Navigating through the shambles that is the United States’ current foreign policy initiatives is like wandering hopelessly lost in a vast desert. I just finished reading “Trump’s Many Shades of Contempt,” Roger Cohen’s very disturbing March 3 op-ed piece in The New York Times concerning the sad and dangerous state of affairs inside our foreign policy establishment. Cohen knows whereof he speaks. He has been a columnist for The New York Times and the International New York Times, as well as for many years a respected foreign correspondent who has gained important insights into the US State Department and US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Cohen’s column addresses the president’s complete and utter contempt for US foreign policy as exemplified by the fact that he has now called for a 37% reduction in the State Department’s budget. Add to this the massive exodus of career foreign service officials since the election in November, a flight that has increased since the inauguration and Secretary Rex Tillerson’s ascendency at the State Department. I am not talking about political appointments from the previous administration; I am referring to the departure of career foreign service officers and diplomats who staff the Department of State bureaucracy in Washington, as well as our embassies and consulates around the globe. A case in point . . . Daniel Fried, who resigned after forty years of experience dealing with many of the most important foreign policy issues of the day, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil, who has no governmental or foreign policy experience, was nevertheless confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of State and has yet to take the reins of his department.
Cohen reports that Tillerson “is a near phantom” at the State Department. And there
is no second in command since his boss, the president, vetoed Tillerson’s choice as deputy. One of Tillerson's first directives to senior staff - what little senior staff that still remains in place - was an order that his briefing materials not exceed two pages. How is it possible to explain complex international issues in the space of two pages? Previous Secretaries of State regularly dealt with briefing books dedicated to a single, complex issue. He has been extremely press shy since taking office a month ago. According to Cohen, there has not been a single press briefing by Tillerson or his staff since DJT took office five weeks ago. His only public statements were brief and came during foreign visits to Mexico and Germany. Since the 1950s such press briefings have been an almost daily occurrence, something one would expect, considering the myriad challenges and conflicts facing this country and the world at large. Is Tillerson avoiding public appearances thinking this will cushion him from the increasing blowback against the new regime in Washington? “The State Department has taken on a ghostly air,” according to Cohen.
Throughout his Senate confirmation hearings Tillerson appeared personable and informed, qualities that seemed to assuage to some degree the opposition to his appointment. Since his confirmation, however, he has done very little to suggest that he is calling the shots at Foggy Bottom, deferring instead to his boss in the White House. Mr. Tillerson asked Elliott Abrams, a high-level State Department veteran during the Reagan regime, to bring his experience back to State as the new deputy. Granted, his experience would have been useful to some extent although we should not forget that Abrams was convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal during which he withheld information from Congress during the investigation of the affair. Although Abrams was ultimately pardoned by George H. W. Bush, this alone should have been reason to remove Abrams from consideration. Instead, the president overruled Tillerson’s choice because of Abram’s outspoken criticism of DJT during the campaign and election.
What is perhaps more discomforting than this is the fact that Steve Bannon, a white supremacist and nativist who as the president’s chief political strategist has called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” has been elevated to a position on the National Security Council. This after the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was unceremoniously uninvited from regular attendance at meetings of the NSC. On top of this DJT’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, another top advisor operating beyond the aegis of either the State Department or the NSC, is regularly usurping Tillerson’s role at meetings with world leaders and diplomats, particularly on the issue of the peace process in the Middle East and this country’s troubling relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Under normal circumstances it is the Secretary of State who serves as the mouthpiece for an administration’s foreign policy prerogatives. It is the Secretary who discusses these with foreign leaders and diplomats. With a few exceptions this has not happened since January. To date Tillerson has been absent or far in the background when the new president met with the prime ministers of Canada and Israel at the White House. It is difficult for the State Department to conduct foreign policy through proper diplomatic channels and following accepted diplomatic decorum when it has to face challenges from parties within the White House who do not feel bound by proper procedure not to mention the president’s often ill-advised and off-the-cuff tweet blitzes.
Tillerson’s foreign visit to Mexico, a country we have threatened to seal off with a wall, was chaotic, awkward, and received only a lukewarm welcome from the host government. This comes on the heels of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto canceling his trip to Washington, the first scheduled visit by a head of state to the new US president. It is clear to the Mexican government that it is the president who is calling the shots when it comes to bilateral relations with our neighbor to the south. There was really nothing of substance to discuss with Tillerson, a man so clearly out of the loop.
Tillerson’s meetings with his G-20 counterparts in Germany, at which he signaled America’s now lackluster support for important trans-Atlantic alliances such as NATO, were troubling in that there was little support for rebuilding trust and confidence with our valued long-term allies. While in Bonn, Tillerson’s staffers tried to arrange a meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who has himself just began his five-year term on January 1. Instead, the Secretary of State deferred to the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Tillerson was also a no-show at a high-level meeting in Bonn attended by Mr. Guterres who to date has not even been able to arrange a phone call with the Secretary. Tillerson also refused to meet or speak with Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It might be interesting to note that she is Mexican.
Tillerson is not in control of his department. While he was in Europe, over two dozen of his senior staff members were abruptly reassigned. What role he played, if any, in the reassignment is not clear. To date, less than ten of the over 100 State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation have been filled, including our ambassadors to foreign states. Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has suggested that this seemingly intentional decimation of the State Department is a means of forestalling diplomatic solutions to an array of international problems in favor of military solutions. Let us not forget the president has called for almost $60 billion increase in military spending while gutting the State Department’s budget. Diplomatic solutions are lightbulbs waiting to be turned on. Military solutions are hammers looking for a nail.
Just this past week Tillerson broke with tradition by choosing not to attend the public release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights. This is normally a very high profile public event at which the Secretary of State uses the prestige of his or her office to underscore the importance of human rights as a keystone to American foreign policy. Such was not the case last week. There was no public event. No Secretary of State. Instead, reporters were briefed by telephone by an anonymous State Department official. This is very troubling to human rights advocates around the world coming as it does after Tillerson repeatedly vowed to promote human rights during his confirmation hearing just a few weeks ago. “Should I be confirmed as secretary of state, I would be charged with promoting American values on the world stage, and that means standing for universal human rights and fighting for the dignity of every person.” So why did he refuse to do just that?
I think the reason is pretty clear by now. Mr. Tillerson is Secretary of State in name only. And I think we also have a good picture of who is dictating American foreign policy. It is men and women with agendas whispering in the ear of DJT, a man who has no real grasp of the complexities of international diplomacy. You might recall during the campaign that DJT was asked about foreign policy. Where was he getting his information and advice? It seems to me a logical question. “I’m speaking with myself, number one,” he replied. “Because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Does that make you feel better? I hardly think so.
So how is any of this acceptable? The simple answer is that it is not acceptable. It will never be acceptable on any level or under any circumstance. Unfortunately I see the situation getting much worse before there is any improvement. The important question remains. What happens to this country’s foreign policy during an extremely dangerous time when our long-held and cherished values are being challenged at every turn . . . including by many in the White House at the exclusion of experts at the State Department? I shutter to think.
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