Career diplomats have been in war zones and helped fellow citizens in trouble. Yet they’re being sidelined and attacked because of their past service.
It’s a tough time to be an American diplomat. Expelled from Russia. Families sent home from Venezuela. Fear of bomb attacks in Afghanistan. Disparaged by political leaders in Washington. One of these should not be an accepted risk of service.
President Trump took office professing his support for military strength over diplomatic engagement, and has made budgetary and personnel decisions accordingly. His administration is seeking to restructure the State Department with a proposed 30% budget cut and elimination of around 2,300 positions. Secretary Rex Tillerson has approached his job like a management consultant brought in to right size an organization, refraining (at least publicly) from defending the need for robust funding and staff. As a former State Department official, I recognize the need to streamline bureaucracy; former colleagues have described their wish lists for improvements, including modernizing technology. Yet many diplomats express little faith in the current review process run by external consultants unfamiliar with their work.
As numerous diplomats have resigned or retired, the dwindling ranks left in the trenches are struggling to maintain morale. Their first-hand knowledge is often ignored, as the secretary beefs up a policy planning staff with outside experts and has eliminated the authority of senior staff to make routine decisions. Twenty-two of 24 bureaus are headed by acting assistant secretaries, who are not empowered by Congress or the secretary to develop and implement policy priorities. Rumors fly about which offices and envoys will be axed.
A hiring freeze, which was imposed by Trump but lifted three months later across the federal government, remains in place at State pending the ongoing review. Until last week, State officials were barred from serving rotations in the National Security Council on financial grounds. Officials borrowed from agencies have long staffed the NSC, enabling departments to ensure their perspectives are incorporated into White House policy-making. Spouses of diplomats, who often give up rewarding careers…