In a recent interview on Fox News, which does for Donald Trump what ANN7 does for Jacob Zuma, Trump defended his tardiness in making political appointments at the State Department. Some 70 top positions remained vacant. These included Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and ambassador to South Africa. The president said he was not convinced all of them needed filling.
As for the department’s career officers, “we have some people I’m not happy with their thinking process.” Then, illustrating why those people might not be entirely thrilled with his “thinking process” either, he went full l’état c’est moi. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”
Unsurprisingly, the department is hemorrhaging senior talent. Its leadership ranks were being “depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador who now heads the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, writes in the current issue of the Foreign Service Journal. By her count, 60 per cent of officials of ambassadorial rank have quit since the start of the year.
This does not bother Trump. He wants to slim the foreign service drastically. When Vladimir Putin demanded that US downsize its official presence in Russia by 775 last July, Trump thanked him, only half in jest. Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, may not deny calling the president a moron, but is on board with at least this part of his programme. Tillerson reportedly aims to cut 2 000 of the department’s roughly 25 000 full time positions through a mix of attrition and buy-outs.
Does he have a point?
Audits by the State Department’s inspector general would give pause to any bottom-line conscious business executive — and Tillerson was certainly one of those as ExxonMobil’s CEO.
The most recent available report on the US embassy and consulate in SA dates to 2011. The ambassador at that point was Donald Gips, among the very best. But was the gargantuan complement of 954 staff, compromising 357 US government employees seconded from the US and 597 local hires really necessary to advance US interests?
The inspector general himself wondered, inter alia, whether it was really necessary to have, in addition to press relations officers in every embassy in the continent, a parallel Africa Media Relations Hub based in SA giving rise to turf wars and bruised egos.
Did the US taxpayer get value from the 1 020 embassy employees in Nigeria as of February 2013? Or the 1 304 in Kenya as of August 2012? Or the 92 in Swaziland (June 2010) now housed in a new $182 million terrorist-proof embassy.
For comparison’s sake, the British embassy in Washington is Her Majesty’s largest. It gets by, according to latest diplomatic list, with 100 seconded officials. Putin manages with 126. Admittedly, these numbers do not include local hires and trade and consular offices outside Washington. But we are talking here about representation in what is still the first among major powers, not in a picayune nation of 55 million. SA, for what it’s worth, gets by in Washington with 50 seconded and local staff.
Trump, solidly in the tradition of populist American demagoguery, loathes the State Department and the “pointy-headed intellectuals” of the foreign policy establishment because they read and think and have experience and hold him in deserved contempt.
Tillerson, on the other hand, seems rationally keen to debloat the State Department and its ancillaries like the US Agency for International Development, deflate their vanities and make them altogether more fit for purpose. Unlike Trump, he is not driven by the demon insecurity or a craving for revenge upon his betters.