American embassies can represent a lot of things to different people, but they generally become important when someone needs to renew a visa or replace a lost passport. For Americans overseas, there might be an invitation to a Fourth of July party celebrating the US national day.
But there are also days like these days, when embassies are remembered for a different reason. When the US president declared last week that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, shock waves predictably rumbled across the Middle East. Almost reflexively, American embassies throughout the region and around the world have placed themselves on high alert. Now everyone is once again conscious of the US embassy. America’s formal bilateral representation in foreign capitals finds itself again in the gun sights.
Readers with long memories will recall the bombings of US embassies in East Africa 20 years ago which, in hindsight, were the clear precursors of the horrendous assaults on New York City and Washington DC on 9/11/01. Fifteen years earlier still, a truck bomb assault on the US mission in Beirut cost over 240 American lives and shocked the world. And a political decision in 1979 to admit the Shah of Iran to the US for medical treatment spurred rioting in Tehran that led to the occupation of the American embassy there and taking hostage the staff for 444 days.
So, embassies have often been trip wires and flash points. Less frequently, the home office, also known as the State Department, finds itself in the headlines.
That has changed under Donald Trump.
On the campaign trail and especially since taking office, the American President has signalled his disdain for the US diplomatic and foreign policy establishment. He has populated the National Security Council and foreign policy advisory staff with ideologues and neophytes and his notably inexperienced son-in-law.
Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, retired Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, inspired initial, innocent hope that he would emulate Ronald Reagan’s great Secretary of State George Shultz. But as the months have passed, Tillerson has focused more on imposing a 30 percent cut on his department than on tempering Trump’s international impulses. Nevertheless, Tillerson’s alliance with generals who serve as Secretary of Defence, National Security Advisor and White House Chief of Staff seemed likely to moderate the intemperate president.
While there is no apparent present threat to the generals, Tillerson’s tenure is now publicly measured in days or weeks at the most. The New York Times has joined the chorus, predicting the Secretary of State will be replaced by year’s end by the current CIA director, former Kansas congressman and Tea Party favorite Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo’s appointment, if it happens, would represent even more bad news for the US foreign policy establishment. He has reportedly ingratiated himself with Trump through his forceful advocacy of harsh tactics toward North Korea and Iran. It is not unreasonable to anticipate that under Pompeo, American isolationism and protectionism would be even further stimulated. To whatever extent Tillerson’s voice has been a moderating influence on an unmoored president, Pompeo’s stridency would represent a further setback to sensible foreign policy.
The presidential assaults on the State Department, regarded as the senior cabinet department since the earliest days of the American republic, have not stopped at the executive suite and the budget. American newspapers have run headlines all year long warning that “Planned State Department Cuts Cause Fear” (Washington Post) and decrying “The Shriveling State Department” (New York Times). There has been much public lamentation about the unprecedented exodus of senior experienced career officials from the department.
Many senior positions have remained unfilled. The president’s choice as Ambassador to The Bahamas remains unconfirmed by the US Senate more than six months after his nomination was announced in May.
Neither Tillerson nor the White House seems to mind these vacancies very much. And to be fair, the loss of dozens of special envoys for various international issues is hardly to be lamented. Such appointments were often political rewards and needlessly duplicated existing staffing. In truth, American foreign policy has largely been made in the White House since the Kennedy administration. But it has rarely been made with such ineptitude and contempt.