Tillerson takes offence at claims he is hollowing out State Department

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a panel discussion after his remarks on US-European Relations at the Wilson Center in Washington.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a panel discussion after his remarks on US-European Relations at the Wilson Center in Washington.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTimes) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday (Nov 28) he was offended that anyone would suggest he was hollowing out the State Department, but he also suggested that the department's budget should be cut by about a third.

Tillerson also delivered an unusually tough rebuke to Russia, pledged enduring fealty to the security of Europe, needled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and asked Britain and the European Union to settle their differences over "Brexit" soon.

The remarks came at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington just as Tillerson was preparing to leave on a four-country swing through Europe next week.

Tillerson's tenure as the nation's chief diplomat has been widely criticised in the news media and on Capitol Hill, with his own top diplomats fleeing the department with little precedent.

The criticism has clearly stung. In previous interviews, Tillerson said that he was bewildered by reports of plunging morale, saying everyone he saw in the department's hallways appeared cheerful. On Tuesday, he went a step further.

"When I read these stories that there's this hollowing out, I take offense to that," Tillerson said.

Tillerson denied that there was any large wave of departures, claiming that the number of foreign service officers in the department has remained largely unchanged.

He has made no secret of his intention to cut his department's staffing levels by 8 per cent by next year - a US$25,000 (S$33,600) buyout offer was recently made public - and its spending by about a third.

And the numbers Tillerson and his aides have been using to dispute claims of high-level departures come from Sept 30, the day before many diplomats left.

"While the confirmation process has been excruciatingly slow for many of our nominees, I have been so proud of the acting assistant secretaries and people who've stepped into acting roles," Tillerson said Tuesday, adding, "I'm offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don't have a State Department that functions."

The biggest holdup in Tillerson's efforts to get a leadership team in place has not been a slow Senate confirmation process but his own failure to select candidates for both the White House and the Senate to consider.

And while expressing pride about the work his acting assistant secretaries are doing, Tillerson has ignored much of that, refusing to sit with many of his acting assistant secretaries for the routine briefings they have requested to provide him, officials said. After his security chief insisted on having five minutes with Tillerson to relate time-sensitive classified information, Tillerson fired him.

Tillerson said that the department could not spend effectively anywhere close to its peak budget of almost US$55 billion.

"It's just not sustainable," he said. "It is very difficult to execute a US$55 billion budget and execute it well."

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have insisted on keeping the department's budget in the range of US$50 billion, saying that now is not the time to retreat on diplomacy. But Tillerson said that a budget "in the mid-US$30 billion level" was more appropriate.

Much of the growth in the State Department's budget over the past 15 years has been in diplomatic security and information technology. Tillerson made clear on Tuesday that he wants to increase spending on computers, saying the department's computers are woeful. And Republicans on Capitol Hill, after the 2012 Benghazi attacks, have placed increasing importance on increased spending for security.

In his prepared remarks, Tillerson sought to reassure European allies who have been rattled by President Donald Trump's repeated criticism of NATO, the security alliance linking the United States and much of Europe.

"Our security commitments to European allies are ironclad," Tillerson said.

Tillerson was also critical of Russia.

"Russia can continue to isolate and impoverish itself by sowing disorder abroad and impeding liberty at home, or it can become a force that will advance the freedom of Russians and the stability of Eurasia," he said.

Tillerson urged European allies to stop being so focused on whether the Trump administration would walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, something Trump has threatened repeatedly to do.

"We ask our European partners to join us in standing up to all of Iran's malign behaviour," he said.

Tillerson tweaked Erdogan for his recent outreach to Russia and Iran.

"But we ask Turkey as a NATO ally to prioritise the common defense of its treaty allies," Tillerson said. "Iran and Russia cannot offer Turkish people the economic and political benefits that membership in the Western community of nations can provide."