Tillerson Outlines Plan to Cut Envoy Jobs in State Overhaul

  • Envoys for climate change, Guantanamo and Iran deal targeted
  • Tillerson says some posts have ‘outlived’ their purpose

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unveiled his plan Monday to eliminate several special envoys, including those for climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, in a sweeping proposal to put his stamp on the agency and meet President Donald Trump’s demands for deep budget cuts.

In a letter to Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson detailed how the job of many envoys will be subsumed into other agencies, such as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each elimination is accompanied by the amount of money the change will save.

The moves will “advance U.S. national security interests, and will help to counter the influence of U.S. adversaries and competitors,” Tillerson said in the letter. Some jobs have “accomplished or outlived their original purpose” while others will exist but in a different structure, he said.

Tillerson’s plan, parts of which will need congressional approval, reflects his belief that there were too many special-envoy jobs -- there are currently about 70 -- and their work often duplicated efforts done elsewhere in the department. He’s also seeking to carry out demands that he cut the agency’s budget by about a third.

Yet his plan doesn’t address the problem of vacant senior positions at the agency, an issue that has increasingly become a point of contention between the White House and Tillerson’s department. On Sunday, Axios reported that Trump’s frustration with Tillerson was rising, and quoted Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond as responding that “the system is busted.”

Short Bench

“The bigger problem is that Secretary Tillerson’s failure to nominate people to fill the Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary positions means that he will not have his team to carry out these responsibilities for months to come, wasting precious time,” said Jamie Fly, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and a former foreign-affairs adviser to Senator Marco Rubio. “The perfect org chart is meaningless without people to actually implement it.”

Also vacant is the coordinator for sanctions policy, a job previously occupied by Dan Fried, who helped craft sanctions against Russia. Since Fried left the job earlier this year, the office has gradually shrunk and now only has a couple of staff members. Its tasks are being folded into the bureau of policy planning, led by close Tillerson adviser Brian Hook.

“Eliminating my office isn’t necessarily fatal to a strong sanctions policy, but it puts the burden on Tillerson to say he’s got the resources and structure to actually make this work,” Fried said in a telephone interview.

Some of the envoy reductions have widespread support and won’t prove controversial. Among them is the representative for Northern Ireland issues, a position seen as increasingly unnecessary since the Good Friday agreement was implemented in 1998.

Guantanamo Bay

Others are likely to provoke criticism both within the department and the broader foreign-policy community, including the special envoy for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. That reflects Trump’s rejection of the previous administration’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to shut the prison, where the U.S. houses dozens of alleged terrorists, including the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Also among the jobs proposed for termination is the special envoy for climate issues, following Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Its tasks will be folded into the Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs. Another position slated for elimination is the job of lead coordinator for the Iran nuclear deal implementation, an accord Trump has called the “worst deal ever.”

Other jobs will remain but won’t report directly to the secretary, such as the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. About half of the 66 positions mentioned in the letter to congress will remain with a title.

In a statement released Monday, Corker said he looked forward to going through the changes in detail. In a bid to limit the number of special envoys, Corker’s committee recently required such positions get Senate confirmation.

“Through the years, numbers of special envoys have accumulated at the State Department, and in many cases, their creation has done more harm than good by creating an environment in which people work around the normal diplomatic processes in lieu of streamlining them,” Corker said.

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