Shadow Government

A Requiem for Rex’s Redesign

Rex Tillerson's biggest failure — his disastrous bid to reorganize the State Department — can't be blamed on anyone else.

Rex Tillerson departs after speaking to employees at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 2, 2017.  (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Rex Tillerson departs after speaking to employees at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 2, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s decision to inform Rex Tillerson of his firing via tweet was a fitting end to what has been a historically weak and ineffective tenure as secretary of state. Tillerson’s tenure was plagued by two central problems. First, his inability to effectively speak for or represent President Trump’s views abroad. Second, his catastrophic mismanagement of the State Department bureaucracy.

On the first problem, this was not just Tillerson’s fault. By the nature of the job, the secretary of state has to be able to speak credibly for the president of the United States and be their chief representative abroad. And the reality is that no one in the Trump administration speaks credibly for President Trump. Even President Trump does not always speak for himself, making commitments that he almost immediately walks back from or upending U.S. policy on a dime, such as when he announced he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But in the case of Tillerson this difference was particularly pronounced. When last summer, Tillerson jumped into shuttle diplomacy to try to mediate a crisis between Qatar and its neighbors, Trump undercut him by tweeting out his support for the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. While Tillerson was trying to conduct delicate diplomacy with North Korea, Trump publicly criticized him for this approach only to turn around months later and agree to a meeting. And just today, Trump again pointed to disagreements with Tillerson about the future of the Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

What this has meant is that when Tillerson sits in the room negotiating with foreign interlocutors, they know he doesn’t speak for the president. So when Tillerson offers reassurances to allies and commitments from the United States, those words ring hollow. They need to hear it from Trump himself. And similarly, when negotiating with adversaries, Tillerson’s ability to get concessions is gravely damaged because they do not know if what they are offering would be good enough for Trump.

Of course, Tillerson did not help his cause by disagreeing with the president so directly and being out there so publicly in disagreement with the president. He may have been able to be more low-key in contradicting the president, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been. And when public stories come out that the secretary of state called the president a “moron” and the secretary of state refuses to fully deny them, you know you have a problem. But fundamentally, this was always going to be an impossible situation for Tillerson.

The more disappointing element of Tillerson’s legacy will be his utter mismanagement of the State Department — a surprising development given his experience as the CEO of ExxonMobil and a cautionary tale for anyone who believes that private sector experience directly transfers into government. Tillerson’s first mistake was to accept the White House’s demand for a 30 percent cut in the budget. This despite the fact that the State Department has been chronically underfunded for a generation. With that one move he almost immediately lost much of the rank and file of the department.

Tillerson followed this decision up with an ill-conceived plan to redesign the department. He started by freezing all new hiring and even froze the movement of people in their current position for months making it impossible for the department to pursue usual rotations of personnel. He took highly talented mid-career officials and put them on clerical duty to clear out Freedom of Information Act requests. And most devastating for morale, for months he froze “eligible family member” hiring. This meant that spouses who accompany foreign service officers to their foreign posts could not get jobs at their new embassies. This was a problem for the embassies, who often fill many jobs this way that locals are not capable of doing. But it was also devastating for a whole cadre of officers, whose spouses found themselves unemployed and whose families were cut off from a second income. This eventually got fixed, but only after months.

Tillerson also failed to fill key positions at the assistant secretary and undersecretary level. These senior officials act as the connective tissue between State Department experts at the working level and the secretary. They are the ones who drive most of the implementation in the department. Without them, Tillerson counted on a small cadre of experts on the Policy Planning Staff to inform his decision-making. This left Policy Planning overwhelmed and the rest of the department disconnected.

The end result was predictable: a massive brain drain from the department. Sixty percent of career ambassadors — the highest rank of the department — left during Tillerson’s first year. Meanwhile intake of new foreign service officers went from 366 to 100. From top to bottom the department experienced a hemorrhaging of talent. These people are not coming back and the impact will be felt on the department for years to come.

And all of this for Tillerson’s beloved “redesign” initiative, which ultimately failed to get any support from Congress or the department. Eventually, it was scaled down to improving the State Department email and technology systems (an improvement that is desperately needed), but not the grand reform Tillerson first envisioned. And indeed Tillerson will be gone before it is even implemented.

But just because Tillerson was a disaster does not necessarily mean that Pompeo will be any better. Pompeo certainly has a better relationship with the president and he has been an able manager of the CIA. So, one would hope that he can more effectively speak for the president and raise morale at the State Department. But there are also reasons for concern.

First, Tillerson’s policy instincts were generally reasonable. He aligned himself mostly with Secretary Mattis and together they blocked some of Trump’s more outrageous ideas. Pompeo is more ideological and hard-line and could provoke more irresponsible decisions from Trump.

The first spot to watch is the JCPOA where Pompeo has long been a hard-liner. State Department negotiators are currently deep in discussions with the British, French, and Germans about how to address the Trump administration’s concerns with the agreement. Trump has threatened to walk away from the deal if those concerns are not met by mid-May. Will Pompeo support the ongoing process or will he take a harder, unrealistic line that ultimately ends up killing the deal?

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Pompeo was reported to support the embassy move to Jerusalem whereas Tillerson was more cautious. Will we see an even more extreme policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the administration moving forward that gives Israel a green light to take steps that could result in the annexation of territory in the West Bank?

And on North Korea, the transition comes at a particularly delicate moment. Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un by May. Who will now take the lead in the preparations that will be required — Tillerson, a lame duck secretary of state on his way out, or Pompeo, who may not be confirmed for a number of weeks? The timing of Tillerson’s removal is curious to say the least and leaves the State Department hamstrung and undergoing a transition at a particularly sensitive moment.

The bottom line is that Rex Tillerson’s tenure was historically disastrous and this decision by Trump was inevitable. We can only hope that Mike Pompeo will be more effective, but don’t be surprised if in a few months we are missing Rex Tillerson.

Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

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