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State of Irrelevance

Secretary Tillerson will lead diplomats increasingly on the sidelines of foreign-policy decisions.

What will Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walk into on Day One in Foggy Bottom?

The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of State’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization and its new leader may increasingly find themselves shunted aside into irrelevance.

There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. Commentators once speculated that Trump might not be able to fill political appointments, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he was inaugurated. Another round of stories said Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.

The Washington Post published a story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. Actually, most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both.

Reports that these departing staffers represented “senior management” at State confused terms. Because of the odd way the department is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, where Kennedy was the head. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. The other two were political appointees in other parts of the department directly tied to Obama-era policies. All come from offices with a deep bench, so none of the State Department’s work will be impeded ahead of Tillerson’s first day. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.

Some of the latest Chicken Little reporting concerns a dissent message circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration. One media outlet characterized the messages as a “revolt” awaiting Tillerson on Day One. Yet all that is required from Tillerson’s staff is a response within 30–60 days. Past experience suggests that response will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns,” content-free variety.

Others feel that while having no practical impact, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department foreign-service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have not experienced a presidential transition.

These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution—not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump—tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

Out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination, or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror that has stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.

So there is not much evidence that Tillerson will walk into a department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.

The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported—women’s and LGBT rights, soft power, climate change—are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Meanwhile, under Bush and Obama, foreign-policy making has gravitated deeper into the military and the National Security Council at the White House. None of that is likely to change.

Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at a legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seems destined to at best merely linger around if not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful secretary of defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.

Even before Trump’s federal hiring freeze there were more military band members than State Department foreign-service officers. The whole of the foreign service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of diplomats. If other employees leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will further make State useless to Washington.

So what’s really left for State to do?

Tillerson will find himself in charge of a cabinet agency in search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the ceremonial role of the vice president, attending conferences and funerals, and simply overseeing the network of embassies that serve as America’s concierge abroad, provide cover stories for the intelligence community, arrange official visits for fact-finding members of Congress, and host senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on critical matters like sports diplomacy and paying for reality-TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.

If that doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation that eventually attracts the most attention of all might be his.

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His next book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of State.



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