Michael A. Cohen

The sad state of the State Department: from dreadful to even worse?

REX TILLERSON will go down as one of the worst secretaries of state in US history — yet there’s a reasonable chance that in the weeks and months to come, US foreign policy will be in even worse shape.

Let’s first get the particulars out of the way on Tillerson’s tenure at Foggy Bottom. It would be charitable to call it a dumpster fire.

Tillerson had always been a misplaced pick to be America’s top diplomat. He had no foreign policy experience, had spent no time working in the public sector, and, as was clear at his confirmation hearing in January 2017, lacked the policy chops to be an effective secretary of state. Perhaps worst of all, it was obvious at the time that he didn’t have a close relationship with Donald Trump and had little insight into the new president’s foreign policy thinking. His time in Foggy Bottom seemed destined to be a disaster.


Yet, somehow, Tillerson made it far worse. Once ensconced at State, he practically ignored the bureaucracy and career Foreign Service officers to embark on an ill-advised, poorly laid-out reorganization plan that led to a bleeding out of key talent at the department. In just the 14 months that he had the job, 60 percent of the top-ranking career diplomats resigned. Top undersecretary and assistant secretary positions went unfilled, as did key ambassadorships. Tillerson went along with the White House’s insane idea of slashing the State Department budget by more than 30 percent and cutting the department’s workforce by 9 percent; unsurprisingly, the number of new applications to join the Foreign Service fell precipitously.

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Morale at the agency could not be lower.

From a policy perspective, he was almost as bad. He spoke publicly about not taking into account basic democratic values and regard for human rights in the pursuit of US national security interests. He tried to remove the State Department from playing an active role in promoting democracy. He scrapped the office responsible for tracking war crimes. He was constantly undercut by the president, which gave foreign leaders little reason to have confidence in his public statements.

Just this month we found out that Tillerson failed to spend any of the $120 million appropriated to his agency to combat Russian meddling in US elections.

One would be hard-pressed to identify a single notable diplomatic accomplishment of Tillerson’s. The most generous view would be to give him limited credit for helping get tough United Nations support for actions on North Korea and spearheading Iraq-Saudi diplomatic rapprochement. But his true legacy will be will leave State in far worse shape than when he arrived, and it may take years, even a generation, to undo the damage he has done to the department.


And yet, having said all that, there’s reason for genuine concern about his departure. For all his many faults, Tillerson was one of the few voices of reason in Trump’s Cabinet when it came to foreign policy. Granted, that is an exceptionally low bar. Still, Tillerson at least recognized the importance of adhering to the Iran nuclear deal. He argued correctly that it would be a mistake to open negotiations with North Korea without laying the foundation for talks — several hours before Trump did just that. He was willing to occasionally point out that Russia was a bad actor on the global stage. Indeed, his pointed criticism of Russia’s likely role in the poisoning of a former spy in London last week may have helped get him fired.

Tillerson will now be replaced, pending Senate confirmation, by CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is far more hardline on the Iran nuclear deal and appears to be more simpatico with Trump’s foreign policy thinking (and I use this phrase guardedly). Tillerson at least appeared to recognize Trump’s voluminous limitations. Pompeo looks like yet another “yes man” for the president. that may change if he becomes secretary of state, but if not, the president will have placed yet another enabler in a position of enormous political influence within his administration.

This is where we are today: The secretary of state — maybe the worst in US history — is leaving, and the alternative might be worse still. This administration has seemingly become a daily choice between being shot in the head or stabbed in the heart. Either way, American foreign policy is not in good hands.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.