Tillerson State Department ouster is overdue, but won’t solve the Trump problem

With morale plunging, jobs empty and diplomats fleeing, Tillerson's the worst secretary of state since 1898. But his successor may not be much better.

Time may be up for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. After a year of floundering, there are now reports that the White House has developed a plan to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas would then replace Pompeo at the CIA. Whether President Trump will actually jettison Tillerson remains to be seen; after all, just last summer he very publicly signaled he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign but failed to follow through.

Assuming Tillerson does go, it won’t be a moment too soon. As I wrote months ago, he has proved to be the worst secretary of state since America became a global power in 1898. His signature initiative has been an attempt to “reengineer” the State Department as if it were an underperforming corporation. He has vowed to cut the department’s budget by 30% and the total number of State Department employees by 8%.

Almost a year into the Trump administration, only 10 of the top 44 political posts at State have been filled. This means that in the midst of the current crisis with North Korea we have no ambassador to South Korea, no assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and no undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. It’s not that the Senate is being slowly to confirm nominees; Tillerson simply hasn’t nominated anyone for those posts.

Morale is plunging at the State Department and seasoned diplomats are leaving in droves — more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers have retired since January. The New York Times notes: “The number of those with the department’s top two ranks of career ambassador and career minister — equivalent to four and three-star generals — will have been cut in half by Dec. 1, from 39 to 19.” While the most experienced diplomats are fleeing, bright young people are not rushing in the door. The number of applicants for the Foreign Service fell 33% in the past year.

Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker, two of the most respected diplomats of their generation, wrote recently that Trump’s “draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most.”

Tillerson engendered no confidence this week when he tried to push back against concerns that he was “hollowing out” the department. He claimed that he could safely shrink the Foreign Service because “of an expectation that we’re going to have success” in resolving global conflicts. Huh? Which conflicts is he going to resolve? The Israeli-Palestinian dispute? The Russian-Ukrainian dispute? The civil war in Syria? The Saudi war in Yemen? The Taliban’s war in Afghanistan? The administration hasn’t made any progress on any of those fronts, and in any case the number of diplomats isn’t dependent on the number of wars: We need good representation abroad even in peacetime.

While ousting Tillerson is the right thing to do, there is still cause for concern about whether his rumored successor will do any better. Because the problem, at the end of the day, isn’t Tillerson. It’s Trump. We have an ignorant president (Tillerson accurately called him a “moron”) who has shown himself incapable of growing in office. Trump continues to mouth off — on Thursday he again called the leader of North Korea “Little Rocket Man” — in ways that are dangerous and make it harder to achieve America’s national security objectives.

Trump has shown no appreciation for the power of diplomacy in promoting U.S. interests. On Oct. 1, for example, he publicly undercut Tillerson’s attempts to open a back channel to Pyongyang. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted, adding. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Since then, North Korea has tested its longest-range missile yet — one that is capable of reaching Washington or New York.

There is no doubt that Pompeo has a better personal relationship with Trump than Tillerson does. But will he be able to curb the president’s impetuous instincts or will he only encourage them? And will he be willing and able to restore funding and morale at a badly battered State Department?

Pompeo is a capable guy, but his track record isn’t encouraging. When he became CIA director, he was initially welcomed by intelligence officers, but he has since alienated the workforce because he is seen as overly political. For example, last month, Pompeo falsely claimed that the CIA had concluded Russian meddling in the U.S. election had not affected the outcome. In other words, he was telling Trump what he wants to hear — not what’s true. The CIA then had to issue a statement publicly and embarrassingly correcting its own director.

Odds are that Pompeo will do better than Tillerson — it would be nearly impossible to do any worse. But that doesn’t mean that U.S. foreign policy will become any more coherent or effective. That would require changing presidents, not secretaries of State.