Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

Column: Tillerson: most passive secretary of state in a century

So, finally, Rex Tillerson gets the boot, leaving this much-vacated administration as arguably the worst — certainly the most passive — secretary of state in a century or longer.

President Donald Trump made the announcement Tuesday morning in his favorite form of communication, a tweet, to the apparent surprise of Tillerson, who, just hours before, had returned early from a trip to Africa, where he had been attempting to clean up the diplomatic mess caused by Trump’s "s---hole" remark.

It wasn’t the first time in a week that Tillerson was blindsided. Trump’s surprise decision to meet with Kim Jong Un was made without consulting his top diplomat. In fact, just a few hours before that announcement, the long-beleaguered secretary had told a reporter that direct talks with North Korea were "a long way" off.

Several news agencies reported Tillerson’s imminent ouster back in November, and it was unclear Tuesday morning whether Trump merely delayed the announcement by four months or whether other factors have intervened.

Tillerson’s days seemed numbered even earlier, in October, when he pointedly declined to deny news reports that he’d referred to Trump as a "f---ing moron" at an interagency meeting in July. Since then, the secretary has expressed views opposed to Trump’s on, among other issues, Russian cyberthreats, the wisdom of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the merits of preserving the Iran nuclear deal, and the idea of holding talks with North Korean diplomats (at the time, Tillerson wanted them and Trump undermined his efforts).

And yet Tillerson, who’d spent his entire adult life climbing the corporate ropes at Exxon Mobil, rising to the supreme posts of chairman and CEO, proved ill-equipped for the ways of Washington and utterly inept when he gave the city’s games a go. Most people in his position, finding themselves isolated from the White House, would cultivate countervailing centers of power — key legislators, the press, foreign leaders, or other conduits of influence. Or they would focus on an issue that they could dominate, in part because their bureaucratic competitors didn’t notice it or didn’t care. This is how Colin Powell operated in his brief time as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, and he may have prevented a small war between India and Pakistan in the process.

Tillerson did none of this. He presided over a mass exodus of the diplomatic corps and a hemorrhaging of his department’s budget. He tolerated his exclusion from key meetings of foreign policymaking, allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by the likes of Jared Kushner (who, as the Pentagon’s top officers learned, could easily be ingratiated and co-opted), and opened few, if any, back channels with Capitol Hill or the media.

His replacement at State, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who was reported to be his successor when the stories first floated last fall and who, even at the time, was said to be prepping for the new job), might at least take his responsibilities seriously and — given his prior experience as a congressman — navigate the city’s shoals with greater savvy.

Pompeo is more hawkish than Tillerson on North Korea and Iran, and he has displayed loyalty to Trump on high-profile issues. For instance, while he echoed the intelligence community’s unanimous finding that the Kremlin interfered with the 2016 election in a way that helped Trump win, he added that the agencies had also concluded that the interference did not affect the election’s outcome. In fact, the official report by the director of national intelligence stated that there was no way to determine whether it affected the outcome, not least because intelligence agencies are proscribed from inquiring into domestic politics. Pompeo has also said that Kim Jong Un is "a rational actor" and therefore unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, knowing that we would retaliate. This contradicted the claim by H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, that Kim could not be deterred from launching an attack. Yet Pompeo has not parted explicitly from Trump’s more belligerent approach to North Korea — though now, with the upcoming summit, he might pave a more moderate path that parallels Trump’s.

Whose head is next for the chopping block? McMaster has long been rumored as a candidate, especially after he declared, in the wake of Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians, that the evidence of Russian hacking was "incontrovertible." The latest rumor is that he’ll be replaced by John Bolton, a longtime hawk’s hawk who advocates pre-emptive attacks against North Korea and Iran.

Trump’s national security team may soon more fully reflect Trump’s policy instincts, but — especially given his eagerness to leap into high-level talks with the North Korean leader — it’s less clear than ever just what those instincts are or where they will lead us.

© 2018 Slate Group LLC

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