Amidst all the chaos at the State Department, I have to admit I'm actually a little encouraged.
I know. That sounds as crazy as most of President Donald Trump's tweets.
I mean, you've got rumors -- though Trump denies it -
- abounding that the Secretary of State is walking the Green Mile, looming and largely unnecessary budget cuts, a reorganization of the department that no one understands, no one home at Foggy Bottom for foreign diplomats to call and an apparent recruiting and retention problem of career Foreign and Civil Service personnel.
It's all led to a flurry of criticism about Secretary Rex Tillerson's performance as America's top diplomat. One of his predecessors, Madeleine Albright, compared the situation in Foggy Bottom to "an open wound" and called it a national security emergency.
"The damage being done to America's diplomatic readiness," she said, "is both intentional and long-term. The administration isn't hurting the State Department by accident."
Two other prominent former diplomats, Ryan Crocker and Nicholas Burns, also blasted the Trump administration for causing what they called the "greatest crisis" to befall the Foreign Service.
"President Trump's draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself," they wrote, "threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most."
Still, not everyone sees it that way. Tillerson, who pushed back against critics this week, certainly doesn't.
"There is no hollowing out," he said during a question-and-answer session following his speech at the Wilson Center. "These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They're wrong. We're keeping the organization fully staffed."
He was referring to statistics his staff prepared for Congress as part of its normal reporting requirements that show that the number of professional diplomats has, in fact, increased since 2008
to the tune of a couple thousand. He also said that, on behalf of his employees, he was offended "when people say somehow we don't have a State Department that works."
"I can tell you" he added, that "it's functioning very well from my perspective."
He was supported in that assessment by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. When asked on Thursday about reports that the White House was trying to force out the Secretary of State, Corker hailed Tillerson as a "strategic thinker" and said he didn't feel the secretary gets enough credit for the work he is doing to reorganize the State Department.
"We as a nation and the rest of the world need someone like Rex Tillerson in that position," Corker said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Tillerson has proven to be an ineffective leader, a poor communicator and at best a tepid representative of US values overseas. But I also think the jury is out on his diplomatic efforts to advance some of our interests, such as a political transition in Syria and a peaceful way out of the North Korea crisis -- two of the most vexing issues he faces. My hunch is he's doing a lot more behind the scenes than we realize.
I've said many times -- and still believe -- that Tillerson and others on the national security team have done a commendable job handling the peril in Pyongyang. It is true that Kim Jong Un continues to perfect his nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, but that escalation didn't start on this administration's watch. And the administration has, to its credit, secured the toughest international sanctions
yet imposed on the rogue regime. They've also elicited more cooperation out of Beijing for this "peaceful pressure campaign" -- as Tillerson calls it
-- than we've ever seen before.
The Chinese can do more, of course, to put pressure on Pyongyang but so can the United States and the rest of the international community. That said, in the aftermath of President Trump's continued "rocket man" insults, it is heartening this week to hear Tillerson and his teammate, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, both stress the need for diplomacy to take the lead.
And that's really the basis for my optimism. No matter how much Trump has undermined Tillerson's credibility; no matter how opaque, confusing and chaotic American foreign policy remains today; no matter how many opportunities Tillerson has squandered to gain the trust not only of his boss, but also of the people who work for him; and no matter what changes his yet-to-be-unveiled reorganization entails -- if diplomacy stays in the lead, then the Foreign Service remains relevant.
Yes, some people are leaving. Yes, some people are now reconsidering their decision to join. And yes, many members of the Foreign Service may feel disrespected, even disowned, by this administration. But they don't become professional diplomats to serve any particular administration.
Just like my former colleagues in the military and for civil servants, Foreign Service officers sign up to serve the nation and to advance America's foreign policy interests and goals, even when those goals are not as cohesive as they should be. And even when the people crafting those goals don't bother to solicit the views and expertise of those who know what it's like to be in the diplomatic trenches.
As one member of the Foreign Service told me, "the Foreign Service is stepping up and will continue to step up. They do their jobs not for money or glory, but because they are committed to serving on the front lines of US foreign policy in embassies and consulates around the world, including DC. The Foreign Service is undergoing a generational shift of sorts, but I've no doubt that the FSOs who emerge from this period of flux will be ready to serve ably as the next generation of our country's senior diplomats."
Institutions are bigger than any one man ... or two, for that matter. And the Foreign Service is a national institution -- a national treasure, really -- of which we can all be proud. It will sadly, as Crocker and Burns argue, be weakened by all this. I agree with them that the damage being done to the Foreign Service is all too real. But, with or without Tillerson, it will survive.
The men and women of the Foreign Service aren't going anywhere. And that's because they are already everywhere -- right where we need them.