The president’s draconian budget cuts to the State Department have virtually no defenders outside the White House. Many lawmakers and outside experts acknowledge that the State Department is not immune to waste and that a relook at its organization and staffing would not be unreasonable. However, slashing roughly 30 percent of the budget is no way to begin a serious reform process.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin (Md.), lambasted the budget proposed by the White House at a hearing on Tuesday. “Slashing our foreign operations and foreign assistance makes the world more dangerous for Americans and for America,” he said. “Yet that is precisely what that budget would do. The budget takes a penny wise, pound foolish approach that would cost lives and endanger Americans here at home.” Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also gave it the back of the hand. “The budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with.” Senators from both parties tore into the budget as diminishing America’s “soft power” and creating a “Fortress America.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was among the strongest inquisitors. He told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he was risking lives around the world.
Nevertheless, there was Tillerson defending the absurd counter-productive proposal that would decimate his department’s mission. Tillerson argued, “Throughout my career I have never believed, or experienced, that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it. Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective — our people will.” Even when spending categories were literally reduced to zero. he tried arguing that other countries could fund programs that the United States has supported under Democratic and Republican presidents.
That’s the quintessential straw man. Certainly, money is not the only determinate of success, but with such meager funds, the State Department won’t be able to accomplish most of its goals and will cement its status as the second, much smaller fiddle to the military in the conduct of national security. For Tillerson to defend the budget so earnestly, when it obviously is dead on arrival, only serves to demoralize his department and reinforce the view that he has no real influence with the president.
“The State Department is largely people and foreign assistance is a small fraction of the Federal budget,” Eric Edelman, former ambassador to Turkey, tells me. “Together they make up the fundamental tools of American diplomacy. The U.S. diplomatic platform around the world is already scandalously underfunded for a country with the international responsibilities shouldered by the United States.” He adds, “A 30 percent budget cut will cripple the institutions’ ability to carry out the tasks with which Secretary Tillerson is charged. He is, in effect, undercutting his own ability to do his job.”
Rather than defend the ludicrous budget, he might have extended his hand to work through the budget with members of the committee or to ask them to be clear about priorities. He could have come prepared with a list of noncontroversial cuts what would have bolstered his case that there are areas that can be eliminated with little or no effect on the department’s mission. Instead, he played the part of the dummy to the White House ventriloquists.
Even more shocking, Tillerson told the committee that he did not plan on completing his reorganization and filling the slew of empty slots until next year — next calendar year. That seemed to stun lawmakers, who might rightly wonder whether Tillerson will last that long and whether he has any sincere interest in making his department effective. Tillerson seems to have no feel for how his lackadaisical approach plays to lawmakers and to allies abroad.
If Tillerson believes what he is saying, he still has not learned much about his job or the role of the State Department. (Maybe if he had been allowed to fill top slots there would be experienced advisers to tutor him.) If Tillerson knows what he is saying is nonsense, he should resign and explain precisely why he cannot do the job. That would be the greatest service he could provide to the department and the country.