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Tillerson Doesn’t Understand What He’s Doing to the State Department

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Gong Tu/Shutterstock)

Rex Tillerson seems blissfully unaware of the effects that the wrecking of the State Department on his watch is having on the department’s employees:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn’t know what to make of news reports that morale is low at his agency and that he’s not doing a good job running it. “I walk the halls, people smile,” he says in a recent interview in his spacious office in Washington. “If it’s as bad as it seems to be described, I’m not seeing it, I’m not getting it.” [bold mine-DL]

One reason that Tillerson may not be “getting it” is that he operates with a small circle of advisers and doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the department.

Politico reports on the efforts of Tillerson and his advisers to centralize decision-making in the department while largely excluding professional diplomats from the process:

Several current and former U.S. officials warned that the new approach, called the Policy Planning Process, or “P3,” increases the risk of poor, uninformed policy choices on everything from terrorism in Africa to human rights issues at a perilous time in international relations. It could also further demoralize career State Department staffers who already feel marginalized by Tillerson and President Donald Trump.

“This says to me that they are developing a new foreign policy structure that is designed to largely ignore those who know these regions and who know these issues,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Because he has cut himself off from the department’s professionals, he isn’t likely to be aware of their complaints and concerns. He cites people smiling in the halls as proof of good morale, as if that means anything. To reach his conclusion, he has to ignore countless reports detailing the exodus of disaffected officials and their reasons for doing so. Tillerson isn’t just mismanaging the department, but he also seems to be willfully oblivious to the consequences that his mismanagement is having.

The danger in all this isn’t just that poor morale at the State Department will cause a continued hemorrhaging of talent and a deterioration in the quality of the institution. The greater danger in the meantime is that Tillerson will be trying to make policies without much input from the people in the department that may actually know something about the issues involved, and that will lead to avoidable and potentially costly errors that set back U.S. diplomatic efforts.

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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