Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr/Flickr

The drama regarding whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will remain in his job is over—at least for now—but the question remains whether the Trump team will continue to wield a wrecking ball against the State Department. The prospects don’t look good, and the repercussions on foreign policy are potentially dangerous.

Since he came into the job ten months ago, the former ExxonMobil CEO has presided over the depletion of State’s senior ranks as he obsesses over spreadsheets at the expense of diplomacy. As Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote: 

The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January. Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today—and are still falling…Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry.

Not necessarily. Under forward-looking leadership, the U.S. military has not been averse to cleaning house in order to meet strategic challenges. In the months leading up to World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall dismissed some 600 army officers. And during combat, 16 of 155 battlefield generals were relieved of command.

Periodic house cleaning and rejuvenation of the executive levels is necessary for any organization—and the State Department sorely needs to reorganize and refocus. But the difference between Marshall’s purging of the army’s ranks and the Trump administration’s induced erosion of State’s officer corps is that the former was carried out within a strategic policy framework, while the latter is being done in a policy vacuum. Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall had a plan. Trump and Tillerson are engaging in mindless vandalism.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump’s administration has not done a comprehensive policy review, created a set of strategy papers, or issued coherent marching orders to the national security agencies, which are operating by the seat of their pants. This accounts for growing unease over Trump’s thumb on the nuclear trigger, his erratic handling of North Korea, his puzzling submissiveness to Vladimir Putin, the absence of American leadership in the Middle East, and his flip-flopping on China.

Three-quarters of the State Department’s four dozen top political positions lie vacant. Decision making, such as it is, has resided in the hands of a tiny coterie of Tillerson acolytes in the policy planning office—traditionally the department’s in-house think tank—now an opaque star chamber cut off from the rest of the bureaucracy.

As tensions spike over North Korean nuclear testing, there is no assistant secretary for East Asia to manage policy, nor is there an ambassador in Seoul. As civil war rages in Syria, Saudi politics enters turbulence, and Iran sends warships to the Gulf of Mexico, there is no assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs nor ambassadors to key countries in the region. Zimbabweans just tossed Robert Mugabe out of power, yet the key position of assistant secretary for African affairs remains inexplicably vacant.

The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the State Department and USAID is $37.6 billion, a 31 percent decrease from the previous year’s. Tillerson’s goal is to cut some 2000 personnel, or 8 percent, from the State Departments 25,000 full-time workforce. Congress has rejected these cuts, denouncing them as a “doctrine of retreat.”

Meanwhile, Trump has asked lawmakers to raise military spending in the coming fiscal year by 10 percent, or $54 billion. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees intend to propose a defense budget of $640 billion for 2018—a further $37 billion increase over and above the Trump administration’s $603 billion request.

This lopsided allocation of resources reflects an alarming favoring of military options over diplomacy in addressing the foreign challenges that confront America. It evokes Mark Twain’s barb, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The consequences can be dire for the nation.

How so? Let’s examine three simmering regional crises and how the Trump team would likely deal with them.

Take North Korea—exchanges of “little rocket man” and “old lunatic” between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, as the latter fires off one long-range missile after another, show that this relationship is just about off the rails. As with schoolyard bullies, there are few stops to contain the testosterone-driven antics of two juvenile men with vast destructive power at their fingertips. In the first hour of a potential second Korean conflict, some 300,000 artillery rounds would rain down on the south, resulting in around 60,000 civilian casualties. Smart and persistent diplomacy could head off such a conflagration. “Unless secret back channel communications are going on, there is no U.S. diplomacy taking place to avert a second Korean War,” said Charles Ray, a former ambassador and retired army officer who spent two tours in South Korea.

And then there’s Russia; tensions with Moscow are the highest they have been since the Cold War. Scenarios that could ignite conflict could take a number of forms. For example, say Russian military playing chicken in the air or on the high seas finally results in a U.S. fighter craft going down, or a naval vessel being seriously damaged, with casualties. Things escalate from there. Pushing the envelope too far, Putin carries out military maneuvers that end up with the Red Army crossing into, say, Estonia. How does Washington react?

At present, we don’t have a leadership capable of adequately assessing the situation, coming up with well thought-out analyses and policy options, or managing treaty commitments, a former U.S. diplomat specializing in European security told me. Instead, we have a president, suspiciously deferential to Vladimir Putin, who is under investigation for possible criminal conspiracy which involves collusion with the Russians. Lacking a strong and coherent policy toward Moscow puts American security at heightened risk. A State Department adrift increases the odds for collision between the two traditional rivals.

In the Middle East, President Trump impulsively backed Saudi Arabia and five other Sunni states when they severed relations with Qatar last June, oblivious to the fact that that nation hosts America’s largest military base in the Middle East, key in our fight against ISIS. He appointed an ardent Zionist and diplomatic neophyte as ambassador to Israel—hardly an impartial promoter of U.S. interests. He put his equally ill-equipped son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of Middle East peace diplomacy. And he came dangerously close to pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, an act that could well lead Tehran to follow North Korea’s path toward becoming a rogue nuclear weapons state. Meanwhile, civil war rages in Syria, and the Saudis appear bent on bombing impoverished Yemen into the stone age. Tensions in the region are flaring as Iran and Saudi Arabia expand their Sunni-Shia proxy war.

Where is U.S. leadership? Where is Washington as honest broker? What exactly is U.S. policy? As Shalom Lipner wrote in Politico, “If America’s friends in the region aspire for enhanced security, they’d best not wait for the White House to provide it. And if recent events offer any indication, the message has been received loud and clear.”

With decision making dominated by Trump’s White House generals and the Pentagon, military options are prone to prevail over diplomatic ones. In this chaotic, aimless administration, success isn’t likely.

James Bruno

Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.