THE SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARINGS to replace Rex Tillerson provide a badly needed opportunity for lawmakers to scrutinize the department’s ongoing collapse. Although not entirely Tillerson’s fault — more on that later — the failures to fill top ambassadorial positions, the departure of career diplomats, and erosion in the department’s credibility overseas all point in ominous directions, and are inflicting lasting damage on America’s standing in the world.
Of course, it’s not clear whether President Trump cares about any of that, or whether the successor he picked, CIA director Mike Pompeo, even has the desire to right the ship. That’s where the Senate comes in. With sporadically courageous Tennessee Senator Bob Corker chairing Pompeo’s confirmation hearings, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ought to use the hearings as an opportunity to inform the public about the consequences of the department’s drift — and extract commitments to reverse it.
More than a year into the Trump administration, 65 top positions remain unfilled, including sensitive ones like the ambassadorship to South Korea. Meanwhile, seasoned diplomats are quitting: Earlier this month, the US ambassador to Mexico, a career official, announced her resignation after two years in the position, amid disputes with Trump. Meanwhile, foreign allies are stepping back from a country they now view as erratic.
Tillerson, the low-key former chief executive of Exxon, was a surprise pick for secretary of state. From the start he was dealt an impossible hand, forced to contend with a president who tweeted foreign policy shifts without warning, and who appointed his callow son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to sensitive diplomatic missions. To Tillerson’s credit, he tried to moderate Trump’s worst impulses, and argued for keeping the United States in the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Any secretary of state would have faced headwinds working for the kind of president who, just last week, upended decades of US policy by agreeing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Still, Tillerson shares responsibility for the State Department’s woes, and too often showed a blase attitude toward the upheaval there.
Now the focus turns to the Senate. Some of the committee’s GOP members, including Corker and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, have demonstrated glimmers of independence from the White House, and neither is running for reelection. They, and the rest of the committee, can’t treat Pompeo’s confirmation like a normal political exercise. Tillerson’s departure hands them leverage to stop the unraveling of the state department, and shame on them if they don’t use it.