The time has come for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step down. The damage on his watch to American diplomacy is too significant to ignore.
It’s bad enough that Tillerson abides the way President Trump undermines his diplomatic efforts, leaving foreign powers confused about Tillerson’s true authority. The best example was in October, when Tillerson was initiating talks with North Korea to avoid war. “He is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president tweeted about his chief diplomat, demeaning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while undermining his own representative. “Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!”
It is worse that 10 months into the job, Tillerson runs a shop dangerously low in top-tier experts. No one has been nominated to serve as assistant secretary of State for South Asia, where the Afghanistan conflict enters its 17th year; or Near Eastern Affairs, where the Syrian civil war rages on; or East Asia, where tensions over North Korea edge toward war. Ambassadorships remain empty in hot-zone nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey.
Most damning is Tillerson's hyperfocus on reorganizing the State Department, slashing its budget by nearly a third and staffing by 8%, as international crises multiply.
OTHER VIEWS: ‘State Department is not missing a beat’
Thankfully, Congress has chosen to keep the agency fully funded. Even so, a hiring freeze has pushed morale into free fall and crippled recruiting. What is left is a hollow agency where 60% of career ambassadors (a diplomatic rank equivalent to four-star generals in the Army) are gone, along with 42% of career ministers (like three-star officers) and 14% of minister counselors (two stars). These are the people who actually carry out foreign policy.
"If the U.S. military were facing a recruitment and retention crisis of this magnitude, few would hesitate to call it a national security emergency," former secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in The Washington Post.
Nor is Tillerson’s overhaul a smooth operation. His third consecutive choice to run the redesign, Maliz Beams, just quit after only three months on the job.
To his credit, Tillerson has tried to be a pragmatic counterweight to Trump’s wrong-headed foreign policy. He has argued, for example, to remain in the Paris climate agreement and keep the Iran nuclear deal. Too often, his arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
That could be the reason Trump finally appears to have soured on his secretary of State — that and an October news story recounting how a frustrated Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” after laboring through a 90-minute tutorial for the president on U.S. foreign policy.
Trump might have gotten even for the insult by humiliating Tillerson last week when the White House leaked plans to replace him with a more hawkish Mike Pompeo, CIA director.
We expressed reservations back in January about Tillerson as secretary of State — a man with zero government or military experience, whose chief credential was running an oil company. For the sake of the country, we wished we had been wrong.
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