Diplomats question tactics of Tillerson, the executive turned Secretary of State

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressing reporters at the Department Press Briefing on Aug 1, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressing reporters at the Department Press Briefing on Aug 1, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Several times a week the State Department sends a greeting to a foreign country on the occasion of its national day. By tradition, the salutations have been written by low-level diplomats and routinely approved by their superiors.

But not anymore.

Now the messages go through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's office, where his top assistants insist on vetting them, and where they often sit for weeks before coming back with extensive editing changes, according to several department officials. To these officials, it is a classic case of micromanagement - and emblematic of the way Tillerson has approached running the State Department.

Introduced by President Donald Trump as a "world-class player" when he nominated him, Tillerson had never worked in government. But as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, he brought to the State Department the kind of managerial experience shared by predecessors like George P. Shultz, who had been president of Bechtel, the giant engineering company, and George Marshall, a five-star Army general once described by Winston Churchill as "the organiser of victory" in World War II.

Even sceptics of Tillerson's foreign policy credentials thought the State Department, an agency of 75,000 employees, could use some of the management skills he had picked up as the head of a major corporation. Tillerson was supposed to know that leaders of large organisations should quickly pick a trusted team, focus on big issues, delegate small ones and ask for help from staff members when needed.

He has done none of those things, his critics contend.

Instead, he has failed to nominate anyone to most of the department's 38 highest-ranking jobs, leaving many critical departments without direction, while working with a few personal aides reviewing many of the ways the department has operated for decades rather than developing a coherent foreign policy.

"The secretary of state has to focus on the president, his policies and the other heads of government that he deals with, which means he cannot possibly run the department operationally himself," said R Nicholas Burns, a retired career diplomat and an undersecretary of state for President George W Bush.

"He has to delegate, and that's what's missing now." RC Hammond, Tillerson's spokesman, said Tillerson was simply tackling the problems of an unwieldy bureaucracy that his predecessors had ignored. And the more he has learned about the department, according to Hammond, the more problems he has found.

"What we are discovering is that there are a series of problems that have been neglected and ignored," Hammond said. "And they are causing larger problems that can be fixed if things are vetted properly and installed." Tillerson, 65, has made clear his assessment of not only the State Department but the federal government in general.

"It's largely not a highly disciplined organisation," he said in an interview last month while on a flight back from the Middle East, where he tried unsuccessfully to resolve a bitter feud between Qatar and four Arab nations. "Decision-making is fragmented, and sometimes people don't want to take decisions. Coordination is difficult through the interagency - has been for every administration." Almost from the time of his arrival, Tillerson has said the department needed to be reorganised, and he has embarked on a wholesale rethinking of its structure. He has hired two consulting companies, undertaken a department-wide survey and set up five committees to analyse different aspects of the department.

Tillerson has said the reorganisation will be driven by suggestions from staff members, but before the survey process even began he proposed a 31 per cent cut to the department's budget and an 8 per cent staff cut - suggesting to many that his mind was already made up. He must give Congress a hint of his plans by Sept 15 but does not expect to have them fully formed until the end of the year.

Tillerson's diplomatic accomplishments have been mixed at best. His biggest achievement came on Saturday when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which required bringing along the Russians and the Chinese. But his effort to resolve the struggle between Saudi Arabia, along with other Sunni powers, and Qatar has made little progress; his department is considered dysfunctional by the Europeans; and policy is entrusted to a tiny group.

Moreover, his reorganisation effort has contributed to the paralysis. He has not wanted to appoint undersecretaries and assistant secretaries until he understands the new structure. But the career officials sitting in those posts have little authority, and they fear making a career-ending move. His hiring freeze has meant few young people - those with a better sense of how to reach the younger populations around the world - are entering the department. Senior diplomats have left in droves, depleting the building of historical memory.

Wendy R Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, noted that the department's deep bench of talent meant the United States had "more ideas and more capabilities" than any other diplomatic player in the world.

"It is more than concerning that we would stultify that capacity through deep budget cuts, centralisation of decision-making at State and leaving empty leadership positions," she said.

There is widespread agreement within the department that some kind of reorganisation is needed. In just one example, the department has more than 60 special envoys and offices dealing with such issues as climate change and human trafficking. These envoys and offices operate outside the usual chain of command, and proposals to trim those back are widely popular and part of Tillerson's plan.

The criticism is that Tillerson has neglected other priorities.

"There's a broad acceptance of the need for reorganisation and a growing frustration at the need for decisions to deal with ongoing issues," said Ronald E Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a widely respected department veteran. "The number of necessary but unmade decisions is steadily growing." The hope in Foggy Bottom was that once Tillerson began filling out his top cadre of leaders, the logjam of decisions would ease as his deputies relieved some of the strain. John Sullivan's confirmation in late May as deputy secretary of state was seen as a watershed, since Sullivan is well liked, works hard, has government experience and is focused on administration.

But instead of improving matters, Sullivan's appointment seems to have only made them worse. On July 17, Tillerson revoked or put under review all of Sullivan's decision-making powers as well as those of all the other senior leaders in the department. Diplomats say the cause was a decision that Sullivan made that Tillerson disliked, but Hammond denied that Sullivan had done anything to trigger the move.

What did, he said, was Tillerson's discovery that many of the hundreds of responsibilities traditionally assigned to high-level officials below the secretary had not been fully vetted or publicly disclosed. Among those responsibilities are the authority to approve hundreds of required reports to Congress, to accept the design of new embassies and to coordinate income tax issues between the US Treasury and foreign governments.

"So to ensure that there are a legitimate set of lines of authority, we have revoked them," Hammond said.

After a thorough review and public accounting, the leaders' decision-making powers could be re-established or no longer be subject to review, he said. For now, all decisions, no matter how trivial, must be sent to Tillerson or his top aides: Margaret Peterlin, his chief of staff, and Brian Hook, director of policy planning.

"By putting a hold on things, he's not causing things to break," Hammond said of Tillerson. "They were broken when we arrived. In fact, Washington being broken is a big reason we were elected."

Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of state for management who was appointed by Bush in 2007 and served in that capacity until early this year, said Tillerson's decision to revoke or re-examine the authorities that were delegated only worsened a leadership crisis that had resulted from his failure to get his own leadership team in place.

"The department doesn't have horsepower to operate at prime capability, and the reported revocation of the delegation of authorities to other people only exacerbates the situation," Kennedy said.

In another example of just how much Tillerson is sweating the details, he recently insisted that his staff members submit a memorandum justifying each proposed hiring of a diplomatic spouse in the embassies in Baghdad and Kabul, Afghanistan. Such spousal jobs are an important means of encouraging diplomats to take hardship posts and generally save the department the expense of sending and housing another American independently.

Tillerson personally reviewed the necessity for every one of those jobs.

"Because there's a hiring freeze, it requires the secretary's signature to make any of these hires," Hammond said.

But in the meantime, State Department officials must tend to the daily functions of the department - writing reports to Congress, issuing visas and interacting with 190 countries. His critics say Tillerson has stood in the way of getting much of it done.

"We support paring back the number of special envoys, especially when the function can be folded back into the bureaus, clarifying the lines of authority," said Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "We also support streamlining cumbersome administrative processes that eat up precious hours of every workday. However, the ship of state can, and must, keep moving during this process." At a rare meeting with reporters in July, Tillerson acknowledged that the State Department suffered from poor morale but was generally dismissive of the criticism at its root. "It is to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on," he said, adding that he was "mindful of it." "I pay attention to it," he said.

But he said he was carrying out the policies of a president elected by the American people, and to those who cannot adjust to the new administration, "we have given them permission to go do something else."