After more than a year of minimalism, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the fog will soon lift at Foggy Bottom. Pompeo will end the hiring freeze at the State Department and fill all open posts, ending the effort begun by predecessor Rex Tillerson to impose sharp cutbacks on personnel:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is lifting the hiring freeze on the Foreign and Civil Service imposed by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. In a memo, Pompeo announced he was authorizing the State Department to “hire to current funding levels.”
“Earlier this month I directed that our employed family members would be treated fairly in seeking to use their skills to deliver our mission,” Pompeo said in a memo obtained by The Hill.
“Today I am lifting the Department’s hiring freeze on Foreign Service and Civil Service and authorizing the Department of State to hire to current funding level.”
The move came just over two weeks after Pompeo lifted a hiring freeze on family members of State Department personnel posted overseas – another policy put in place by Tillerson that had deeply frustrated U.S. diplomats.
Undoubtedly this will make Pompeo a popular figure within the organization, where morale reportedly cratered under Tillerson. It will likely improve his standing with Congress as well. Tillerson and Donald Trump took heat from both Democrats and Republicans over the drastic cuts to State Department funding and operations that the White House attempted to impose by inaction. That won’t make Democrats sing Pompeo’s praises, but it will at least assure Capitol Hill that State will soon return to normal.
It’s a smart move for operational reasons too, which Pompeo would certainly understand, even for those who suspect the entrenched bureaucracy at State as hostile to the Trump administration’s agenda. The cure for an entrenched bureaucracy is not malign neglect, as Tillerson attempted, but rapid filling of the managerial ranks with officials sympathetic to Trump’s foreign policy objectives. Bureaucracies left in the hands of career workers will run on autopilot at best, and at worst on the agenda of the preceding administration.
If you want to stop the “deep state,” you have to replace the “deep state.” Once these positions are filled, then decisions can be made about priorities, funding, and staffing. This allows Pompeo to take control of the organization, rather than let it spin off on its own and work counter to the goals of the White House. Plus, with the kind of engagement this will generate within the rank and file, it might go a long way to lessening any hostility that exists within the entrenched bureaucracy … or at least reverse its increase during the Tillerson era.
Presumably, this memo also means that the White House will start filling the dozens of ambassadorial slots still left vacant more than a year into Trump’s term. Those vacancies also leave American foreign policy on auto-pilot in key countries and organizations. Despite the focus on Middle East peace plans, we do not have official envoys to the nations that we must get on board with those efforts — Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump will meet with Kim Jong-un in four weeks, but we still do not have an ambassador in Seoul. Relations have deteriorated with Turkey for some time, but we have no ambassador there to improve the situation. And, as I like to point out, we’re lacking an ambassador to Ireland and special envoy to Northern Ireland as the issues around Brexit reach the boiling point, even though Ireland is one of the most popular postings to fill. Mitch McConnell still needs to pick up the pace on nominees still waiting for confirmation, but the Trump administration has to finish its work, too.
This leadership at State is long overdue, and a reminder of why Pompeo fits this job so well. How effective this is will depend in large part on who gets appointed to these positions. Pompeo’s been around a long time, and he should have a Rolodex of potential candidates that will align with the policies he and Trump want to put in place. The sooner that Pompeo starts making these choices and McConnell starts pushing them through the Senate, the smaller the “deep state” problem will be.
Addendum: Axios’ Jonathan Swan reminds us of all the foreign-policy projects that need attention now, and why a full roster is even more important than ever.