicious. Career officials are concerned that it reflects a fundamental disregard for the essential role of diplomacy among our foreign-policy tools, by an administration that has shown an early fetish for all things economic and military. More troubling would be if the administration is subjecting the State Department to a subtler version of the freeze imposed on agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, intending to hamstring an institution whose rank and file are not fully trusted.
Whatever the motivation, if it is not quickly rectified, breaking faith with the State Department’s career cadre will go down as a major management mistake. As someone who benefited enormously and constantly from the wisdom, counsel, and camaraderie of my foreign and civil service colleagues during four years in Foggy Bottom, I can attest that they are, above all, expert, professional, and patriotic. It is in their DNA to put aside personal politics and serve the mission, so long as it is reasonable and clearly defined. They have saved generations of political appointees from mishaps large and small and ably manage most of our foreign relations (after all, out of more than 70,000 State Department employees, political employees number less than 300). Even the savviest outsiders simply cannot replicate their institutional knowledge, particularly about the unglamorous but essential arcana of how the department actually works.
The department will certainly survive these early purges, as the American Foreign Service Association, the career diplomats’ union, put it: “Have no doubt that the next generation of leaders is eager to step up and serve.” But for now, the state of mind among many department officials I’ve been in touch with since I departed last week has been one of confusion, with the ouster of mentors and managers and the arrival of new people whose eventual roles have not yet been clarified or explained. Some of those who arrived since Inauguration Day have already indicated that they may not be staying. A new secretary of state and front office team will help, but they would be wise to send a strong, immediate signal that the career workforce will be respected, retained, and empowered. Otherwise, I fear that the departures reported this week might be only the beginning, and that is an outcome that no one, regardless of our views of the Trump administration, should want.
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