Thursday, February 16, 2017

The State Department That Isn't

Senior state department officials who would normally be called to the White House for their views on key policy issues, are not being asked their opinion. They have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent.

The public voice of the state department has fallen silent. There has not been a daily press briefing, the customary channel for voicing US views and policy on world events, since January.

When he flew to Germany, [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson took a small press pool with him but did not give it the opportunity to ask questions. At his first meeting on Thursday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, journalists were hustled out of the room before Tillerson opened his mouth, according to the Bloomberg news agency, rather than be allowed to stay to record the routine exchange of introductory platitudes. When Tillerson emerged, he delivered a very short statement, but refused to take questions.


Neither he nor his staff were consulted on the executive order imposing a travel ban on refugees and nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries. A memo strongly dissenting from the policy has been signed by about 1,000 state department employees.

When Trump decided over a dinner to approve a special forces counter-terrorist raid in Yemen, there was no one from the state department present who would normally have highlighted the dangers of civilian casualties from such operations for wider US interests in the region. The raid on 29 January went badly wrong and 25 civilians were killed.


Tillerson had previously assured Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, that he would have a free hand in choosing staff. He has brought a handful of personal aides with him but many of the state department senior staff either resigned or were summarily dismissed days before Tillerson arrived in the building, and there is no list of nominees to replace them. Given the time vetting and congressional confirmation takes, Tillerson is now facing many months of working with a severely depleted team of senior staff.


“My nagging suspicion is that the White House is very happy to have a vacuum in the under-secretary and assistant secretary levels, not only at state but across government agencies, because it relieves them of even feeling an obligation to consult with experts before they take a new direction," [said Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and one of the senior staff who was suddenly sacked before Tillerson’s arrival.]

That would be my reading.

...but hey, do what you will anyway.

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