As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson moves to restructure the State Department, he wants to slash dozens of positions known collectively as special envoys — ambassadors-at-large, coordinators and others who deal with specific issues such as food security, labor and LGBT rights.
That ambition, however, is running into a fact of Washington life: the power of interest groups and members of Congress willing to fight any threat to their favored causes.
On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider legislation that will give lawmakers a greater say over how special envoy jobs are filled. In the meantime, as word spreads that Tillerson has left certain envoy positions vacant or is mulling cutting them altogether, a slew of critics have emerged to protest.
Jewish organizations and many lawmakers are furious that Tillerson hasn’t yet named a new special envoy to combat anti-Semitism. Digital gurus are unhappy that Tillerson may chop the slot focused on cyber issues. Tillerson’s attempt to discard the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan spurred such an outcry among South Asia watchers that he went ahead and named someone to the role temporarily.
"The reaction is like, ‘This is my turf. I want to protect it,’" said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Tillerson and his aides are not consulting widely in their decision-making process, so they generate opposition."
The State Department’s ranks include 67 special envoys, depending on how you count them. That’s far too many, say conservatives who see a bloated diplomatic bureaucracy and question the need for a special coordinator for Haiti, a position focused on post-earthquake reconstruction, when there’s an ambassador supposed to be based there.
The special envoys "do more harm than good," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a hearing earlier this month. "I think that they hurt the culture of our professional Foreign Service officers candidly because I think they see them in many cases as a work around … I hope that we’ll do away with all of them that are unnecessary. And I think most of them are unnecessary."
Many of the posts were created to deal with specific crises or because there was a sense that a topic needed attention beyond what traditional State Department bureaus could offer. Congress has mandated 11 of the slots and authorized the creation of another seven, according to Hill aides.
Even many State Department officials agree there are too many special envoys and that some of them duplicate work done elsewhere, so there’s plenty of support for Tillerson’s overall desire to slim the numbers. But there’s less agreement on which special envoy slots to abandon.
That was clear earlier this month during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, when members grilled Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan about Tillerson’s plans for the envoys. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), at first conceded that the job of special envoy for Northern Ireland may seem obsolete given that it was created more than 20 years ago, before a peace agreement in the region. But Markey went on to argue that Britain’s plan to leave the European Union is reigniting tensions that may merit filling the vacant position, as some are demanding.
Sullivan disputed reports that Tillerson has decided which positions to cut or keep. But he couldn’t deny that many of the envoy positions have been left empty since President Donald Trump took office. He also said even slots mandated by Congress are subject to Tillerson’s plans to restructure the department, although he promised nothing would change without input from lawmakers.
"Some of those offices were created to address serious issues which over time have diminished in significance or importance," Sullivan said. "Others, whether it be global women’s issues, fighting anti-Semitism, are enduring issues that are of extreme importance to us, not only in the State Department, but as Americans."
An aide to Corker said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider State Department authorization legislation Thursday under which "the department would be required to notify Congress which special envoys it would like to keep in place and nominate all special envoys for the Senate’s approval going forward."
Trump and many of his top advisers are suspicious of State Department employees, viewing them as part of a "deep state" opposed to the president’s agenda. So staffing State has not been a priority, and virtually all leadership slots in Foggy Bottom are still empty, as are many ambassadorships. Trump also wants to slash State’s budget by one-third, meaning Tillerson’s restructuring will likely include major cuts to many divisions.
Given all those factors, it’s not a surprise that special envoys are on the chopping block.
"The real problem is that the foundations of the State Department are being allowed to crumble," said Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. "If the administration believes that the work of the State Department should be conducted primarily by assistant secretaries and ambassadors in the normal chain of command, then the first thing it ought to do is to nominate some assistant secretaries and ambassadors."
Several special envoys reflect Obama administration policy priorities that are now defunct under Trump.
The president opposes closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, so the special envoy slot devoted to that is likely doomed. The administration has already indicated that it won’t appoint a special envoy for climate change, an issue Trump has called a “hoax." It’s also expected to slash the position that oversees the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement the president loathes, moving those responsibilities elsewhere.
Perhaps most controversial are envoys focused on sexual and religious identity.
In February, the State Department crossed evangelicals by confirming that Tillerson would keep in place Randy Berry, the openly gay Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons issues. That position was created under Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015.
And the Trump team’s failure to appoint an envoy dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism—a role mandated by Congress—has stirred anger across the political spectrum. Last week, the Anti-Defamation League delivered a petition with thousands of signatures demanding that Tillerson fill the slot. Lawmakers from both parties are pushing a bill to elevate that position to an ambassadorship. (A separate special envoy is dedicated to Holocaust issues.)
Christian organizations are meanwhile miffed that Trump has not appointed an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. That envoy frequently speaks out in support of besieged Christian communities in the Middle East and beyond.
"We feel this is a crucial role that is being left vacant at possibly the worst time as persecutions mount around the world," said Kristin Wright, director of advocacy for Open Doors USA.
Other positions that have received outside support include one that deals with war crimes; activists say eliminating that unit as Trump reportedly plans to do is just another sign that the president doesn’t care about human rights. Some lawmakers also want to keep the envoy dedicated to dealing with Sudan and South Sudan, where conflict and looming famines are deepening misery.
Brett Schaefer, a Heritage Foundation analyst, applauded the Senate committee’s focus on the issue. "Congress really needs to get a hold of this process and formalize it in some way,” he said.
But Schaefer warned that if a foreign crisis emerges before Tillerson has filled core State Department leadership positions, Congress may call for a new special envoy to step in.
Complicating the Trump administration’s message to lawmakers are its mixed signals on whether special envoys are worthwhile.
Earlier this month, Tillerson tapped Kurt Volker, a former NATO ambassador who is hawkish on Russia, to serve as a special envoy for Ukraine.
Volker’s mission? To help bring peace between Russia and Ukraine.
It’s anyone’s guess how long that will take, or how long that position will exist.