There’s a difference between taming the bureaucracy and decimating it.
What President Donald Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson are doing to the State Department is the latter, making it far more difficult for the department to advance U.S. interests around the world.
The secretary of state’s plans to reorganize the department may well make sense.
But the details have been kept from the public as well as the rank-and-file, raising unneeded suspicion.
Meanwhile, the president has given every indication that he doesn’t believe in a cornerstone of democratic governance: the idea that a career diplomatic corps can be relied on to discharge its duties regardless of who’s in office.
High-ranking Foreign Service officers have been pushed into retirement.
Only nine out of 28 undersecretaries or assistant secretaries of state have been nominated or confirmed.
Among the dozens of ambassadorships without even a nominee are those for vital partners such as Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey.
Asked about the department’s many empty slots, Trump responded, “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.“
Tillerson’s plans to “redesign“ his department have resulted in a hiring freeze and rescinded job offers, as well as a crude effort to encourage middle-ranking officers out the door by pushing them into clerical work.
Yet he seems puzzled by reports of poor morale.
It’s not that Tillerson doesn’t have some good ideas.
There are too many special envoys.
Foreign aid does need to be more strategic and effective.
The department’s legendarily bad computer systems need an overhaul.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, the department’s tribal bureaucratic culture needs to be opened up.
But neither Tillerson nor Trump has helped the cause of reform with their morale-sapping words and actions.
It will be up to Congress, which has put forward a more robust budget, to check the worst aspects of Tillerson’s plan, much of which would require legislative approval anyway.
And it will fall to civic and business leaders (not to mention policy wonks, aka the Blob) to more forcefully articulate, to the president and the public, the value of robust diplomacy.