Elephants in the Room

Mike Pompeo Needs to Clean Up After Rex Tillerson

The new secretary of state should focus on rebuilding his department.

U.S. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on April 12. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on April 12. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo will inherit the State Department at a pivotal moment. Devalued by the White House they serve, and feeling demoralized and bereft of champions, the department’s employees are today desperate for direction and support. And yet they largely wish to continue serving the country and to pursue U.S. interests and values with vigor. This combination of recent damage and future potential presents Pompeo, and the Trump administration, with a unique opportunity. They would do well to seize it.

Any secretary of state would have faced significant challenges leading Foggy Bottom at the outset of the Trump administration. Yet former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed particularly ill-prepared prior to taking the job and unable to get a handle on its vast responsibilities once in it.

Tillerson’s strategic priorities were often unclear, not only to U.S. adversaries and allies but even to the department’s own employees. He served not as diplomat-in-chief, explaining U.S. foreign policy to the American people and the world, but instead seemed often to shun opportunities to publicly persuade, inform, and cajole. When he did speak, the gaps between his rhetoric and the president’s raised questions about whether the secretary’s pronouncements were authoritative. When on the losing side of interagency battles, he and his inner circle often appeared simply to soldier on, seemingly oblivious to White House frustrations.

Perhaps most damagingly, Tillerson appeared to disregard the advice of the very personnel he was tasked with leading, leaving a demoralized cadre of career employees in his wake. His sweeping organizational reform effort brought in a stable of management consultants but focused on the wrong priorities. And Tillerson’s disinclination to fight for his department and its budget telegraphed a sentiment that diplomacy itself was of declining importance in the Trump administration.

Based on his time at the CIA and his diagnosis of Tillerson’s missteps during his confirmation hearing, Pompeo looks to have the potential to right many of the existing wrongs. His personal relationship with President Donald Trump counts for a great deal, both in making U.S. diplomacy relevant again and in speaking on behalf of the president.

After his confirmation, the new secretary should immediately turn to filling out the State Department’s hollow roster of key personnel. From ambassadorships to mid- and senior-level officers, the department has been operating without the traditional layers of political and policy leadership. To cite just one set of examples, the administration is preparing for a North Korea summit without an ambassador to Seoul or an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs — and with the special envoy for North Korea having departed this year.

As he fills these positions, Pompeo must offer an open and inclusive management style — one that gives access to and empowers the bureaus and avoids the existing feeling of seventh-floor diktat. Given its current state, management of the department cannot be delegated to underlings, and the new secretary will need to pursue his desire to restore U.S. leadership abroad while acting decisively to restore the diplomatic corps’ faith in its secretary.

Pompeo indicated during his confirmation hearing that he would seek the resources necessary for strong diplomacy and development. Rather than simply waiting for Congress to appropriate funds far above the administration’s meager requests, he should advocate within the administration for a robust budget. He could then reserve his congressional engagements for building coalitions on issues of shared importance, from Iran and North Korea to Russia and human rights.

Pompeo may be tempted, as many modern secretaries of state have been, to chase legacy projects overseas. But it will be critical for him to distinguish between areas in which the department can have major impact (such as in fleshing out the administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy) and those that, however important, are unlikely to be solved anytime soon (a Middle East peace agreement seems to be a perennial contender in this department). To that end, Pompeo could productively restore the department’s rightful place on the forefront of the United States’ fight for democracy and freedom.

It would be easy to suggest that none of this is possible under an unconventional president who is more than a bit mercurial and in an administration that does not exactly brim with message discipline. But with some skill and luck, it can be done — and the attempt is better than acquiescence.

Tillerson’s tenure showed how quickly U.S. diplomatic strengths could erode. Pompeo has the ability to test how quickly they can be rebuilt. Congress should give him the opportunity to do so.

Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the Bush administration.

Jamie Fly is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and previously served as Senator Marco Rubio's foreign policy advisor.

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