Diplomats unhappy as nominee with Pence ties is tapped for State job

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Story highlights

  • Stephen Akard has been tapped to be director general of the foreign service
  • It's a post that traditionally goes to diplomats with 25 to 30 years of experience and at least one ambassadorship

Washington (CNN)Former diplomats are raising concerns about a White House nomination to the State Department, saying it represents the politicization of the diplomatic agency that many of them argue is already being undermined by the Trump administration.

Stephen Akard, who previously worked at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under then-Gov. Mike Pence, has been tapped to be director general of the foreign service, a post that traditionally goes to diplomats with 25 to 30 years of experience and at least one ambassadorship.
Akard, who spent eight years at the State Department more than a decade ago, doesn't meet that grade, say former diplomats who have written to lawmakers asking them to oppose the nomination, arguing that it undermines a system that's supposed to be merit-based.
    "While Mr. Akard is technically eligible for the position, to confirm someone who had less than a decade in the Foreign Service would be like making a former Army Captain the Chief of Staff of the Army, the equivalent of a four-star general," says the October 31 letter from the American Academy of Diplomacy.

    "Oppose the nomination"

    Privately, many current and former diplomats are unhappy and though they say that the post of director general is something of a sinecure, with little real authority or clout, there is a feeling that Akard's appointment violates long-held tradition. And in some quarters, it's seen as further evidence of the White House's lack of respect for the State Department, its traditions and its constituency of retired diplomats.
    "We believe that, as good and decent a person as Mr. Akard may be, his confirmation as the director general would be another step to further weaken the State Department," said the letter, signed by the group's chairman, Thomas Pickering, and its president, Ronald Neumann, both former ambassadors to multiple countries.
    Neumann told CNN that in his 10 years with the group, it has never had cause to send a similar letter.
    The director general is effectively the head of human resources for the department and reports to the under secretary for management. In 1980, the Foreign Service Act made the position a presidential appointee, with the law requiring that person to be a current or former foreign service officer, to insulate the position from political winds.
    Akard, a senior adviser at the State Department since January, technically meets the legal requirements for the job, having served as a foreign service officer from 1997 to 2005. He left to work on the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under Pence, who was governor at the time.
    A State Department official, speaking on background to discuss personnel matters, said Akard's appointment indicates "how committed the Trump administration is to improving how the federal government operates."
    The official pointed to Akard's background in "foreign affairs as well as a successful track record managing a large state government agency." But the Diplopundit blog, which monitors the State Department, notes that Akard probably managed at most 80 people in at the Economic Development Corporation, while State employs 75,000 people worldwide.
    Akard's nomination comes as Secretary of State Rex State Rex Tillerson is restructuring the agency with cuts of up to 30%. Many within the agency see the cuts as directed by a hostile White House that prefers the trappings and might of the military to the quieter business of diplomacy.

    Indiana connections

    It's a view that has sympathetic listeners among Republican and Democratic lawmakers who worry about damage to US soft power and the erosion of non-military options to address foreign policy crises.
    The former diplomats' letter is addressed to Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. The committee will oversee Akard's nomination.
    A Corker aide said that, "As with all nominees, the committee will conduct a thorough review of Stephen Akard's nomination, including in public hearings."
    Noting that "we hold no personal animus" toward Akard, the former diplomats went on to say that, "no matter how talented the nominee, he does not have the experience required to lead the entire State Department workforce. That is why the Senate has always confirmed a former ambassador, often a very senior one, as director general."