Cutting out the deadwood in the State Department

In his 1971 book ‘The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory‘, Alastair Campbell relates:

Ellis Briggs, when he was ambassador to Czechoslovakia shortly after the Communist coup d’êtat in 1948 … had been pestering Washington, without success, to cut his staff of eighty personnel … by half … One day the Czech government, unaware of this background, declared sixty-six of the American embassy’s personnel persona non grata and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country … to Briggs it was a blessing in disguise.  “The American embassy in Prague then consisted of thirteen people,” Briggs remarked.  “It was probably the most efficient embassy I ever headed.”

With that example in mind, it’s encouraging to read this report.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is finishing what he calls a “redesign plan” that would shrink the State Department and revamp American diplomacy in ways that already have drawn bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.

Tillerson said he is determined to do more with less even as the Trump administration grapples with growing foreign policy challenges in North Korea, Syria and Russia.

“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient,” Tillerson told U.S. Embassy employees in London on Thursday. “Because if I accomplish that, that will go on forever and you will create the State Department of the future.”

Since taking office, Tillerson has moved slowly to fill traditional leadership slots at State, leaving many offices vacant or nearly so. Retirements, removals, hiring freezes and fewer promotions have trimmed staff. A few diplomats have publicly quit to protest administration policy.

Among the most vulnerable have been diplomats at programs now out of favor, like climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as special envoys. Some special fields, such as religious freedom, are being subsumed in other bureaus.

Tillerson delivered a progress report on his redesign plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday. It quickly prompted a bipartisan protest.

. . .

Tillerson last month denied he is “hollowing out” the department. He said that reorganization will take months to implement and that some positions are best left unfilled until all the pieces are in place.

Congress already has pushed back hard on the staffing and budget cuts.

This year, Tillerson backed President Trump’s proposal to cut State’s budget from about $55 billion to about $39 billion. He told a Senate committee in June that he aimed to cut about 1,300 jobs — 327 foreign service officers and about 1,000 civil service employees.

State has about 13,000 foreign service employees and 11,000 civil service employees.

There’s more at the link.

The “swamp” is already pushing back against Secretary Tillerson’s plans, as the above article makes clear;  but I think they’re long overdue.  Part of the problem is that the State Department has been its own worst enemy when it comes to justifying its enormous cost (over $50 billion annually) and bloated bureaucracy.  The Washington Examiner noted:

With its image still tainted … by the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, the State Department has struggled to shake public perceptions of failure after spearheading a controversial nuclear agreement with Iran and failing to improve battered relationships with Russia and Israel, among others.

Its deep transparency problems were exposed in a January inspector general report, which found several examples of FOIA requests for politically charged documents that were suppressed by officials who should have had nothing to do with the FOIA process. In 2014 alone, the State Department spent $2 million of taxpayer money fighting FOIA lawsuits in court instead of simply turning over documents, as the law requires.

Again, more at the link.

There’s historically been a great deal of tension between the US armed forces and the State Department, and between American businesses and the restrictions imposed by State on their overseas marketing and promotional activities.  The State Department appears to have done little to justify many of those restrictions and its activities except to state that they exist “because we say so”.  Many of its activities in Africa have been blunders of the first magnitude.  I know, because I witnessed many of them at first hand.  Benghazi was only the most recent example, and one of the most publicized.  There have been many more.

I think Secretary Tillerson is doing exactly the right thing.  Get rid of the deadwood, streamline the State Department, and restructure the organization to effectively address today’s priorities, rather than those of the Cold War.  Faster, please!



  1. Do you have any thoughts on the idea of making Ambassadors all be Foreign Service Officers versus the many who are currently politicians or donors?
    Personally, I think it is a good idea.

  2. The proposed cuts don't go deep enough. Maybe set a maximum number of warm bodies for any one country, For that matter, justify the existence of the dept itself. For the past century, it has worked against the best interests of the US.

    I realize that one of the things they do is hide various types of intelligence collectors within the organization, and the more bodies, the better, for that purpose. How effective is this sort of thing, anyway? The public record is not so hot.

  3. The fewer number of featherbeds, the fewer "leaks" to worry about feeding unauthorised intel to congress. Hope they're cutting the folks out of the various arab and muslim desks who've "gone native", being of more benefit to their target regions than they are to US. It's about time!
    We need savvy folks who know they work for us, rather than political appointments who don't know their arse from their elbow.

  4. When I worked with the State Department, I found them to be much more effective and effective as the DoD, but that's probably damning with faint praise. I did notice that there seemed to be a lot of folks in embassy and consulate staffs, but they seemed to be getting the job done.

  5. Well, Tillerson is clearly doing A good thing. I think that an examination of the State Department's record over the last century or so might justify telling the whole flaming lot they have a fifteen minute head start, after which we shoot 'em.

  6. Bayou Renaissance Man, you write an awfully fine blog, but stick to things you know. A quarter of the Foreign Service has served in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, not to mention garden spots like South Sudan, Venezuela or Moscow. Hardly deadwood. The US military and US business too would have a bone to pick with your views.

    And — "Shoot 'em," CSP Schofield? That's a dishonorable comment.

    A lot has gone wrong with State but that owes to the political masters at the top. Picture the U.S. Navy with a political appointee as CNO and Congressional staffers, political loyalists, and high-rolling donors as TF leaders and base commanders. That's what State goes through every four years. Drain the Swamp? Not guessing this'll happen, with Trump donors now backfilling the Obama donors.

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