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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Monday, January 2, 2017
A State Department RESET
How Rex Tillerson can reorganize and reassert State’s vital role on the world stage Rex Tillerson Illustration by Greg Groesch
No federal agency needs a reset more than the State Department. For years, the embodiment of our foreign service, ambassador corps and diplomatic relations has drifted into global confusion, partisan politics and — most tragically — an internal culture that has cost American lives.
The State Department has grown larger, but less capable to deploy sufficient resources. Ambitious in scope, it is small-scale in delivery, with an institutional bureaucracy imposing even by Washington standards. It is time for State to restructure and reassert its vital role on the world stage.
The nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary offers important insight into President-elect Trump’s vision of executive branch reform and obvious conclusion that the skills required to run the world’s largest company are what the department needs now.
Like the State Department, ExxonMobil is in the daily business of facility management, personnel deployment and maintaining constant communication between on-the-ground and home base. It must meet the needs of safety and security, while coordinating movement and manpower involving pipelines, planes, trucks and trains in some of the most delicate and hostile regions of the world.
How hostile can it get? The company satisfies even the most the ruthless supply-and-demand of green activists and celebrity environmentalists requiring a steady stream of fossil fuel to gas up their Gulfstream jets to attend the next international summit on behalf of climate change awareness.
If Mr. Tillerson becomes America’s 69th secretary of State, he will face challenges as widespread and multifaceted as most — if not all — of the previous 68. Here are three ways he can achieve transformative change:
Set embassies right: America currently oversees 294 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions across the world — and thousands more buildings, outposts and residences. Some are obviously more influential than others, but they all should advance international relations. Two recent developments in dissimilar parts of the world underscore how this has not been happening.
In 2009, the State Department made architectural design and aesthetic appreciation a priority for embassies and consulates — rather than emphasizing pedestrian priorities like security, functionality and value.
State vacated our current London embassy (conveniently located near 10 Downing Street) and approved the construction of a less-secure but shimmering glass structure on the opposite bank of the Thames for more than $1 billion. For hundreds of millions less, we could have built two other embassies.
Grant Green, a former State Department official tasked with studying embassy security, observed “the pendulum had shifted from security to design.”
In Lagos, Nigeria, the replacement of an aging consulate never even got to the gorgeous glass phase, as the building couldn’t support the addition of protective plating that would stop a stray bullet. Would this occur — let alone be tolerated — if ExxonMobil was footing the bill?
Make ambassadors diplomats again: Presidents of both parties rewarding significant donors and powerful friends with ambassadorships is not new. But recent high-profile embarrassments should inspire second thoughts about the current “70-30 rule” that suggests almost a third of these appointments be set aside as patronage.
Not every ambassador needs to be a foreign service veteran. But let’s not repeat the 2014 spectacle of ambassador nominees to Argentina, Iceland and Norway admitting they’d yet to set foot in their designated countries — with two of the three receiving Senatorial confirmation anyway.
Establish clear channels of communication: The harrowing tragedy of Benghazi is rightfully known for the terrorist attacks that killed four Americans. But before a single shot was fired, the State Department had already failed to serve and protect every official it dispatched to Libya.
It did this by denying repeated requests for security upgrades while simply ignoring others. As the situation in Benghazi deteriorated, higher-ups at State provided no serious review of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ strenuous objections, up to and including the day of the attack that took his life.
This included the recall of a plane specially designed for evacuation in hostile circumstances, ideal for use by our people that terrible night. Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy even went so far as to suggest that if Mr. Stevens had truly felt unsafe, he should have tried harder to get his point across.
We’ve tried experts, academics and even U.S. senators as secretary of State — and it has at least not prevented where we find ourselves today. Rex Tillerson deserves his chance to bring proven skills, a fresh approach and clear thinking to the future of Foggy Bottom.