Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Algeria, and who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, wrote to me Thursday: “Since the reorganization has been slow, painful and is hurting the Foreign and Civil Service I hope that a change might be better; but who knows.”
Tillerson himself was asked about these kinds of criticisms Tuesday at the Wilson Center in Washington, and he defended the budget proposal. He said the reduction would bring department funding in line with historic levels, noting its budget had increased over the past few years to $50 billion. That spending level is “just not sustainable,” he said. Debatable, but defensible.
Then came the rest, in which Tillerson seemed to say less money would be needed because there would be fewer conflicts. “Part of ... bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success in some of these conflict areas, of getting these conflicts resolved, and moving to a kind of place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them,” he said.
The reaction from former U.S. diplomats: disbelief.
“The Syrian civil war, probably good for another 10 years,” Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan and who co-wrote the Times op-ed this week, told me. “Afghanistan-Pakistan, no solutions in sight. The Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations—that would be not be low-hanging fruit. These problems are there because they are so damn hard to resolve. But unless you've got a robust foreign service working these issues, not only are you not going to solve them, you may not be able to manage them. It’s precisely because we’re looking at a world unglued, particularly in the Middle East, this is exactly the time you need a focused, robust foreign service.”
One could add to that list: Just hours after Tillerson made his remarks, North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile yet—one that is believed to put the entire continental United States in range. Then there’s the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, involving among other things proxy fights in Yemen and Lebanon plus the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq could usher in new conflicts, in particular between Arabs and the Kurds. Russia seems determine to destabilize politics in Europe and elsewhere, including the United States.
The world does not seem to fit Tillerson’s projections. “It’s sort of like someplace in 1944 saying Eisenhower is doing well, so we’re going to cut the troops in Europe because we think we’re going to win,” Neumann told me earlier this week.
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, tried Tuesday to clarify Tillerson’s statement. “I don’t think that’s what the Secretary was saying,” she said. “I think issues are being conflated there, one with dollars and two with personnel.” She said the U.S. expected to spend less on de-mining in Syria and on nation-building around the world. “We won’t be in that business anymore,” she said. “We won’t be spending that kind of money.”