Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.
Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.
It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.
“Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.
Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?
Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.
Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.
NATO is covered.
China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.
And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.
Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.
Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.
The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.
The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.
This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.
It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.
But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.
You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.
Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.
With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.
Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy.
Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.
Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.
ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”
Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”
BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.
Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.
And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.
See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.
Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.
Some 1000 employees at the Department of State are said to have signed a formal memo sent through the “Dissent Channel” in late January, opposing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order initially blocking all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely, delaying other refugees 120 days, prohibiting for 90 days all other travelers (diplomats excluded) from seven Muslim-majority nations, and other immigration-related issues.
What is the Dissent Channel those State employees used? What effect if any will the memo have on policy? What does the memo say to the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the organization he now heads, and what will he do about it?
What the State Department calls the Dissent Channel is unique inside the American government. Created in 1971 during the Vietnam War, the system allows Foreign Service officers to express their disagreement with U.S. policy directly to senior leaders. The secretary of state is obliged to read and through his staff respond to all Dissent Channel messages, normally within 30-60 days. Persons using the Channel are fully protected against retaliation. Dissent messages are intended to foster internal dialogue within the State Department, and are never intended for the public.
The issues surrounding the most recent dissent memo begin where that previous sentence ends.
What was once understood to be a way to foster internal dialogue is in this case playing out more like an online petition. Multiple versions of the memo circulated within the State Department globally, with persons adding their signatures and making edits as they opened their email. Someone (no one seems to know exactly who) later allegedly melded the multiple versions into the one that was submitted, meaning some signers did not see the final text until it was leaked.
That leak changed everything, making the exercise less an expression of policy dissent than an anonymous press release sent out from a bureaucratic safe place. The intent in going public seems to be a combination of whining about, provoking, and embarrassing the administration. It is unclear anyone could feel that going to the press would foster greater discussion; actually, the opposite – many diplomats hoping to open a channel for discussion were deeply dismayed the memo went public, followed by anonymous interviews.
As one career ambassador stated regarding another dissent message quickly leaked to the media, State Department officers’ “oath of office is to protect and defend the Constitution, but they are not free to debate publicly with their president… If they want to go public they should resign.”
And indeed that sentiment appeared to be contained, albeit indelicately, in the White House’s initial reaction to the memo. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of those diplomats who signed that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”
Spicer, and the ambassador above, touch on a more fundamental issue underlying the dissent memo.
The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have not experienced a presidential transition. These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution – not to George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump – tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States; it’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won may be learning they are in the wrong business.
That sense of frustration as much with the man in the Oval Office as with his policy appears evident in the text of the dissent memo, which is long on emotional (core values, nation of immigrants, shame of Japanese-Internment camps, yada-yada), and short on concrete policy other than “we shouldn’t do what the Executive Order says” and suggestions for more vetting and social media monitoring. Potential lost revenue figures are mostly global, not limited to the seven countries, and presume none of the people denied entry will visit another time to spend their money.
There is an extraordinary amount of high-caste rhetoric in the memo that appears to describe a situation that many Middle East travelers might not recognize: the welcoming atmosphere of the United States (as if long waits to pay $160 to apply for a visa, two year or more invasive vetting for refugees stuck abroad, and crude TSA treatment did not previously exist.) The memo speaks of souring relations with Middle Eastern nations, increased anti-American sentiment, and creating the impression of a war based on religion, while somehow overlooking that 15 years of the horrors of the War on Terror (torture, drone kills, wedding parties blown up, Guantanamo) have already accomplished those sordid tasks.
The memo also somewhat dramatically raises the specter of humanitarian issues, a child denied medical care in the U.S. for example, when the Executive Order in Section 3(g) clearly allows for such exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. The memo brushes that process off as unworkable, when in fact such exceptional processes exist throughout U.S. immigration law and work just fine – it has been the State Department who has in fact implemented them.
Left unsaid is any commentary on pre-Trump U.S. refugee policy. Since 1980, the United States has accepted fewer than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were simply children accompanying their refugee parent(s). By contrast, though not limited to refugees, the Obama administration alone deported 2.5 million people. The FY2016 American quota for Syrian refugees was 10,000. In contrast, Canada in 2016 took in 25,000. Germany admitted 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.
No dissent memos were publicly released about any of that; while the State Department drafters may not even have been aware of the crude reality of pre-Trump policy as they wrote of a welcoming America, one can bet persons in the Middle East affected by those policies are. Same for the Obama-era illegal and unconstitutional denial of passports to Yemenis. Those actions ended up crushed in Federal court, but received no public dissent from inside State.
The memo concludes with an erroneous statement that Federal employees take an oath to whatever “core American and Constitutional values” are. Sources state the memo was drafted largely by persons new to the State Department, and that clearly shows.
(Of ancillary interest, the memo, written by people who work with the nuts and bolts of visa and immigration law daily, makes no assertions that Trump’s executive order is illegal or unconstitutional, just bad policy.)
So what happens next?
Rex Tillerson’s staff owe the signatories a response. Past experience suggests, and the near-certainty that the response will be leaked within minutes assures, that the reply will be of the “we acknowledge your concerns,” content-free variety. It is possible the response could be delayed until near the actual end of the legal wrangling, long after the media have forgotten the dissent memo ever existed.
In characterizing the dissent memo as unprecedented (it is in the number of signatories, claimed to be 1000, albeit out of a workforce of close to 19,000), many media outlets have raised the question of resignations. Will Tillerson one day find himself in a State Department without diplomats?
Experience suggests no.
There were no known State Department resignations of protest during the 15 years of atrocities known as the War of Terror (as well as no publicly released dissent memos.) At the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War, arguably a more significant foreign policy event than a temporary visa ban aimed at a handful of countries.
That said, emotions are running high inside the State Department, and one should not be surprised by a handful of resignations (one employee announced his resignation was actually a protest 12 days after he handed in his papers and even though he will remain at work until March, saying without explanation that Trump is a “threat to the Constitution”), a few scheduled retirements mediagenically re-categorized as resignations of protest, and an overreaction to all of that. Just remember outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.
This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!
The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.
There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.
Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.
It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.
From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)
Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.
The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.
So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.
Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.
The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.
“They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”
In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”
Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.
The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts — personnel changes and some unhappy employees in the midst of a major governmental transition — to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of the State Department’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization may yet find itself shunted aside into irrelevance.
There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he even was inaugerated. Another round of stories fanned panic that Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.
Then only last week the Washington Post published a bombastic story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. The real story, however, was that all/most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both. These were not protest resignations, they were housecleaning by the new boss in town.
As for plunging the State Department into chaos, the loss of six employees is not going to bring on Armageddon. Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department directly tied to Obama-era policies likely to change under the new administration.
In addition, all six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded. This is all part of the standard transition process. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.
The latest Chicken Little reporting concerns “dissent” messages circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration; one media outlet characterized this as a “revolt” waiting for Tillerson on his Day One.
Such bombastic language misses the mark completely. Though State’s internal process requires a response from senior leaders, they have 60 days to provide it, it is not public, and if experience serves will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns” content-free variety.
Others feel that while having no practical impact on policy, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only the current presidential transition.
These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump, tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are probably simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”
As a reality check, out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.
So it is without much evidence that Rex Tillerson will walk into a State Department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.
The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported — women’s and LGBTQ rights, social media messaging, soft power, climate change — are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails until ordered by the courts to speed up, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Foreign policy has increasingly gravitated under Bush and Obama deeper into the military, National Security Council, and the Oval Office anyway. None of that is likely to change.
Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seem destined to at best merely linger around if it does not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful, experienced Secretary of Defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.
At the same time, Trump’s federal hiring freeze has already impacted State. Even before the freeze there were more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Yet Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of America’s diplomats. If employees do leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will only make State less useful to anyone in Washington.
What’s really left for State to do?
Tillerson will find himself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing his network of embassies serve as America’s concierge abroad, providing cover stories for the intelligence community, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on things like Sports Diplomacy and paying for reality TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.
If that all doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation out of the State Department that attracts the most attention of all might be his.