In a Politico article published on April 10th, BGS Senior Vice President Josh Kirshner offers unsolicited advice to Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo.
How Mike Pompeo Can Avoid Rex Tillerson’s Fate
Some unsolicited advice for America’s next secretary of state.
By Josh Kirshner April 10, 2018, 4:58 PM
As originally appeared in Politico
Congratulations, Mike Pompeo—you’ve been nominated for the oldest and most prestigious position in the Cabinet, attempting to follow in the giant steps of secretaries of state like Thomas Jefferson, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Thursday’s confirmation hearing is shaping up to be a tough one, with challenging questions from Democrats probing to see whether you’ll be willing to stand up to the president on foreign policy, and how you’ll ensure the State has the personnel and budget it needs to succeed. While some Republicans will use their time to give you a breather, Sen. Rand Paul, for one, will come at you hard with questions about your hawkish views on Iran and the use of military force in general.
I worked at the State Department for more than 10 years, as a civil servant and a political appointee, in a wide range of positions. The good news is that if you are confirmed, the career officials at State will work as diligently for you as they have any previous secretary if they feel included and respected as professionals, particularly after the traumatic tenure of Secretary Rex Tillerson, who cut out key experts and dismayed the rank and file with an ill-conceived “redesign” that accomplished little and wasted hundreds of hours of the department’s time.
You don’t want to end up like Tillerson, so tread carefully. Your experiences as a member of the House of Representatives and director of the CIA will be useful if you’re confirmed, but only if you keep in mind the unique aspects of being the secretary of state. Here are a few thoughts about how your background can best prepare you for a stint on Mahogany Row.
You’ll see lots of similarities between Langley and Foggy Bottom. The greatest resource of both are their patriotic staffs who devote their lives to their country, becoming experts at their trade, as smart as any academic on international issues, and will jump at opportunities to work in the most dangerous places in the world to serve their country, from Baghdad to Benghazi. Both agencies also have unique cultures that require time and effort to understand if you want to maximize your staff and make reforms that are sorely needed. Tillerson learned this the hard way, and you’ll need to make the same effort to understand State as you did CIA.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the importance of meeting with embassy staff when abroad, being seen in the cafeteria, and holding town hall listening sessions. That’s all well and good, but not nearly enough. Learn from Secretary Colin Powell, who was open and inclusive in internal policy discussions and understood the importance of improving workplace morale, and from Secretary George Shultz, who relied heavily on career officials to implement President Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic initiatives. Among your first major staffing decisions that will be scrutinized is who you pick to be undersecretary for political affairs, traditionally the most senior foreign service job in the department. Appointing someone from the outside will disappoint your career staff quickly, especially as the wounds from the forced resignations early in the administration are still fresh. Bringing back one of those officials or promoting from among the talented senior diplomats still hard at work would place one of the best diplomats in the world at your side. Career folks will also watch carefully how you fill the position of counselor, as well as if and how you pick up Tillerson’s efforts to restructure the department.
With management out of the way, let’s talk about policy. Clearly, the president nominated you because you support his agenda—he’s said as much. But there’s more to foreign policy than the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. You should think carefully about how you prioritize all of the policy issues on your plate. Every secretary needs to spend considerable attention on the top 10 diplomatic issues of the day. But as the State Department’s top representative to the rest of the government, you’ll be working with the rest of the president’s team on these issues. You’ll be a major player but not the decision maker—which is why Tillerson’s relationship to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was so vital to his tenure, and why you should try to re-create that partnership. The good news is that outside those top 10, you’ll be able to pick a few other signature issues on which you can take the lead, and where Mattis and other powerful officials won’t exert nearly as much influence. For Secretary Hillary Clinton, it was helping women and girls around the world. For Secretary John Kerry, it was the oceans and the environment. So many voices will affect U.S. policy toward Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. But finding a few discrete issues that you can make your own will go a long way in writing your legacy.
As CIA director, you mastered working with the White House—difficult for Cabinet officials in any administration, but especially in this one. And as in Congress, business leaders will come to you with all sorts of requests. Yes, you’ll be a member of the Principals Committee—the regular meeting of top national security officials—with an opportunity to weigh in all sorts of trade and economic issues, but two that you’ll be able to influence quite a bit on your own are sanctions and defense exports. Re-establishing an office of sanctions experts, instead of assigning it as another task to your already overworked Policy Planning staff, is a key step. Sanctions is one of the U.S. government’s most important tools when used creatively, but they are also legally complex, and can have significant second- and third-order effects that require years of experience to anticipate. Fully staffing your underappreciated defense trade directorate addresses the latter. Defense trade, properly balanced with regional stability and human rights concerns, can increase U.S. influence abroad and grow the economy at home. But if the department continues to lack the experts it needs to quickly review exports and develop policies to deal with emerging technology, the United States will miss out on these opportunities.
Coming from the Hill isn’t always going to be as helpful as you might think. Yes, your ability to understand what motivates members of Congress and to speak their language is a huge benefit, especially since the department has been starved for funds for decades. That said, it can be tough for former members to genuflect to their former colleagues. It’s humbling to spend the morning running a Cabinet agency of approximately 70,000 employees in almost every nation in the world, advising the president on matters of war and peace … and in the afternoon, respond to an unsophisticated question from a junior member at an appropriations hearing. Being on the other side of the witness table from someone who doesn’t understand diplomacy as well as you can be frustrating, but that’s the way our Founding Fathers set up our government. And unlike at CIA, your hearings will be public, so there will be far more opportunities for members to question your decisions to score political points.
I suspect you’re wary of the department you’re nominated to lead, as its employees may be of you. And like the rest of America, there will be many in the State Department who did not vote for Donald Trump. But many Republicans have been viewed by the department as great leaders, including the aforementioned Powell and Shultz, and there have been Democratic secretaries throughout the years that the bureaucracy was happy to see depart. If you make the effort to ensure that career State Department staff are utilized as the truly remarkable professionals they are, you’ll improve the security and prosperity of the United States and make your tenure a success.