Foreign service officers see this expansion as a “parallel department” that could effectively shut off the secretary and his advisors from the career employees in the rest of the building. The new hires, several State officials told Foreign Policy, will be working for the policy planning staff, a small office set up in 1947 to provide strategic advice to the secretary that typically has about 20-25 people on its payroll. One senior State Department official and one recently retired diplomat told FP that Tillerson has plans to double or perhaps triple its size, even as he proposes a sweeping reorganization and drastic cuts to the State Department workforce.
Veterans of the U.S. diplomatic corps say the expanding front office is part of an unprecedented assault on the State Department: A hostile White House is slashing its budget, the rank and file are cut off from a detached leader, and morale has plunged to historic lows.
State Department employees point to the swelling power of the policy planning staff as a prime example of how they’re being shut out of decision-making.
The plans to bolster the policy planning staff reflect Tillerson’s reliance on a close coterie of advisors, closing himself off from the rest of the department.
More than one official referred to them as the “praetorian guard.”
“This praetorian guard isn’t experienced. It seems like a conscious effort to start getting rid of people who have experience and expertise,” the senior foreign service officer said.
The Trump administration has shown little urgency in filling an array of senior State positions, including crucial ambassadorships in the Middle East and regional assistant secretaries who oversee Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. When Colin Powell served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, he referred to his assistant secretaries as “battalion commanders.” But only one assistant secretary has been nominated so far.
Career officials are stretched thin covering the positions as acting assistant secretaries in the interim.
Tillerson’s controlling front office — and its focus on squeezing the budget — threatens to slow the hiring and assignment of new foreign service officers to positions around the world. All the while, numerous top career officials with decades of experience have quit, leaving a vacuum of talent and institutional knowledge in their wake.
The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.
Tillerson himself appears to be exasperated by the job, caught between ideologues in the White House, competing congressional interests, and shell shock after jumping from the private sector, where he ran the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil as a powerful executive in a highly centralized organization.
“He doesn’t have the same authority as a CEO,” one Trump insider told FP. “I know the White House isn’t happy with him and he isn’t liking the job.”
Trump’s growing frustration with Tillerson was evident in a heated meeting between the two this month over recertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal brokered under his predecessor, FP has previously reported. Unhappy with Tillerson, Trump set up a White House team to sideline the State Department and scuttle the nuclear deal.
Last week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert unexpectedly announced that Tillerson would be “taking a little time off,” sparking rumors of a “Rexit.” Tillerson dismissed the claims. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told press during a brief photo-op with the Qatari foreign minister.
“I think he hates the job and won’t stay long,” (a Tillerson) aide said.
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