Tillerson Wasn’t a Great Secretary of State, But He Was No ‘Yes’ Man
Firing Rex Tillerson—by tweet—is a political tragedy of this president’s failure to run a government, not particularly about failures by Tillerson.
I wasn’t happy when the Secretary of State job went to the chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, but like many, I worry more about what Tillerson’s forced departure means for a more belligerent foreign policy. I worry about less rationality about policy-making in the White House as a result of this and continuing loss of dissenting words in the Oval Office.
It seems that Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, will be the next to go, for example, increasingly isolating an impulsive, ego-driven president with loyal voices who only wants to hear supportive advice.
So, no, this is not about Tillerson, it is about Trump—again.
In the immediate political obituaries, Tillerson was depicted as a nice guy and devoted supporter of the Boy Scouts, but a tentative and not very effective foreign policy leader. Again, that may not be about Tillerson, but about Trump, who insists on being his own foreign policy spokesman as well as communications director, military commander, moral leader and ethics arbiter.
“With no experience in foreign policy or government, Tillerson provided little leadership and eviscerated the department he was chosen to lead, enthusiastically carrying out the budget-cutting orders of a hot-headed president uninterested in diplomacy. Scores of senior diplomats and other professionals, the core of America’s foreign service, were either forced out or chose to flee,” intoned The New York Times editorial board.
At least before failing in the end, Tillerson tried to keep Trump from dumping the Climate Agreements, from avoiding threats from Russia and from destroying the Iran nuclear deal. He did advocate diplomacy with Europe, with North Korea, with the Middle East rather than just jumping in with some home-cooked policy.
There were suggestions that the firing came just as Tillerson pinned this week’s attack on a British spy on Russia, despite the fact that the White House was remaining relatively silent on the issue. Then Trump spoke by phone on Tuesday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and according to the White House, agreed with May that the Russian government must provide “unambiguous answers” on how the chemical came to be used in Britain.
Of course, Tillerson lost serious points earlier by calling the president a “moron” after a particularly unnerving meeting and for appearing to separate with Trump over the president’s Charlottesville remarks, but Trump didn’t need any excuses. He just wants a yes-man.
He may have exactly that in Mike Pompeo, who briefs the president daily as CIA director, and who has had the unenviable job of persuading the president that yes, the Russians did interfere with the 2016 elections. His reputation is much more hawkish on all issues, from nukes to climate change, when compared with Tillerson. Pompeo has talked publicly of regime change and political assassinations in North Korea—not the kind of thing you want to hear about the country’s official Head of Tact.
While the current talk may be about Pompeo’s role in the looming talks with North Korea, the biggest impact of this change to me has been the hollowing out of the State Department. Under Tillerson, Trump has managed to lose tons of institutional knowledge and analytical ability, which is perfect if you think that the government should present itself in the world merely as a manifestation of Trump’s tweeting gut.
The firing, then, is a kind of endorsement for lack of knowledge and backgrounding, lack of expectation and support for the kind of constant disruption that Trump favors and prefers in all-things-government. As evidence, note that the Republican-majority Senate will be asked to approve Gina Haspel, the CIA deputy director, as Pompeo’s successor despite a history of running torture campaigns for the agency.
“The danger is that Pompeo, so much in sync with Trump, will remove the dampers that have sometimes checked the president’s disruptive instincts. Tillerson offered solid, traditional foreign policy counsel — against gutting the Iran nuclear deal, starting a trade war, relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and other moves. He operated in tandem with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; this axis of caution has now been broken, perhaps leaving Mattis in a more vulnerable position,” said David Ignatius, a foreign policy expert for The Washington Post.
That the firing came once again (remember James B. Comey’s dismissal from the FBI?) while Tillerson was traveling, and that Trump did not speak to Tillerson by phone until hours after the news was public is just reflective of the boorishness that the president seems to favor. That Steve Goldstein, a State Department spokesman, was fired for a statement that said, “The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason” for the change, is despicable.