Nicholas Burns and Ryan C. Crocker write: Both of us served overseas and in Washington for decades as career diplomats. We were ambassadors during both Republican and Democratic administrations. We are proud of the nonpartisan culture of our brethren at the State Department. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can count on them to work tirelessly, loyally and with great skill for our country.
But we are concerned the Trump administration is weakening the Foreign Service by a series of misguided decisions since taking office. It has proposed a 31 percent budget reduction for the State Department that would cripple its global reach. It has failed to fill the majority of the most senior ambassadorial positions in Washington and overseas. It is on track to take the lowest number of new officers into the service in years.
It has even nominated a former officer with a scant eight years of experience to be the director general of the Foreign Service, the chief of its personnel system. The nonpartisan American Academy of Diplomacy (of which we both are members) advised Congress that this would be “like making a former Army captain the chief of staff of the Army.”
As a result, many of our most experienced diplomats are leaving the department. Along with the senior diplomats who were summarily fired by the Trump team early this year, we are witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations. The drop in morale among those who remain behind is obvious to both of us. The number of young Americans who applied to take the Foreign Service officer entry test declined by 33 percent in the past year. This is particularly discouraging and will weaken the service for years. [Continue reading…]
Category Archives: diplomacy
Diplomats sound the alarm as they are pushed out of the State Department in droves
The New York Times reports: Of all the State Department employees who might have been vulnerable in the staff reductions that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has initiated as he reshapes the department, the one person who seemed least likely to be a target was the chief of security, Bill A. Miller.
Republicans pilloried Hillary Clinton for what they claimed was her inadequate attention to security as secretary of state in the months before the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Congress even passed legislation mandating that the department’s top security official have unrestricted access to the secretary of state.
But in his first nine months in office, Mr. Tillerson turned down repeated and sometimes urgent requests from the department’s security staff to brief him, according to several former top officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Finally, Mr. Miller, the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, was forced to cite the law’s requirement that he be allowed to speak to Mr. Tillerson.
Mr. Miller got just five minutes with the secretary of state, the former officials said. Afterward, Mr. Miller, a career Foreign Service officer, was pushed out, joining a parade of dismissals and early retirements that has decimated the State Department’s senior ranks. [Continue reading…]
Donald Trump’s war on diplomacy
In an editorial, the New York Times says: American diplomats in recent decades have helped bring about an Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the end of the Bosnia war and a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. That record testifies to the power and influence of America as well as the skill of secretaries of state and other diplomats who worked to advance international stability and the national interest.
That isn’t the way the Trump administration approaches the world. Rex Tillerson is widely seen as ill suited to diplomatic leadership and determined to dismantle his own department, which has been central to America’s national security since Thomas Jefferson ran the place. The department is being undermined by budget cuts, a failure to fill top jobs, an erratic president and a secretary who has called reorganization, rather than policy, his most important priority. 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.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is going gangbusters. The State Department’s budget has been targeted with a 31 percent cut, to $37.6 billion, but Congress is moving to raise the Pentagon’s spending level roughly 15 percent from the $549 billion allowed under the Budget Control Act. Aircraft carriers and tanks are obviously much more expensive than diplomatic pouches and airline tickets. Even so, such lopsided budget priorities could favor military solutions over diplomacy and development.
In recent weeks, alarming new data from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing diplomats, shows just how far Mr. Tillerson has taken things. Since January, more than 100 senior foreign service officers have left the department, depleting the ranks of career ambassadors, the diplomatic equivalent of four-star generals, by 60 percent, while the number of career ministers (akin to three-star generals) is down 42 percent. The hiring of new foreign service officers has slowed almost to a halt, and the number of young people seeking to take the foreign service exam has fallen to less than half the 17,000 who registered two years ago. [Continue reading…]
Rex Tillerson’s continuing efforts to eviscerate the State Department have crippled diplomats’ morale
In the service of a moron who wants to invest more in nuclear weapons than diplomacy, this makes sense:
The New York Times reports: The State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed on Friday.
The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.
To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide. [Continue reading…]
Top U.S. diplomat blasts Trump administration for ‘decapitation’ of State Department leadership
Foreign Policy reports: Two former ambassadors have rebuked the White House in an increasingly vocal backlash against its efforts to sideline the State Department.
“Our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama and current president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for foreign service officers, wrote in a letter for the December 2017 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.
Scores of senior diplomats, including 60 percent of career ambassadors, have left the department since the beginning of the year, when President Donald Trump took office, according to the letter. There are 74 top posts at State that remain vacant with no announced nominee.
“Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry,” Stephenson wrote.
It’s not just top leadership that is fleeing. New recruitment is falling dramatically as well, shrinking the pool for future talent. The number of applicants registering to take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year will be fewer than half the 17,000 who registered just two years ago, she wrote.
Stephenson wasn’t the only top diplomat with harsh words for the White House this week.
“Quite frankly, this administration is categorically destroying the Department of State and devaluing diplomacy as something important in this world,” said Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs at the under President Barack Obama, speaking Nov. 6 at Foreign Policy‘s Diplomat of the Year event in Washington (Sherman was named this year as National Security Diplomat of the Year). [Continue reading…]
Why it probably doesn’t matter whether Tillerson stays or goes
Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write: In our combined 50-plus years at the State Department, neither of us ever witnessed as profound a humiliation as a sitting president handed his secretary of state Sunday morning.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president tweeted. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Even if they’re playing good cop-bad cop, this is a shocker: Donald Trump is basically announcing that any negotiations with North Korea are worthless. This not only undercut Tillerson personally, but also undermines U.S. interests and the secretary of state’s sensible decision to talk to the North Korean regime. To make matters worse, all of this is occurring while Tillerson is in Beijing to prepare for the president’s trip to China next month—so the president kneecapped his own top diplomat in front of America’s chief rival in Asia.
Is this the final straw for Tillerson? The secretary of state clearly has not helped himself. Through his budget cuts, his focus on departmental reorganization at the expense of appointing assistant secretaries, his reliance on a tiny inner circle of outsiders and his maladroit use of the press, Tillerson has isolated himself within his own department. The Beltway foreign policy blob has already written him off as the worst secretary of state in history, and clearly others are hovering (U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley says she doesn’t want the job, but if you believe that, or if John Bolton make similar protestations, we have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to sell you).
But in all fairness, the former ExxonMobil chief has never been empowered by his president. He’s been undercut repeatedly by this White House—see Kushner, Jared—and by Trump personally, even (especially) when he’s making the right diplomatic moves. And there’s no sign that any one of the vultures circling around Tillerson would be able to change or transcend this dynamic. [Continue reading…]
Is Trump’s bluster elevating the risk of war?
The New York Times reports: When President Trump gave a fiery campaign speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday evening, he drew a rapturous roar by ridiculing Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “Little Rocket Man.”
Among diplomats and national security specialists, the reaction was decidedly different. After Mr. Trump repeated his taunt in a tweet late Saturday and threatened that Mr. Kim and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they continue their invective against the United States, reactions ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to casually threaten to annihilate a nuclear-armed foe was yet another reminder of the steep risks inherent in his brute-force approach to diplomacy. His strengths as a politician — the ability to appeal in a visceral way to the impulses of ordinary citizens — are a difficult fit for the meticulous calculations that his own advisers concede are crucial in dealing with Pyongyang.
The disconnect has led to a deep uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump is all talk or actually intends to act. The ambiguity could be strategic, part of an effort to intimidate Mr. Kim and keep him guessing. Or it could reflect a rash impulse by a leader with little foreign policy experience to vent his anger and stoke his supporters’ enthusiasm.
His new chief of staff and his national security team have drawn a line at trying to rein in his more incendiary provocations, fearing that their efforts could backfire with a president who bridles at any effort to control him. What remains unclear — and the source of much of the anxiety in and out of the government and on both sides of the Pacific — is whether they would step in to prevent the president from taking the kind of drastic action that matches his words, if they believed it was imminent.
Veterans of diplomacy and national security and specialists on North Korea fear that, whatever their intended result, Mr. Trump’s increasingly bellicose threats and public insults of the famously thin-skinned Mr. Kim could cause the United States to careen into a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado.
“It does matter, because you don’t want to get to a situation where North Korea fundamentally miscalculates that an attack is coming,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former intelligence and National Security Council specialist who is now a senior adviser for Korea at Bower Group Asia. “It could lead us to stumble into a war that nobody wants.”
And while his bombast may be a thrill to Mr. Trump’s core supporters, there is evidence that the broader American public does not trust the president to deal with North Korea, and is deeply opposed to the kind of pre-emptive military strike he has seemed eager to threaten. [Continue reading…]
Cold War lessons in coercive diplomacy for dealing with North Korea today
Michael McFaul writes: Unfortunately, like many national security debates these days, our national discussion about how to address the growing North Korean threat has quickly become polarized between two extreme positions. In one corner, President Trump has threatened a preemptive military strike in response (I’m paraphrasing his remarks into more analytic terms) to new threats from the North Korean regime. In reaction, Trump opponents have advocated the exact opposite — talks with Kim Jong-un. Both of these options are insufficient. In fact, threatening nuclear war or proposing talks are only partial strategies at best, slogans at worst, for dealing with one of our most pressing national security challenges. What we need instead is first a clearly defined objective, then second a smart mix of both diplomacy and pressure — coercive diplomacy — to achieve that national security goal.
Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.
All effective national security policies must start with defining the objectives before pivoting to discussions about how to achieve them. Right now, our objectives regarding North Korea are ill-defined and many. Some, including Trump administration officials, argue for denuclearization. Others seek regime change and reunification. Diminishing the North Korean nuclear program through limited military strikes is a third objective proffered. A fourth camp advocates the removal of Kim Jong-un, or decapitation of the regime. A fifth group advocates a more modest goal — the resumption of talks with the North Korean government. The Trump administration itself sends conflicting messages about its objectives.
All of these must be set aside for now. While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal. The North Korean leader rationally believes that possession of nuclear weapons helps to deter threats to his regime, including first and foremost from the United States. No amount of coercion or diplomacy will ever convince him otherwise. Foreign induced regime change or leader decapitation also is not a realistic goal. Tragically, the North Korean dictatorship has demonstrated real resilience in the face of famine, sanctions and international isolation. American efforts to strengthen internal opposition have not produced pressure on the regime. Assassination or decapitation, even if it could be done (and I am skeptical) would not compel the next North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the effect would be the exact opposite. And nothing more will rally North Koreans to defend their government than such an action. Nor should resumption of talks be the goal of our efforts. Talks are the means to achieve other objectives, not the objective in and of itself.
Instead, our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Early arms control during the Cold War (SALT) slowed the acceleration of nuclear weapons acquisition, creating the predicate for eventual weapons reduction in later negotiations (START). The same sequence must be embraced now with North Korea. The objective of freezing North Korean nuclear and missile programs would enhance American national security as well as the security of allies. This objective is also obtainable. [Continue reading…]
Trump shows his contempt for the State Department by thanking Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats
Politico reports: President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats from Russia on the grounds that “we’re going to save a lot of money,” prompting dismay among many of the rank-and-file at the State Department.
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to a pool report.
“There’s no real reason for them to go back,” he added. “I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”
Russia recently announced that it would expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats from its soil to retaliate for sanctions the U.S. put on the Kremlin. Those sanctions are in response to Russia’s suspected attempts to meddle in last year’s U.S. presidential election through a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks on Democratic Party officials.
Trump, whose campaign’s relationship with Russia is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had pushed back against the sanctions bill, but signed it into law after it passed Congress with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
The State Department has not yet released the details of how it will handle the drawdown; Russia has demanded it keep no more than 455 people in its diplomatic missions there. But many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers. The local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments, but cost savings are possible in the long run.
The U.S. diplomats forced to leave Moscow will in most cases be sent to other posts, sources said.
It wasn’t clear if Trump’s remarks were meant to be in jest, and he gave no solid indication either way. In any case, the comments did not go down well among employees at the State Department, where many U.S. diplomats have felt ignored and badly treated by the Trump administration. Some noted that locally hired staff members affected the most are crucial to American diplomats’ work overseas.
A senior U.S. diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks “outrageous” and said it could lead more State Department staffers to head for the exits.
“This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” the diplomat said. [Continue reading…]
Q: Thoughts on Putin expelling US diplomats?
Trump: "I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll." (via ABC) pic.twitter.com/iR5JbHLHZj
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) August 10, 2017
While Trump and Tillerson send mixed signals, there’s no U.S. ambassador in South Korea to straighten things out
BuzzFeed reports: For months, national security experts have warned that the large number of unfilled positions at the State Department risked putting the United States in jeopardy in the event of a crisis. Now, with North Korea threatening war and a new US intelligence finding that Pyongyang has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear bomb, a crisis has arrived, and President Donald Trump has yet to name a US ambassador to South Korea.
The personnel gap comes amid confusing signals out of Washington — at a time when one of America’s most important and vulnerable allies is seeking clarity and instruction.
“When managing both a chronic and an acute challenge such as those posed by North Korea, the South Korean government needs someone on the scene who can provide tight alliance consultation on the ground and 24/7,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia scholar and Republican at the Center for a New American Security, an influential bipartisan think tank. “There is no substitute for an able and trusted ambassador.”
The utility of having a Senate-confirmed diplomat in Seoul is especially important given the penchant of Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to respond in markedly different ways to international events, experts said. [Continue reading…]
Putin’s bet on a Trump presidency backfires spectacularly
The New York Times reports: A little more than a year after the Russian effort to interfere in the American presidential election came to light, the diplomatic fallout — an unraveling of the relationship between Moscow and Washington on a scale not seen in decades — is taking its toll.
President Vladimir V. Putin bet that Donald J. Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its authoritarian leader for years, would treat his nation as Mr. Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the superpower it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with, from Syria to Europe, and boasting a military revived after two decades of neglect.
That bet has now backfired, spectacularly. If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come.
Just weeks after the two leaders spent hours in seemingly friendly conversation in Hamburg, Germany, the prospect of the kinds of deals Mr. Trump once mused about in interviews seems more distant than ever. Congress is not ready to forgive the annexation of Crimea, nor allow extensive reinvestment in Russian energy. The new sanctions were passed by a coalition of Democrats who blame Mr. Putin for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Republicans fearful that their president misunderstands who he is dealing with in Moscow.
So with his decision to order that hundreds of American diplomats and Russians working for the American Embassy leave their posts, Mr. Putin, known as a great tactician but not a great strategist, has changed course again. For now, American officials and outside experts said on Sunday, he seems to believe his greater leverage lies in escalating the dispute, Cold War-style, rather than subtly trying to manipulate events with a mix of subterfuge, cyberattacks and information warfare.
But it is unclear how much the announcement will affect day-to-day relations. While the Russian news media said 755 diplomats would be barred from working, and presumably expelled, there do not appear to be anything close to 755 American diplomats working in Russia.
That figure almost certainly includes Russian nationals working at the embassy, usually in nonsensitive jobs. [Continue reading…]
Given that the last time Trump spoke to Putin face to face, Trump saw no need for his own translator or any aides, and given that the State Department is already under assault from this administration, maybe this paring down of diplomatic ties will be of little concern inside the White House.
Who knows? Maybe Trump even gave Putin his personal cell number because he’s confident he can handle U.S.-Russia relations on his own in the Oval Office or while playing golf.
Going around Trump, governors embark on their own diplomatic missions
The New York Times reports: Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat, huddled with the leaders of Mexico and Canada in the space of 48 hours this spring, racing to Mexico City from Seattle for back-to-back discussions on climate change and trade.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, toured Europe last month to deliver what he called a “reassuring” message to business leaders, declaring that Americans would not “retreat” from international commerce.
And Gov. Pete Ricketts, Republican of Nebraska, recently announced he would visit Canada this summer with a message of thanks — for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that President Trump has harshly criticized and says he intends to renegotiate.
In ordinary times, most American governors tend to avoid international exploits, boasting of their consuming interest in balancing budgets and operating the machinery of state government. When they venture abroad, it is mainly to hawk products manufactured in their states.
But under the Trump administration, that has begun to change: Leadership at the state level has taken on an increasingly global dimension, as governors assert themselves in areas where they view Mr. Trump as abandoning the typical priorities of the federal government. They have forged partnerships across state and party lines to offset Trump administration policies they see as harmful to their constituencies. [Continue reading…]
Once dominant, the United States finds itself isolated at G-20
The New York Times reports: For years the United States was the dominant force and set the agenda at the annual gathering of the leaders of the world’s largest economies.
But on Friday, when President Trump met with 19 other leaders at the Group of 20 conference, he found the United States isolated on everything from trade to climate change, and faced with the prospect of the group’s issuing a statement on Saturday that lays bare how the United States stands alone.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the host of the meeting, opened it by acknowledging the differences between the United States and the rest of the countries. While “compromise can only be found if we accommodate each other’s views,” she said, “we can also say, we differ.”
Ms. Merkel also pointed out that most of the countries supported the Paris accord on climate change, while Mr. Trump has abandoned it. “It will be very interesting to see how we formulate the communiqué tomorrow and make clear that, of course, there are different opinions in this area because the United States of America regrettably” wants to withdraw from the pact, she said.
Mr. Trump seemed to relish his isolation. For him, the critical moment of Friday was his long meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, which seemed to mark the reset in relations that Mr. Trump has been desiring for some time. It also provided Mr. Putin the respect and importance he has long demanded as a global partner to Washington.
Where previous American leaders saw their power as a benevolent force, and were intent on spreading prosperity through open markets and multilateral cooperation, Mr. Trump has portrayed himself as a nationalist, a unilateralist and a protectionist, eager to save American jobs.
What recent events have underscored, though — and especially at the G-20 — is that no nation is today large or powerful enough to impose rules on everyone else. In advancing his views, Mr. Trump has alienated allies and made the United States seem like its own private island. [Continue reading…]
America has a proud and effecive tradition of diplomacy. It is being traduced
The Economist: Few Americans would have known it, but on New Year’s Eve their diplomats probably prevented scores of killings in central Africa, and perhaps a war. President Joseph Kabila, Congo’s long-stay autocrat, had refused to leave power, as he was obliged to do. Angry protesters were taking to the streets of Kinshasa and Mr Kabila’s troops buckling up to see them there. Yet through a combination of adroit negotiating and the high-minded pushiness that comes with representing a values-based superpower, Tom Perriello, the State Department’s then special envoy for the Great Lakes, and John Kerry, the then secretary of state, helped persuade Mr Kabila to back down. The resulting deal, brokered by the Catholic church, committed Mr Kabila to a power-sharing arrangement and retirement later this year. That would represent the first-ever peaceful transition in Congo. But it probably won’t happen.
Three weeks later, Donald Trump became president and the State Department’s 100-odd political appointees, including Mr Kerry and Mr Perriello, shipped out. That is normal in American transitions. But the most senior career diplomats were also pushed out, which is not. And only Mr Kerry has so far been replaced, by Rex Tillerson, a well-regarded former boss of Exxon Mobil. He had no ambition to be secretary of state—or knew he was being interviewed for the job—until Mr Trump offered it to him. Now installed as the voice of American foreign policy, he has maintained, notwithstanding his undoubted qualities, an oilman’s aversion to public scrutiny. He rarely speaks to journalists or visits American embassies on his trips abroad. He appears absorbed by the ticklish task of arranging a 31% cut in his department’s budget, which Mr Trump will shortly propose to Congress.
The vacant positions—in effect, almost the State Department’s entire decision-making staff of under-secretaries, assistant secretaries and ambassadors—are being covered by mid-ranking civil servants, who lack the authority, or understanding of the administration’s plans, to take the initiative. America’s diplomatic operation is idling at best. A sense of demoralisation—described in interviews with a dozen serving and former diplomats—permeates it. “I went to a policy planning meeting the other day and we spent half the time talking about someone’s bad back,” says a diplomat. “We’ve never been so bereft of leadership,” says another. A third predicts a wave of resignations. [Continue reading…]
Rex Tillerson’s dangerous silence
Stephen Krupin writes: Not long after President Obama’s second inauguration, I walked down 23rd Street in Foggy Bottom toward my new office in the State Department. I was a couple of days from starting as incoming Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief speechwriter, and was a couple of blocks from the building when I ran into two of the outgoing secretary’s writers.
In what felt like an informal, serendipitous changing-of-the-guard ceremony, my counterparts passed to their successor some well-earned wisdom: In diplomacy, every word matters. True, writers and pundits always feel this way, sometimes to a fault. But foreign policy amplifies the fussiness. One of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters recalled the time when, in an otherwise innocuous list of countries, an ally took offense when its name came after another’s. The offended country had established diplomatic relations with the United States earlier; it just happened to come later in the alphabet.
Legislatures codify their policy in laws and amendments. Courts issue opinions that set judicial precedent. Foreign policy is a more subtle art. Outside of a major treaty, diplomacy is rarely dictated by anything resembling legislation, rulings, or executive orders. Instead, diplomats’ words are their policies. And when policy isn’t clearly defined by those speaking, it is divined, for better or worse, by those listening.
Secretary Rex Tillerson’s unnerving silence as America’s chief diplomat reveals a corollary to the rule I was reminded about on 23rd Street: Every word you don’t say speaks just as loudly as those you do. Tillerson has been less vocal and less forthcoming than his predecessors in his first weeks on the job — a defining period in any tenure, but especially in the tumultuous transition to Donald Trump’s America. At home and abroad, citizens and stakeholders are straining their ears for clues about what our “America First” conversion will look like: What tangible changes should we brace for as we regress from the indispensable nation to an insulated one? How will the muscular bluster of the campaign and nationalism of this new era be realized in bilateral and multilateral relationships? Which of our core interests, like standing with our NATO allies, standing up for universal human rights, or even standing firm on a two-state solution, are now obsolete? Yet in an administration that is so loud in so many ways, our top emissary to the world has been so quiet. [Continue reading…]
Why Americans don’t win wars anymore
Mark Perry writes: President Trump bemoans the fact that when it comes to wars, America’s best days are behind her. “We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” he said on the same day that he declared his new budget would include a 10-percent increase for military spending. But there is an example of American victory — and in the Middle East , no less — that the new commander-in-chief would do well to study because it provides a lesson wholly at odds with Trump’s muscle and menace style.
The lesson comes from an actual war hero who was — somewhat amazingly — branded a wimp when he landed in the Oval Office.
On September 2, 1944, Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush’s TBM Avenger was shot down on a bombing run over Chichi Jima, a Japanese held island. As his aircraft spun seaward, Bush ordered his gunner and bombardier out of the plane, then climbed onto the wing and parachuted into the sea. Afloat on a life raft, Bush admits he feared the Japanese would find him and deliver him to Chichi Jima’s commander who, after the war, was executed for murdering captured American pilots and eating their livers. Bush later joked that he would have made a modest meal, as he was “a skinny wretch.”
It takes a lot of sand to fly into the teeth of enemy fire, but Bush’s reputation for courage didn’t stick. Forty years later, in October of 1987, he was labeled a “wimp” by Newsweek, which questioned whether he was “tough enough” to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had doubts. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990 and Bush seemed to waver, Thatcher bucked him up: “Don’t go all wobbly on me, George,” she said. In fact, Bush wasn’t about to.
In the weeks following Saddam’s aggression, Bush recruited an international coalition of countries to oppose him, gained the approval of the U.N. to condemn his invasion, deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition of troops to defend Saudi Arabia, then fought a 100- hour ground war (preceded by a 900-hour air war), dubbed Operation Desert Storm, that expelled Saddam’s army from Kuwait. “We set the goal, formed the coalition, did the diplomacy, gave peace a chance, had the fight, defined the mission of the battle, fought and won,” as Bush succinctly put it. The “mother of all battles” (as Saddam bragged) was “the mother of all victories” — the last clear and decisive military triumph in American history. [Continue reading…]
Trump’s plan to eviscerate the State Department
The Associated Press reports: In his first weeks as America’s top diplomat, [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has gone to great lengths to avoid attracting attention, despite a growing perception in Washington that the State Department is being sidelined by a power-centric White House.
Some State Department officials have been told by the White House to expect drastic budget cuts, with much of the reduction potentially coming out of U.S. foreign aid money. Trump and his team have also told those interviewing for top State Department jobs that significant staffing cuts will come. Some appear to have started already.
While Tillerson was in Germany, several senior management and advisory positions were eliminated. The staffers were reassigned. Some other top posts are vacant, and there are no signs they’ll be quickly filled.
While Tillerson has met or spoken with dozens of foreign counterparts in his first weeks, the White House is driving the front-page diplomacy. The lack of State Department involvement has flustered many long-time diplomats.
When Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, acting Deputy Secretary Tom Shannon was assigned to represent the agency in the meeting because Tillerson was flying to Germany. At the last minute, Shannon was blocked from participating in the meeting. The meeting went on without State Department representation. [Continue reading…]
Tillerson conducts U.S. diplomacy under a veil of secrecy — refuses to answer questions
Following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s last minute decision to attend a G20 gathering of foreign ministers in Germany — his first trip overseas as America’s top diplomat — the New York Times describes his meeting with Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson: At the beginning of their meeting, a small group of reporters was ushered in to take photos of Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Johnson sitting across from each other. One reporter shouted a question to Mr. Tillerson asking what message he was sending to his colleagues about President Trump’s executive order on travel and refugees.
Mr. Tillerson remained mum.
“Good try,” Mr. Johnson said to fill the silence, as others in the room nervously chuckled.
The reporters were brought back into the room at the end of the meeting, and this time a shouted question — How would the turmoil in Washington affect the trans-Atlantic alliance? — was directed at the normally voluble Mr. Johnson. This time even he was silent.
As the reporters were leaving, however, Mr. Johnson was heard to ask: “Are we still being recorded?”
To which Mr. Tillerson, whose two-week tenure has not included a single news conference, press availability or routine briefing, replied, “They never give up.”
Later, during his meeting with Mr. Lavrov, — the first face-to-face high-level encounter between Russian and Trump administration officials — the news media pool was ushered into a small room to witness Mr. Lavrov give his usual flowery introduction. “I would like to congratulate you once again,” Mr. Lavrov said to Mr. Tillerson.
Invariably in such meetings when one side gives introductory remarks, the other side does as well. But as soon as Mr. Lavrov was finished, State Department press aides asked reporters — including a bewildered-looking Russian news crew — to leave.
While the reporters were herded out, Mr. Tillerson said: “Thank you, Mr. Lavrov, it’s a pleasure to see you.” And then he stopped. Just as the reporters reached the door, Mr. Lavrov was heard to ask Mr. Tillerson, “Why did they shush them out?”
After the meeting, Mr. Tillerson gave his statement calling on Russia to honor its commitments to Ukraine, but took no questions. [Continue reading…]