Despite his lack of experience as a diplomat, Rex Tillerson, the 69th U.S. Secretary of State, had endorsements from many Republican foreign policy heavy weights, among them James Baker and Condoleezza Rice. This made him, at least on the surface, one of Trump’s safer nominees in terms of party politics. Besides, the now 65 year old Texan wasn’t short on personal contacts with world leaders through his old job as the CEO of Exxon Mobil.
Ordinarily, these foreign acquaintances, especially Washington D.C.’s current bete noire, Vladimir Putin, who once pinned a ‘friendship’ medal on Tillerson’s chest, not to mention Exxon’s decades long pattern of funding climate change denial while having evidence of its reality, would be a cause for concern and, in fairness to the media and some American legislators, there was some controversy during his nomination process.
When taking into account other Trump cabinet picks like former Texas governor Rick Perry, who long opposed the very agencies they were tapped to lead, it’s not much of a surprise that any controversy around Tillerson was forgotten in short order and the new Secretary of State was quickly elevated, along with Trump’s coterie of generals, as one of ‘the adults’ in the President’s orbit.
One important example of Tillerson living up to this description has been his pursuit of back channel diplomacy to defuse the current crisis with North Korea over its missile and nuclear programs while being publicly undercut and humiliated by his boss.
At the same time, true to the widely shared right-wing belief system that permeates the current administration and the American Republican Party generally, the Secretary, who multiple sources report has isolated himself in a suite of offices called Mahogany Row on the 7th floor of the State Department’s headquarters, has focused on efforts to ‘reform’ his department.
This goes some way toward explaining the slow pace taken in filling many important positions in the department’s vast bureaucracy. Some of this could also be blamed on interference in the process by Trump himself, who famously said, ”I’m the only one who matters,” when asked about these staffing issues by Fox News and has nixed several of Tillerson’s own nominees, usually because they had at some point criticized the thin-skinned President.
The list of Foreign Service posts not yet assigned by the State Department includes that of ambassador to South Korea, a position where an experienced diplomat with local knowledge could play a major role in working with partners in that country towards curbing the North’s nuclear ambitions and easing tensions without resort to a potentially disastrous war.
As the respected scholar of International Relations at Harvard University, Stephen M. Walt recently wrote in an ambivalent defense of the Secretary of State, “Many of the recent failures of U.S. foreign policy were the result of an inadequate understanding of local political conditions and regional realities, and that is precisely the sort of situational knowledge that experienced diplomats can provide.”
When taking into account that at least a third of U.S. ambassadors in since the 1940s have been political appointees rather than career diplomats with linguistic and historical knowledge of a particular country or region, the argument can be made that the State Department as a whole is too politicized and is in desperate need of reform, especially when compared to the more focused diplomatic corps of rival nations like Russia and China.
Unfortunately, according to multiple sources, the Secretary hasn’t made himself available to explain his decisions to his subordinates and has publicly forced out several high ranking officers without notice, creating resentment among many of those who remain.
While taking the need for a more focused State Department seriously, the way the current Secretary has gone about it begs the question: should American diplomacy be made to function more like Exxon Mobil? While he’s notoriously press shy, from what little we do know, it seems that Tillerson believes this is the case and that if he can hold on, this presumably leaner State Department will be his legacy.
Unsurprisingly, this restructuring effort faces strong opposition, not from Trump but from the Secretary’s own subordinates, many of whom have been outspoken in their criticism of his efforts.
Earlier this month, the President of the AFSA (American Foreign Service Association), Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, sent a message titled, “Time to Ask Why” to members lamenting Tillerson’s reign at State, claiming that applicants for entry level positions are down by two thirds due to a hiring freeze and that “there is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half.”
The unhappiness this has produced is revealed by the loss of many career officers expected to remain in their jobs. More importantly for the Secretary, in the context of Washington, D.C.’s culture of anonymously sourced infighting, it’s also led to a number of embarrassing leaks, including, somewhat hilariously, a 4 page memo about leaks.
A Rexit in the cards?
Although Tillerson was almost certainly aware of the announcement in advance, the President ensured that his top diplomat would get an earful from EU leaders a day after the Secretary of State left on a much publicized trip to Europe by announcing on December 5th that he was going to follow through on the long delayed promise made by both major American political parties to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter city as the country’s capital.
Although he was convinced, apparently by Tillerson, Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to create a waiver for the embassy move, the announcement prompted predictable fury throughout the the Muslim world and in many European capitals.
When asked about his boss’ Jerusalem decision after a decidedly tepid reception at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tillerson said of the announcement, “While we know others out there may not welcome this decision, we hope they’ll do that in a nonviolent way.”
The next day, “Day of Rage” protests in Israel and the Palestinian territories resulted in two dead and hundreds more injured as reported by the Los Angeles Times and it doesn’t appear that the predictable violence will abate anytime soon.
This aside, although both men have repeatedly denied it, presumed insider leaks have made it hard to believe that Tillerson’s relationship with his boss isn’t strained.
In late July, there were reports that the Secretary was prepared to hand in his resignation over the president’s oddly strident speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. Tillerson seems to have taken the President’s inappropriate choice of venues in which to attack his perceived enemies personally, as it was given to an organization that had not only been a light in Tillerson’s own childhood but which had honored him, a former president of the organization, a few days before the Trump spoke.
The story cited above also claimed that Tillerson, who was on vacation at the time on his Texas ranch, received a ‘pep talk’ from the Vice President when he returned to Washington, D.C., with Pence reportedly asking him to serve at least until the end of the year, and another meeting with Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis who, “helped to cool him down.”
A few weeks later, white nationalists marched in Charlottesville and President Trump tried to create moral equivalence between them and counter protesters, one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed when a marcher drove a car into the crowd, Tillerson made a point of going on Fox News Sunday and explaining that, in regards to these comments Trump, “Spoke for himself”.
This was soon followed by reports that Tillerson had called his boss a ‘moron’ (possibly with an expletive added), with some reports saying that this outburst came after the jamboree speech and others that it came after the President demanded to know why he has fewer nuclear missiles at his disposal than earlier presidents had at the height of the Cold War.
After denying the reports of the moron remark as ‘fake news’, Trump then publicly challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ test. As far as we know at this moment, Tillerson hasn’t taken up the challenge.
And it isn’t just Trump who we are being told has been called out by Tillerson behind closed doors, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose rhetoric hits all the right notes for Washington D.C.’s neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, may lack the President’s often bizarre rhetorical flourishes but she’s brought a similar belligerence to the United Nations platform she’s been given. Her obvious grandstanding has led some to speculate that she, along with CIA head Mike Pompeo, is on the short list to replace the beleaguered Secretary of State.
To add further insult to these injuries, Tillerson’s power has also been usurped by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been tasked not only with producing a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians but also put in charge of relations with China and Mexico. And this is only the foreign policy part of a wide portfolio that includes, ‘remaking the government”.
If the argument can be made that someone like Tillerson is unqualified for his job, one would look in vain for anything in Kushner’s past that would make him a good candidate for any of the monumental tasks he’s been assigned.
While disagreeing with most of his public positions, anyone who has had a truly bad boss or manager can still feel some sympathy for Tillerson, who has one of the most difficult jobs in the U.S. government. Still, it can’t be denied that many of his wounds have been self-inflicted, the direct result of a conventionally right-wing point of view and an unwillingness to engage with career officers in his own department.
While it’s probably a mistake to try to predict when Tillerson will ride off into the sunset for his long planned, lavishly funded retirement, whoever replaces him will probably make the world wish the quiet oil executive from Texas, for all his faults, was still in charge of American foreign policy.