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Byron York: State Department divided on mission

Byron York • Updated Aug 9, 2017 at 3:00 PM

As part of what he calls a “redesign” of the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has surveyed more than 35,000 State employees on the most fundamental questions facing the organization. And Tillerson -- or, more accurately, a consulting firm hired by the secretary -- has found that large blocs of State workers do not agree on what the department’s mission should be.

“For an organization with a very significant role in the world, too many in the Department of State were not clear on the exact mission of the agency,” consultants Insigniam wrote in a “Listening Report” completed in June.

Some said the mission is, or should be, “installing democracy” around the world. Others said it is “spreading American values.” The one mission that the largest number of employees could agree on was “protecting Americans and the interests of America throughout the world.”

Beyond that, no single phrase united the Department’s employees. So now, Tillerson and his top aides are trying to craft the material gathered from those 35,000-plus questionnaires into a new mission statement. (Changing the department’s mission statement is pretty much standard procedure when a new president and party take over.) Working with Insigniam, a group of leaders from State and the U.S. Agency for International Development came up with three draft sentences, one to describe the department’s purpose, the next to describe its mission, and the next to describe its ambition.

The purpose statement: “We promote the security, prosperity, and interests of the American people globally.”

The mission statement: “Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action, and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world.”

The ambition statement: “The American people thrive in a peaceful and interconnected world that is free, resilient, and prosperous.”

The consultants asked State employees for reaction to each keyword. Does “advocacy” accurately describe what the Department does? What about a “free” world? And “resilient”? The consultants also asked employees to offer any other words they felt better described State’s mission.

In a cloud made from responses to the question of which words best describe State’s current mission, the standouts were “diplomacy,” “security,” “peace,” “prosperity,” “democracy,” and “development.”

One thing that is likely to come out in the final product is that the Donald Trump State Department mission statement will be more assertively American than the statement under Barack Obama. The consultants noted that a State document from May of this year wrote that “ABOVE ALL, the mission of the U.S. Department of State is to advance the national interests of the United States and its people.”

From 2013 to 2016, the consultants added by contrast, the State mission statement was “to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

It’s a we-are-USA vibe versus a we’re-citizens-of-the-world vibe. When I asked Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond whether he would agree that the proposed new statement is in fact more assertively American than the old, he answered, “I would. We will not apologize for being American.”

On the campaign trail, candidate Trump expressed contempt for America’s disastrous effort to install democracy in Iraq. In his inaugural address, the president said, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” Trump said, “but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”

Now, some Trump critics, Republican and Democrat, are unhappy that the proposed mission statement does not include the word “democracy.”

Tom Malinowski, an Obama State Department official, told the Washington Post that the proposed mission statement -- “Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action, and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world” -- reflects “a worldview similar to that of Putin.”

It is hard to take such commentary seriously -- after all, the three-part purpose/mission/ambition statement includes the goal of a world that is not only “peaceful” but “free” -- but that is what Malinowski said. It just shows there’s plenty of Trump Resistance in the State Department world as well as the rest of Washington.

Tillerson’s consultants found that in the absence of a single idea of mission, many in the State Department tend to define their job by the area of the Department in which they work. The foreign service sees the mission as one thing. Washington-based administrators see another. Economics-oriented specialists see yet another, and so on.

“Without a unified mission, people in the State Department speak from their place in the organization, not as one organization,” the contractors noted.

Tillerson’s job is to find some sort of unity. With a big part of the permanent bureaucracy opposed to him, and especially opposed to the president who appointed him, that might be impossible. So Tillerson might want to choose the proposed mission statement that brought the closest thing to a consensus: “Protecting Americans and the interests of America throughout the world.” Let others argue about democracy and various causes, while the secretary sticks to the main thing.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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