Rex Tillerson Is Fiddling With PowerPoint While the World Burns

 In Politics

Imagine holding the job of representing the most important country on the planet, facing an exploding array of crises around the world, and focusing not on diplomacy but on fiddling around with your org chart and mundane tasks like fixing the email system.

Yet that’s what Rex Tillerson has done in his bizarre and disappointing 10 months as America’s secretary of state—a position held by such giants as Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Unlike his predecessors, who generally left the day-to-day management of the State Department to others, Tillerson has reportedly immersed himself in a mysterious, corporate-inflected overhaul of Foggy Bottom’s bureaucracy.

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The staff of the State Department has not taken kindly to Tillerson’s ministrations: Experienced and talented diplomats are fleeing; top posts have inexplicably gone unfilled; and those left behind are demoralized and adrift. Applications for the Foreign Service are down by half. As the head of the Foreign Service Association, an alumni group, recently pointed out, the number of career ministers—the diplomatic equivalent of three-star generals—is down from 33 to 19, while minister counselors—equal to two stars—has fallen from 431 to 369.

Like any bureaucracy, the State Department tends to resist change; past secretaries have made attempts at reform with mixed success. But what’s happening to the department under Tillerson looks to many not like reform but sheer incompetence, if not deliberate sabotage. And what’s especially strange about his focus on management issues is that, for a former CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations—ExxonMobil—he doesn’t seem very good at it.

Consider, for example, a recently leaked document out of the secretary’s office that suggests he is relying on the 25-person Policy Planning office as the principal vehicle for day-to-day decision-making. As the previous director of that office, under former Secretary of State John Kerry, I was especially keen to understand how Tillerson is using my old shop.

The document, which was first reported by POLITICO, is a flow chart that attempts to streamline the making of foreign policy. It references no other office in the Department of State as playing a role besides Policy Planning, which appears to be the primary originator, implementer and monitor of policy.

It’s not clear if this is because the secretary thinks he is facilitating central planning, or because there isn’t anyone else left with the requisite experience in the department to advise him—he hasn’t filled scores of critical positions, and yet he is slashing the department’s staff by 8 percent, or roughly 2,000 people. There is nothing wrong with trimming bureaucracy, but using a Texas chainsaw instead of a scalpel, Tillerson is severing from the department its most valuable expertise and experience.

Every secretary has a different model for decision-making. And Tillerson is certainly entitled to his own system; he seems to want fewer stops in the chain of command, perhaps to restrict the flow of information to a trusted close circle of advisers. This may streamline the decision-making process, but it won’t necessarily produce a better outcome.

To understand why, it’s worth taking a look back. Created during the Cold War era, the Office of Policy Planning was intended to help keep the big picture in view. Dean Acheson, the undersecretary of state at the time, described its mission as to look “far enough ahead to see the emerging form of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them.”

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