Home/Daniel Larison/Tillerson and the State Department ‘Ghost Ship’

Tillerson and the State Department ‘Ghost Ship’

The State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

Like many other departments, the State Department is woefully understaffed, and it is likely to remain that way for the rest of this year:

Many have little to do until the Trump administration starts filling the nearly 200 jobs at the department that require Senate confirmation, and their agendas look increasingly as though they will remain empty. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has done almost nothing to select leaders for the White House’s consideration [bold mine-DL], and nominations for assistant secretaries and others who largely run the State Department are unlikely to be made for months.

In an unusual interview, R. C. Hammond, Mr. Tillerson’s spokesman, said the secretary intended to embark within days on a listening tour of the building and then a restructuring of the department’s operations. Only after those are underway will he begin to name his wider leadership team.

With a Senate confirmation process that takes months, that means the department will remain largely leaderless until well into 2018 [bold mine-DL]. And no other department in the federal government is as dependent on political appointees, or as paralyzed when the appointment process freezes.

Staffing the Trump administration was always likely to be one of their biggest difficulties because so many people that would have normally worked in a Republican administration won’t work for him, but Trump and Tillerson seem determined to make things much worse than they have to be. We can see from the White House’s proposed budget that they don’t have much interest in what the State Department does, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the president and his Secretary of State appear not to care about having a functioning department. Regardless, it is still a festering problem that is going to contribute to future foreign policy errors and failures. Combined with Trump’s erratic, undisciplined approach to foreign policy, the failure to fill these positions at State is going to make the administration’s foreign policy even clumsier and more uninformed than it has to be.

Michael Krepon likened the department to a “ghost ship” a few weeks ago, and outlined the consequences this would have:

The plain, harsh truth is that the Trump Administration is in no position to deal with a serious international crisis. Yes, it’s early, and all new administrations take time to pick expert help, and then have to wait for Senate confirmations. But by every relevant measure, the Trump Administration has fallen behind its predecessors and, worse still, seems lackadaisical in announcing new appointments. The New York Times has only recently reported that a new Deputy Secretary is under consideration – John Sullivan – who will also lack prior service at the State Department.

The Secretary of State needs backup. The longer the White House delays or obstructs qualified nominees, the more disadvantaged the United States will be in diplomatic outreach, let alone when a serious crisis arises.

The problem he describes here is just going to keep getting worse until Tillerson starts properly doing his job.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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