Tillerson Trims Fat At State Department As Foreign Policy Hawks Call For His Firing


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continues his push to streamline State Department bureaucracy while under withering pressure from Washington’s foreign policy hawks, who say the former ExxonMobil CEO has been a failure in the first seven months of his tenure.

Tillerson outlined his plan to drastically cut the number of special envoys at State by folding some into larger bureaus and eliminating others altogether in a letter to Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The undated letter was first reported Monday by CNN.

Tillerson noted that nearly 70 special envoys currently operate within the department, in some cases long after the issues that inspired their creation have been resolved or faded from relevance. To eliminate redundancies and clarify the diplomatic chain of command, he recommended that 30 envoys keep their titles, another 21 be integrated into regional or functional bureaus, nine be eliminated entirely and five be merged with existing positions.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote.

Tillerson’s culling is widely seen as a necessary brake on the proliferation of special envoys, which have quadrupled since the first George W. Bush administration. Carrying the rank of ambassador, special envoys can boost the profile of issues considered important to U.S. foreign policy makers, but they also steer resources and attention away from permanent bureaus within the State Department.

Tillerson will need the support of Congress to trim the ranks, as many special envoys are mandated by federal law. Some lawmakers have voiced concern that folding certain envoys, such as those for climate change and Syria, into larger bureaus will result in those issues receiving less attention from department leadership.

In a statement to CNN, Corker expressed support for Tillerson’s plan and promised to work with the secretary to implement the changes.

“Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them,” Corker said.

Even those retired diplomats critical of the Trump administration’s budget cuts at State agree that a reduction in the network of special envoys is long overdue. Laura Kennedy, who served as an ambassador under Bush and Obama, called Tillerson’s plan a “needed and sensible step.”

Though he has received support for the special envoy plan, Tillerson continues to face criticism from many of Washington’s prominent foreign policy observers.

The influential neoconservative writer Max Boot, who has become one of the most prominent right-wing critics of the Trump administration, lambasted Tillerson in an Aug. 23 piece for Foreign Policy. Boot called Tillerson “quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America’s rise to global prominence” and ripped him for an “amoral” approach to world affairs and a supposedly soft touch on Russia.

Like-minded pundit Jennifer Rubin on Tuesday used her platform at the Washington Post to pile on, urging President Donald Trump to fire the “unduly optimistic and befuddled” secretary.

Among his many failings, she said, Tillerson has “failed to bond with the president, been ineffective with the media, clashed with Jared Kushner (for meddling in Middle East diplomacy), horrified human rights activists, lost track of where the president is from time to time (e.g. on Qatar), frustrated congressional oversight committee members and shrunk the influence in the State Department.”

Thus far, Tillerson appears unfazed by such calls for him to resign or be fired. Despite rumblings that Trump has at times been unhappy with Tillerson’s approach, the secretary of state still has powerful allies in the administration, especially the influential trio of former generals: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Tillerson was at the White House early Monday, and several senior administration advisers told POLITICO that he was involved in disaster relief planning for his home state Texas. At a Monday afternoon briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed suggestions that Trump wants to get rid of Tillerson.

“The president has confidence in his team, and we are working hard to accomplish our goals and make America great again,” she said.

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