The Media Narrative On Tillerson’s ‘Dismantling’ Of The State Department Is Overheated

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently taking another round of rhetorical blows over his proposed redesign of the State Department.

Citing Democratic lawmakers and anonymous foreign affairs officials, media outlets have in recent weeks built a narrative that the former ExxonMobil CEO is presiding over a “dismantling” of the State Department from which it may never recover. The headlines have grown ever-more hyperbolic.

“Rex Tillerson’s State Department Is Putting America In Danger, Say Alarmed Senators,” Newsweek reported Nov. 15.

“Why Is Tillerson Hollowing Out The State Department?” questioned MSNBC.

“Diplomats Sound The Alarm As They Are Pushed Out In Droves,” reported The New York Times, in a widely-shared article that reported Tillerson’s staff cuts are targeting minority foreign service officers, among other evidence-free claims. (RELATED: Citing NO EVIDENCE, Media Promotes Charge That Tillerson Is Targeting Minorities At State)

And those were just news reports. The most vigorous hand-wringing has come this week in the opinion pages of America’s two most prominent national newspapers, with op-eds in TheNYT and the Washington Post that recycled the “dismantling” trope.

But there is evidence that such rhetoric on Tillerson and the State Department is as overheated as it is overused. As the latest round of chatter about Tillerson’s leadership began to spin up in the media, veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee tweeted out the department’s most recent employment manifest.

The numbers rebut the notion that the State Department is “witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations,” as former ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Nicholas Burns wrote in the NYT on Monday. Pending the latest round of promotions, State currently has 1,039 senior foreign service officers, just shy of the 1,058 working at the same point last year. At the entry and mid-level ranks, the department counts 7,214 foreign service generalists, less than 1 percent fewer than the number in 2016.

As a part of the department redesign, Tillerson has targeted an 8 percent staff reduction by the end of 2018. Even if State thins its civil and foreign service ranks by that number, the department would still have about 22,500 American employees next year. That’s seven more than the nearly 21,000 the department had in 2008, when it began a period of sustained expansion under the Obama administration.

“As has been said many times before, the freezes on hiring and promotions are only temporary while we study how to refine our organization,” a State Department official told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Suggestions that drastic cuts to our foreign service ranks are taking place are simply not accurate.”

Some of the misleading reporting about what’s happening at State stems from a lack of understanding about historical trends in the department’s budget and staffing levels, according to Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In a 2016 report, Schaefer noted that State Department funding was about 60 percent higher in 2015 than it was the decade prior, and more than double what it was in 1990 at the end of the Cold War (in constant dollars). State’s core staffing has nearly doubled over the same time period, growing from about 13,200 combined civil and foreign service personnel in 1995 to more than 24,700 in 2015.

“I think that there’s a lot of exaggeration or hyperventilating about the proposed cut in the budget and the staff, but when you break down the numbers, you realize it would revert the staffing back to levels that are slightly higher than they were in 2010,” Schaefer told TheDCNF in a phone interview Tuesday.

Schaefer believes Tillerson’s critics have plenty of legitimate complaints about the way he has managed the redesign, even if they are off base about the department being “gutted.”

For example, Tillerson burned bridges with State’s rank-and-file when he publicly endorsed a White House proposal to slash the department’s budget by 30 percent, a truly unprecedented figure that was roundly rejected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Nor has the secretary of state done himself any favors by failing to install senior political appointees, Schaefer said.

“In a number of cases you don’t even have names that have been submitted for those positions,” he said, referring to dozens of assistant secretary posts that remain unfilled. “Clearly a great deal of blame goes to the administration, both at the White House and the State Department, for not arriving at consensus candidates.”

As broadsides against Tillerson have intensified, his typically media-averse inner circle has pushed back against the notion that he is bringing ruin on the State Department.

In a series of tweets over the weekend, Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond pointed out that the department still has 2,000 more diplomats than it did in 2008. Hammond also said Tillerson has granted 2,300 exceptions to a temporary hiring freeze to “allow promotions to move ahead and for ‘eligible family members’ to be hired.”

Tillerson himself addressed concerns about State’s future and dismissed the idea that he is “hollowing out” the department, in a Tuesday speech in Washington.

“These numbers that people are throwing around are just false,” Tillerson said, visibly annoyed. “They’re wrong.”

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