By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has nearly doubled promotions of top American diplomats as he seeks to restore diplomatic ties with a workforce alienated by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Since taking over in April, Pompeo has lavished attention on diplomats demoralized by the former oil executive’s distant management style, reluctance to consult in-house experts and inability to get personnel choices through President Donald Trump’s White House.
The charm offensive by the former Republican lawmaker and CIA director includes resuming the hiring of diplomats’ family members when posted abroad, cheerleading emails to staff about his travels and a push to replenish the top ranks of U.S. diplomacy, officials said.
The most tangible sign of Pompeo’s effort may be the State Department promotion lists, disclosed internally since Aug. 31 and reviewed by Reuters, which show Pompeo has sharply increased the number of diplomats promoted to three of the top four ranks.
According to a provisional agency document circulated internally on Friday, Pompeo recommended doubling the number of “career ministers” – the second-highest rank in the U.S. foreign service – to eight from four. (https://tmsnrt.rs/2xcHMTc)
Pompeo also proposed nearly doubling those promoted to the third rank, “minister-counselor,” to 68 from 35 the year before.
For the critical level of ‘officer counselor’- the entry point for the “senior” foreign service and the hurdle at which many careers in the up-or-out system founder – he increased the number by more than 50 percent to 97 from 63.
The State Department had no immediate comment on the data.
An official who declined to be identified said the final number of promotions for fiscal 2018, which ends on Sept. 30, could exceed those published over the past few weeks, in part because the lists do not include some people recommended for promotion who have yet to complete mandatory career management programs.
Tillerson, who cut promotions in six out of the seven top ranks, said at the time he did so because of earlier hiring surges and because the agency’s “position base” would “contract over the next couple of years.”
That decision, and Tillerson’s embrace of roughly 30 percent budget cuts that Trump proposed but Congress largely rejected, angered many department employees, for whom protecting one’s budget is an axiom of bureaucratic warfare in Washington.
Tillerson, whom Trump fired via tweet on March 13, argued in a Nov. 28, 2017, speech that he had inherited an agency budget that was at a record high and was unsustainable. A Tillerson spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Pompeo brought some assets to his new role, notably a good rapport with Trump, an insider’s grasp of Congress and deeper understanding of the federal bureaucracy from his CIA service.
“We will continue to see robust promotion opportunities in the future absent any significant shifts in our budget,” Pompeo wrote in an internal memo on Aug. 31.
“It’s more rapprochement than detente,” one senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity, alluding to U.S.-Soviet efforts to ease Cold War tensions. “He’s doing more than just trying to end the hostility. He is reaching out.”
Beyond antagonizing employees by working to redesign and shrink the agency, Tillerson upset many by forcing out or under-using the department’s “career ambassadors” – the top foreign service rank typically given to only a handful of diplomats, officials said. Four career ambassadors stepped down in 2017.
Pompeo, in contrast, has gone out of his way to praise the four new career ambassadors whose elevation was just announced.
“This is the highest and most prestigious rank at the Foreign Service. They should all be very proud. I know I’m proud of them,” Pompeo told reporters. “They’re great leaders.”
While many State Department officials have said they appreciate the ways in which Pompeo has sought to build back morale, one of his signature efforts – rebranding the agency as the “Department of Swagger” – has drawn some ridicule and eye rolls, both inside and outside the State Department.
Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said on his first day at the State Department that he would work on “getting back our swagger” and putting the U.S. diplomatic corps in “every corner,” drawing loud applause from hundreds of staffers.
U.S. diplomats are taught, however, to be understated rather than overbearing, given U.S. economic and military might.
“I have not heard anyone say: ‘This is awesome. Thumbs up. Fist bump,’” one agency official said of Pompeo’s swagger campaign. “No.”
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)