From the very beginning of his administration, President Donald Trump has insisted on or allowed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and chief strategist Steve Bannon to destroy the State Department.
The budget was reduced 30 percent. Over 2,000 officers were dismissed from their posts, and key assistant secretaryships have been left vacant. The Operation Center, which I once directed, is no longer functioning.
This is not the normal change of administration. As journalist Roger Cohen, writing in the July 28 New York Times, said, “Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of self-amputation.”
The result last week was Tillerson announcing that he will hold back the money Congress voted nearly unanimously to pursue severe sanctions against Russia. That, linked with Trump’s very recent bawling out of the top U.S. military officers in Afghanistan because they could not produce a plan for instant victory, has brought chaos to our foreign policy.
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Tillerson has little respect for diplomacy as a profession, or as a set of skills that bring gains and progress. His boss sees only value in money. Neither understand how to succeed in the diplomatic world in which we have been the leading proponent and practitioner since the end of World War II.
The average America voter may know little of these details — though many can remember such dysfunction in their own lives. Unfortunately, the price of such incompetence in foreign affairs can be deadly. If Iran, for example, forsakes the nuclear agreement, we could be looking at a nuclear-tinged conflict in the near future — and that’s not even considering the perils of the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
Foreign Service officers are professionals; they do their jobs while new administrations struggle to get a foothold. In the last six months, NATO remains in place; the “one China” policy and Iran nuclear deal have not been abandoned — yet.
The Saudi-Qatar eruption last month shows the extent of dysfunction: Saudi Arabia, with clear support from Trump, called for a blockade of Qatar where the US has its largest regional airbase. The Saudi accusations were absurdly bogus.
Four days later, Tillerson appealed for “reconciliation.” Barely an hour later, Trump repeated his call — Qatar was a “funder of terrorism” — a complete repudiation of Tillerson’s statement.
Incidents such as these clutter the landscape. Many career officers are appalled. Morale is low. They just don’t understand why the institutions and key professional are being shut out of the policy process. Many are looking for other jobs.
Because of all these things, foreign diplomats do not know whom to speak to, and relations with key countries are adrift. No one can get through to the tight inner circle and that group includes not one professional diplomat.
The fundamental answer is the impeachment of the president and swift reorganization of the State Department and stabilization of the rest of the American government. Otherwise we will be forced into endless crisis with mounting casualty lists.
John D. Stempel, senior professor emeritus at University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, had a 23-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service including in Iran during the Iranian Revolution.