Tillerson gutting State Department of high-ranking diplomats: “A disaster waiting to happen.”

Tillerson Gutting State Department of High-Ranking Diplomats: “A Disaster Waiting to Happen”

Tillerson Gutting State Department of High-Ranking Diplomats: “A Disaster Waiting to Happen”

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Nov. 25 2017 1:11 PM

Tillerson Gutting State Department of Senior Staff: “A Disaster Waiting to Happen”

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the media about North Korea during White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee's daily press briefing at the White House on November 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The State Department is losing many of its senior leaders, either through firings or because they're being unceremonously pushed out, raising concern among diplomats that the country’s ability to respond to crises around the world is quickly diminishing, reports the New York Times. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t just falling far behind on nominating people to politically-appointed position, he is also carrying out what seems to be a campaign to fire many senior diplomats, or push them out the door by refusing them assignments and giving them work that is well below their paygrade. “Among those fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women, difficult losses in a department that has long struggled with diversity,” notes the Times.

Senior officials are sounding the alarm with one ambassador who recently resigned saying that “so many vacancies in essential places is a disaster waiting to happen.” Although many career diplomats were guardedly optimistic when Tillerson first arrived, there is now palpable anger at a secretary of State who seems more interested in efficiency and reorganizing his department than on what policy it pursues. Tillerson has made no secret that he thinks the State Department has too much staff but the number of senior people who are leaving the diplomatic ranks is astounding while no one is taking up their spots. The Times explains:

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. And of the 431 minister-counselors, who have two-star-equivalent ranks, 369 remain and another 14 have indicated that they will leave soon — an 18 percent drop — according to an accounting provided by the American Foreign Service Association.
The political appointees who normally join the department after a change in administration have not made up for those departures. So far, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled, and for most of the vacancies, Mr. Tillerson has not nominated anyone.

Members of Congress are also raising the alarm. Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to Tillerson last week expressing concern over “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.” Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen also expressed concern that the country’s “diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.”

The Times story comes less than a week after the paper’s Editorial Board published a scathing piece against Tillerson, saying the country’s top diplomat is “obsessed with management minutiae and metrics” and is losing sight of the big picture. “Given the aggressive behavior of North Korea, Russia and China in a world that seems shakier by the day, the timing could hardly be worse,” the editorial board wrote.

That editorial seems to have prompted Tillerson to defend his tenure on Monday. “This department is performing extraordinarily well,” Tillerson told reporters. “And I take exception to anyone who would characterize it otherwise. It's just not true.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.